United Methodism’s current agonies uncover a deep problem related to our polity. Maybe it’s a good time, then, to ask a basic question. What does it mean for us United Methodists to live with a specific polity? To get at that question, let me tell you a story.
I recently had a student unhappy with his performance on a paper ask about how he could make it better. I had assigned the class the task of reviewing the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian definition and then writing a brief reflection on whether they saw these three statements as making essentially the same claims or not. They were then to explain (give a reason) for their conclusions. In the process, this student had encountered the distinction between “created” and “begotten” in the Nicene Creed and understandably went to a dictionary to sort out the difference. Unfortunately, that definition stated that “begotten” includes “created.” Because it was not a theological dictionary that would have helped put these terms in their proper context for understanding the creeds, the student got the impression that “created” and “begotten” mean the same. From the Creed’s vantage point, then, he drew the false conclusion that the Son is both created and begotten.
Our understanding something properly depends on putting it in proper context. This well-known but easily forgotten observation helps us understand the problems we’re having with polity. Back to my question: what does it mean for United Methodists to live with a specific polity? There are two ways of answering:
- Polity defines our United Methodist way of life, a communal life shaped by a shared vision of what we believe to be true and good with respect to our identity and mission. Polity helps us stay accountable – in vital contact with – our shared vision.
- Polity refers to organization and procedure and the distribution of power through the system. In order to share power appropriately, goods and services are gauged according to certain categories, like race, gender, etc.
Of course, these definitions overlap, but the one to which we give pride of place makes a big difference to how our current debates go. The two definitions thus lean in opposite directions and, to quote Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken,” the one we prefer makes all the difference.
Organization, structure and procedures stand in service to shared identity, vision, mission and values. Polity is a means to an end. Our polity needs the “content,” then, of shared vision. If we lose sight of what we share, we slip into the same problem my student had, which is to impose a definition that does not do justice to the task in front of us. If as a denomination we have lost a shared vision, it will do no good to keep fussing with one another about structure, organization and procedure. Such arguments are as futile as two surgeons called upon to perform a heart transplant on a dying patient endlessly debating the best means to open the patient’s chest.
If we share vision, measures of accountability carefully designed make sense to us and seem appropriate. If we don’t share vision, those same measures look like abuses of power. The first order of business, then, is to answer the question: do we United Methodists still share a vision? If we don’t, then we need to back up yet another step and start asking again what unifies United Methodists. Do we agree, for example, on the basic contours of the Christian life? On the nature of salvation? On holy living? On what a sanctified life of discipleship means? If we do, then let’s say so openly and clearly and share it with a desperate world. If we don’t, then let’s work on the basic question.
The amped-up pragmatists among us have no patience for this kind of discussion. We will continue to slide toward oblivion if we don’t have it.