United Churches: Tent or Tree?
Posted July 20, 2012on:
As I posted in an earlier, more personal reflection, I recently attended the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood and youth, after having been a part of the United Church of Christ for nearly 20 years. One of the things that struck me in this brief mixture of my personal past and present is that both churches claim “United” in their title, a designation that is very important to their identities. However, I realized that “united” means something very different for each church, and their faithfulness to being united takes shape in unique ways.
The “united” in United Church of Christ speaks to our passion for diversity, inclusivity and openness. Our heritage (and our name) lies in the creation of a new denomination 55 years ago, from four distinct Protestant branches of Christianity. From the beginning, we did not have or ever expect unanimity. Our motto, drawn from Jesus’ prayer in John 17, is “that they may all be one,” and we covenant to live together as partners in spite of our differences and disagreements.
The “united” in the United Methodist Church also grows from a merger, but of a different sort. The Evangelical United Brethren shared Wesleyan practices and Arminian theology with the Methodist Church, and they united in 1968 to form one church in the heritage of John Wesley. They are bound by shared practices of class meetings, the quest for personal holiness and the social gospel.
When I was at the Virginia UMC meeting, I heard speaker after speaker emphasize that word, “united,” almost as much as we do in the UCC. It also became quickly apparent to me that that they were using that word to evoke a very different image of unity. The “united” of United Methodism is about a shared fidelity to the theology and legacy of John Wesley. It is about a commitment to follow his disciplines (“methods”). It is about loyalty to a way of life and to the authority of the church and its leaders. This unity emphasizes the importance of the body, its theology and identity, above that of any one individual’s ideas or customs. Their unity cultivates the virtues of humility, loyalty, faithfulness and discipline.
At my friend’s ordination, she received a certificate detailing her ordination lineage: “John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, who ordained Francis Asbury,” who ordained someone else and someone else in a straight, direct line to the current UMC bishop who ordained my friend. It was an inspiring thing to see, but it also made me realize how different our understandings of ordination are. There could never be such a document for me, or any of my Congregational colleagues. We have to have more than one clergy present, but all those present participate, along with the entire gathered congregation. Our authority does not come from a lineage handed down over time, but from a congregation that calls us up and out.
To be united in the UMC is to be a branch of a distinguished oak tree. The tree is formidable, alive, holy. It provides shade and comfort and strength and orientation. Much like John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The tree grows from one root (Christ, as preached by Wesley), and the church is united because they are all branches of the same tree. Their unity grows by strengthening the tree, and making sure not to be cut off from the nourishment of the root. The signs of unity and wholeness are the growing tree, bearing more fruit.
The “united” in the United Church of Christ means something very different. Instead of a solid tree, I imagine us like a big tent. Our unity comes from welcoming more and more people into the big tent with a giant “y’all come!” As the family picnic grows, we throw up a few more poles and a few more yards of canvas to make room for the new folks. We set up extra chairs and scrounge for more plates. Nothing matches–not the tables or the silverware or even the tent fabric. Most people bring their own chairs to rest in, but we still all mingle together. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it feels like we have very little in common except our commitment to be welcoming and to make sure everybody has a place in the tent. But we are united, no matter our diversity, because we will keep making room for one more, and we won’t cut people off as long as they want to be in the tent with us.
Rev. Oliver G. Powell famously described the UCC in 1975 as “a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” We are proud to be united with one another, and we work hard to keep growing the tent so that more people can join the party. We are united not by a shared history or theology or lineage, but by our stubborn refusal to leave anyone out and a fierce commitment to one another as fellow followers of Christ. Our unity cultivates the virtues of hospitality, diversity, partnership, flexibility, openness and inclusivity.
There is no right or wrong, better or worse in these different understandings of “united” churches, but I imagine that we often talk past one another when we speak of our practices of Christian unity. Both cultivate important Christian virtues. Both also foster challenges and even vices. I imagine we could both learn much from one another, for the purpose of uniting all Christ’s followers as one, whether tent or tree.