by George Bailey.
It can help to think of doctrine as a drama which the church performs so that we, the actors as well as the public audience might grow in understanding of what faith in Christ is about.[i] I am starting this piece of doctrinal musing by breaking the fourth wall…
First, for fans of alliterative three point sermons, the other possible title for this is ‘Creeds, Compromise and Conversation.’ More seriously, this is prompted by the Methodist Church’s consultations about marriage and relationships. The ideas here are not about the central issues, about which I assume we have varying views, and are simply part of my own current dialogue, external and internal; definitely personal and not on behalf of any body I might represent. I offer them gently, and hope you will receive them gently, and, from whichever perspective, respond gently.
Now, on with the show.
I am one of the ordained people working with an Anglican-Methodist partnership congregation which began in 2013. After much dialogue and growing together, at communion, we have two wines on the table – an alcoholic chalice and non-alcoholic small cups, reflecting the traditions of the two churches that form the partnership. I am aware that for both this is a compromise and is not theologically ‘neat’ or ‘correct’. Sometimes we are troubled that this is demonstration of our disunity at the heart of our worship. More often we rejoice that this is a sign of the way we work together and embrace each other’s differences. As we seek to be most close to Jesus in communion, we remain aware of the diversity between us – unity in diversity. A further question we ask ourselves is what this says to newcomers. It brings complexity to our proclamation of the gospel, and the truth it reveals about us is a long way from the ‘homogenous units principle’ of church growth theory.[ii] We are, in all sorts of ways, diverse in how we understand what it means to follow Jesus, yet we do follow Jesus together. Perhaps it says, ‘however different your experience might be, we invite you to join in and expand our dialogue’.
Rowan Williams’ stripped down definition of church is very helpful: ‘church is what happens when people are touched by Jesus’.[iii] We do well to remember that even this most basic starting point for Christian doctrine is not about a uniform spiritual experience nor based on a single interpretation of scripture. Just last, week with a group embarking on a study of church history, I looked at three images of Jesus and considered the vast diversity of experience and interpretation which they represent: Christ Pantocrator on the dome of Hagia Sophia, Byzantium (c.1261), Jesus and Mary on the dome of the Sacre Coeur in Paris (built 1871-1914), and The Deposition painted by Graham Sutherland (1947). Each reveals ways that people have been touched by Jesus, yet they are vastly different because of the varying historical and societal contexts. All these experiences are held within Christian doctrine, though each of the complex church contexts within which the images were produced include differing doctrines on key issues. After a century of ecumenical dialogue we are learning new insights into the importance of doctrine holding space for diversity of interpretation and emphasis, and how with listening and humility we can move towards this. Across the sweep of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions the churches largely remain separate, but in many doctrinal matters have moved much closer, and we can definitely recognise the touch of Jesus in each other.
As the Methodist Church in Britain consults about marriage and relationships we are considering the proposed addition to Standing Order 011A of the phrase, ‘The Methodist Church affirms both understandings’. The report God in Love Unites Us recognises diversity of understanding but does not fully explore the issues raised. This phrase was not in the resolutions the report argues for, but was added by the 2019 Conference, so I hope that consultations are going well beyond just discussing the report. This phrase says something important about the way Methodist doctrine deliberately includes a diversity of experience and interpretation. I do not think this is an innovation, as the church has always held diversity together. The roots of the church in the 18th Century revival are of diverse groups, mostly but not exclusively within the Church of England, coalescing into an organized network of societies. Doctrine was forged centrally in a way that held together these societies. I appreciate Henry Rack’s description of John Wesley, who persuaded all sorts of groups into his connexion, as the ‘great cannibalizer’.[iv] This challenges romantic notions about the homogeneity of the revival. Wesley was carefully negotiating for diverse groups to come together under a single doctrinal umbrella. Following the complex divisions of the 19th century, the Methodist Union of 1932 was also a carefully negotiated compromise through a decade of conversations which were not always easy. In 1998 the Methodist Church acknowledged a range of understandings of scripture to be held within its doctrinal breadth: all seven of the interpretive stances named in the report A Lamp to my Feet are authentic ways to be touched by Jesus through scripture.[v] The affirmation of two understandings of marriage which is now under consultation could represent a further recognition of the way that our doctrine includes an embrace of diversity through dialogue.
Like the two wines on the table, the phrase, ‘The Methodist Church affirms both understandings,’ has potential to cause difficulties. However, I think it also offers an opportunity to tell the truth about our unity in diversity, and to celebrate it as integral to the way that we invite all people to meet Jesus and be transformed – by joining our careful conversation about what that means.
[i] See Kevin J Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christen Doctrine, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)
[ii] Most clearly exemplified by C. Peter Wagner in Our Kind of People: The Ethical Dimensions of Church Growth in America, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979)
[iv] Henry Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2002, 3rd ed.), p.214
[v] A Lamp To My Feet and A Light To My Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church (1998) – https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/1987/fo-statement-a-lamp-to-my-feet-and-a-light-to-my-path-1998.pdf