Unity Is Over-Rated
E pluribus unum: out of many, one. That's our United States of America summed up in three neat Latin words. To the world, we're a single, monolithic entity, the only true superpower left. American culture has conquered the world. McDonalds, Starbucks, Wal-Mart--our corporations are everywhere. American tourists are known for their loud, aggressive friendliness. We don't mean to be rude, but sometimes we just can't help ourselves.
25 years ago, I had the privilege of spending two years serving an English Methodist/United Reformed congregation. It was a "united church," a merger between two Methodist congregations and one from the United Reformed denomination, and as such, it had an ongoing identity crisis. Every time there was a pastoral change, the position had to constitutionally switch between Methodist and United Reformed. My first wife, Brenda, and I came to Trinity Church as a clergy couple with one year of student pastorate experience behind us. We quickly discovered that, even fifteen years after the merger, the church was divided along denominational lines. Church council meetings were sometimes like battles between Methodists and Congregationalists (what the URC members had been before a denominational merger in the early 1970s), but those differences were minor next to the far more localized clashes among all three congregations. A number of members had simply fallen away with the merger, grieving the loss of whichever old building they had belonged to, not wishing to worship in the modern structure that now housed the church. There was a rift between the younger members and the "junior church" (Sunday school) they ran and the older members who preferred traditional worship.
One thing that united them all: Americans were greeted with suspicion.
Early on, I heard from my superintendent, Alan Mimmack, that a lapsed member, who had never been to the new building, had passed away, and her husband wished him to perform the service. Alan told me he would honor my wishes on this, and do the service if I thought it best, but he really thought I should go meet with the grieving family. I did so, and had a memorable visit. The issue, it turned out, was not that I was so young. It was that I was an American, and in the mind of this family, that meant I acted and talked like J.R. Ewing. The only Americans they had experienced up to then (not having been to a single service since our arrival) were on the Dallas, which was at that time one of the most popular shows on British TV. Once they realized my accent was West Coast rather than Southern (despite my being a student at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, at the time), they warmed to me, and agreed to hold the service at Trinity, with me in the pulpit.
This story illustrates a simple point: there is far more to us Americans than the rest of the world realizes. As a nation, we have a well-earned reputation of being friendly bullies, both economically and militarily, and our popular culture reinforces this image with explosive action movies, throbbing music, pushy advertising, and bright logos that crop up in the most inappropriate of places.
But there is far more to us as a people than the loud, pounding refrain of our culture. As individuals, we are far more pluribus than unum. Our Constitution is built around the principle of minority rights, and keeping it in balance with majority rule. Our Supreme Court at one time was a valiant guardian of those rights, and still can be, though it has taken to defining corporations as citizens, with all the rights and privileges (but rarely the responsibilities) thereunto appertaining. And Congress: the House was the defender of the little guy, as Representatives of smaller districts gave a national voice to their local constituencies; and the Senate was the place where diverse voices had to work together, compromising when necessary, but always aware that there were a wealth of ideas in circulation. Some of the sausages to emerge from this factory were ugly, but there were also civil rights and voting rights, environmental and consumer protections, fair labor practices, minimum wages, legislation that furthered the civilization of our rough-and-tumble pioneer nation, sometimes in baby steps, but also at times in great leaps.
No more. Congress is now where ideas go to die. Take a log at the political blogs in Slate magazine, and you'll see story after story of fractious, nasty behavior tearing apart the legislative branches. The Supreme Court is also often divided along partisan lines. And getting either of these branches to work with the White House seems an utterly lost cause. Meanwhile, the executive branch follows in the its centrist predecessor's footsteps, arrogating power to the White House because after all, in this partisan climate, how else can it hope to get anything done?
Remember the culture wars? Here, at least, there seems to be a growing swell, primarily in the young, of progress. Our nation seems to be outgrowing the bigotry of its elders. Young people have no patience for homophobia or knee-jerk racism, and they are not, by and large, tied to the orthodoxy that has sustained the unwinnable war on drugs, kept gays and lesbians marginalized, and fed our profit-driven health care crisis. Often unable to secure the career track positions enjoyed by their parents, they also are pragmatically detached from the traditional American lust for material possessions. This sets them up for a new culture war, between simplicity and acquisition, especially as marketing desperately seeks new ways to convince the young to buy, buy, buy, pleas that fall on deaf ears and blind eyes that have learned to skip, fast-forward through, or simply ignore advertising.
The greatest division I see in America, though, remains geographical. Southern states cling to conservatism even as traditional northern bastions of orthodoxy are outgrowing its strictures. New Hampshire, ever the refuge of stubborn libertarianism, approved gay marriage in 2010, a year when the Democratic party was receiving a drubbing in the polls. Since then, a growing tide of northern, midwestern, and western states has joined this movement, while the south remains solidly traditionalist. This cultural counterweight to progress is, in my experience, consistent across institutional lines: the Boy Scouts of America, headquartered in Irving, Texas, is resolutely behind on gay rights (its recent acceptance of gay Scouts still falls far short of acknowledging that gay men and women can be role models); and the United Methodist Church's positions on ordaining and marrying sexual minorities remains firmly rooted in 1972's reactionary positions.
A district secretary once told me, for the church to move on, sometimes someone has to die. She was referring to older laypeople who stand in the way of local church progress by clinging to the past. I have come to believe that, for the United Methodist Church to survive and grow, it must give up its attachment to the word "united." Methodist unity has been forced for decades by its arcane polity: a governing body that meets once every four years, consisting of both lay and clerical representatives of the entire denomination, apportioned by population. This skews voting power to the south, and not just the southern American states; most United Methodist growth these days is taking place in Africa, also the source of resistance to Anglican progress on sexual issues.
A movement has recently arisen in Methodism of actively protesting the rigidness of the Discipline on these issues, insisting that Methodists are Biblically called to act in ways that go beyond regressive church laws. What this movement lacks is courageous church leaders, willing to face church trials and removal from their high offices, to stand against these backward policies. At present, the protest seemes to be coming primarily from retired bishops who have nothing to lose. Bishops in office remain staunch defenders of the unity of the church, even though they may, in their hearts, believe the right thing to do is to openly ordain gay men and women who are called to ministry, and to marry same-gender couples who clearly have as much right to happiness as those who are traditionally oriented. "We have no choice but to prosecute," they say when faced with a complaint against a pastor who has performed a gay wedding. "It's in the Discipline."
The Discipline will not change as long as unity trumps justice. Scouting has only changed because enough Scouts and Scout leaders insisted it was time, that too many young people were being hurt, enough that it became clear to the leadership that rebellion was afoot. What Methodism needs is secession: the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions deciding they are fed up, that for the church to move on, its false unity must die. Perhaps then it can survive the flight of the young from dull institutional worship that never makes the leap to true social change.
I'll have more to say about barriers to Methodist progress in a subsequent post on clergy privilege. For now, I encourage you to embrace whatever change is in store for you, even if it means breaking with the comforts of orthodoxy and unity. Diversity is where the fun is.