I love the way the Methodists were described in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Maclean noted that his Presbyterian father, ministering in the early decades of the twentieth century, described Methodists as, “Baptists who could read.” No offense to the Baptists, but I take Maclean to mean that Methodists captured the revivalist fervor of the Baptists, with some intellectual chops (though clearly, he saw Methodists as a notch below the Presbyterians on that front!). Methodists have also been described as “reasonable enthusiasts” uniting the intellect and the heart. This is what we might expect from a revival movement started by college students and a professor at Oxford University.
Methodism has often been described as a bridge-building or “conjunctive” faith—a faith that holds together, often in tension, what might seem to be opposing impulses. This is often described as a “both/and” faith rather than an “either/or” faith.
Methodists are passionate about both the evangelical gospel and the social gospel. We preach both personal conversion and God’s call to transform the world through acts of justice and mercy. We place a high value on scripture, viewing it as our inspired text for faith and practice, and we read the Bible with the help of scholarship, engaging our intellect and in the light of scriptures’ historical contexts. We believe in the sovereignty of God and free will. We believe in grace and holiness. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith, and we are saved for good works. We are called to love God and to love our neighbor. United Methodists hold fast to the historic essentials of the Christian faith, and we have a “catholic spirit” when it comes to many things other Christians fight and divide over.
Methodism only “works” when it firmly holds both sides of the both/and equations. Without grace, holiness becomes legalism. Without holiness, grace becomes libertinism. Without the heart, we have an empty intellectualism. Without the intellect, we have passionate pablum. I’ve often had people ask me, “Are you conservative or liberal?” My response is always the same, “Yes.” “But which?” “Both!” Without a liberal spirit we become graceless and stuck. Without a conserving spirit we are unanchored and drift.
This both/and, conjunctive, bridge-building, middle way kind of faith is not intended to be a milquetoast faith of moderation, but instead a faith of the radical center (or as my friend Bishop Scott Jones says, the “extreme center”). At its best, Methodism is a rich and vibrant faith, passionate and deeply devoted to Christ and to serving the present age. And it is a faith that draws people from both sides of the theological, sociological, and political divide. That is, in my mind, part of our strength.
The challenge with a faith like this is that it exists in tension. I’m never as conservative as my conservative members wish I was, nor as progressive as my progressive members wish I was. My progressives love the sermons on social justice that speak to things they care deeply about, but sometimes the sermons they need the most are those that speak to the conversion of the heart. My conservatives love when I give a personal call to conversion, but sometimes get antsy when I ask for a call to action on social issues.
As a denomination we live in that tension as well. As long as I’ve been a Methodist (thirty-six years), there have always been conservative groups in the church frustrated by, and critical of, the progressives. And there have been progressive groups that were just as frustrated by, and critical of, the conservatives. At the same time the largest group of people in United Methodism, often the silent majority, are those who live in that extreme or radical center. They are not really silent, but they listen, they seek to understand, and they value both sides even if they lean right or left.
It requires patience, humility, and grace to look at people with whom you disagree on an issue or theological point and say, “You are still my brother or sister.” It requires a willingness to say, “I don’t agree with you here, but I value what you bring to the table, and I need you.” It is much easier to want to leave and find a place without the tension, where everyone agrees with you, than to stay in a place with people with whom you disagree. But I believe we’re all poorer when we do that.
This is one reason why I support the One Church Plan recommended by two-thirds of our Bishops. It attempts to navigate a middle way between the left and the right, giving space for both the traditionalists and the progressives. Some will leave because of it. But I hope many more will say, “We can continue to live in the tension, valuing, while disagreeing with, those on the other side.”