The Problem of Labels, Assumptions, and the Economy of the Whole

Last week I changed my Facebook cover photo to display the phrase, “When you label me, you negate me,” (a quote attributed to Kierkegaard, which can be vaguely supported). Like all grand sweeping generalizations, it can be problematic. As one friend of mine pointed out, who basically agreed, yet also pointed out: “I can also say that there are times of grappling with identity that labels can be very helpful. Christian, gay, Irish, engineer... these are all words that help ground who I am.”

So while labels can be helpful, they can also be problematic in that they are often more diversionary than descriptive. I fear that in this day and age, especially in the American Church, they are diversionary and divisive. We have learned this well from American politics. Monkey see, monkey do; sad, but often true.

From those of us in the United Methodist sphere of Christianity, we have increased the tension in the air to a more-than-palpable state. We now have ever-changing labels of how someone, some church, some conference, or some slate of delegates are labeled. “WCA” or “UMCNext” seem to be the latest labels, and the election of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference are seeing the respective camps getting ready for battle. 

In the midst this, some have proclaimed (thru proclamation and rhetoric) the death of centrists or those who reside in the middle ground. I have noticed, however, that such was proclaimed without consulting those who find their grounding in the middle. While what follows is an unscientific observation, I believe it to be an accurate one: the UMC is not a neatly divided denomination into theological and ideological extremes. We more resemble the facets on a cut gemstone than anything else: the facets are not all the same size, and some are cut at different angles than others.

So when we look at who is elected to General Conference, it is quite possible that General Conference does not reflect the faceted nature of the denomination, just small (but vocal) parts of it. 

The latest complete figures show that there are 12,600,000-some lay members in the UMC in the world (around 45% from Africa, Asia, and Europe). There are 54,400-some clergy members in the world. Yet, there are an equal number of clergy and lay delegates to General Conference: 850. 425 will be clergy, and 425 will be laity. Some note that seems to be a huge disparity in representation. Mathematically at least, it is.

Before we beat up on clergy too much, consider who the pool of laity are who attend annual conference as delegates. They must have flexibility of lifestyle to be able to attend an annual conference, where plenary sessions are always held during daytime hours, and often meet during the week rather than the weekend. How many of our laity are able to attend such? And if they are able to come to Annual Conference, could they offer themselves to election to General Conference, take the time off from their jobs to study and pray over all of the proposed legislation, attend listening and planning sessions, and then take the two weeks off from work to attend the following May? (I won’t add the out of pocket costs to travel, lodge, eat, clean clothes, because I can tell you: your per diem won’t cover it)

So a valid question is: do those elected to General Conference truly represent the whole of our denomination, or just a few privileged facets of it? To be sure, those who go to General Conference have a huge responsibility delegated to them, and I pray for them every day. The question is: are such folks representative of the totality our denomination?

My hunch is, no. It looks good on paper, and sounds good to those of us who grew up in democratic processes, but the reality is that we have an elite class of people who go to General Conference, and I admit to having been one of them (I chose not to offer myself for election this year) – very similar to who and how we elect house and senate members to Congress. Those clergy who are elected have the benefit of an advanced education (ordained elders only) and those laity elected have the luxury and privilege of a flexible schedule and sufficient funds. Many, many United Methodists will never be given an opportunity to share their life experiences, faith, and make such binding decisions for their denomination, either at their own annual conferences or at General Conference.

So when someone makes the claim that there are no centrists or “people in the middle,” I would accuse them of an extremely myopic view of their denomination. While the current issue at hand is sexuality and identity, there are hosts of other issues that could rise to similar ire given the right circumstances. The WCA makes the Nicene Creed a central part of their belief statement, yet I could quickly find 100 conservative, rural churches that would take issue with several parts of the Nicene Creed, including “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” believing in a “catholic church,” and that little phrase “who proceeds from the Father and the Son” that ended up splitting Christianity over a thousand years ago. 

Historically and theologically, it makes very little sense for Methodists to try to be “super orthodox” and homogenous for this simple reason: we started out as an illegitimate child. Our own founder never converted to become a Methodist himself, and without any authority Wesley ordained its first pastors. He also “licensed” women to preach (scandalous!). Wesley intended to start a movement that was directed 180° from the Anglican Church of its day. Today, we find that we’ve made a full 360° and in many ways are right back where we started.

The “draw” for many Methodists has been that while there is a foundational framework to build upon, there is also the allowance of the Spirit to blow a fresh wind through us that brings us both the ancient faith as well as the gift of growth and expansion of our minds, hearts, and faith to do a new thing, moving us to use new wineskins for the new wine being gifted to us.

As I attended the last annual conference, I was overcome with sadness – and it’s quite possible I’m suffering from some PTSD from the last three General Conferences. It is a borrowed phrase, but I believe it to be true: I do my best to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, as I know it stretches me to places I need to be. But during these last three to four years, the bucket of grief is way, way heavy as I watch dear friends at odds with each other, sometimes in less-than-loving ways. I fight being angry at those organizations and leaders that seem to have fueled the fire and manipulated us into such divisions that make us emulate our American politics and give such a poor witness to the world about discipleship and the Church. Our trust of each other is at an all-time low. 

I would beg us not to be defined by labels, theological bent, or ideologies. We are not called to make others in our own image, but to reflect the image of God. I know that when I was ordained, I was not called or asked to transform the congregations I was appointed to into my image. I was called to meet them where they are at, pastor and shepherd them, teach, and embrace their gifts that God gave them. There are many facets to those in our congregations, and they do not neatly fit into one mold – nor should they. As children of God, they reflect the diversity of the gifts that they have been given. That should be embraced, not forsaken. 

Our throw-away society has made it too easy to make relationships casual, which makes it easy to say, “I’m done with so-and-so.” One person at General Conference said that “some divorces are good.” I can’t agree with that. There's nothing good about divorce. It's painful.

Instead of shaking hands and saying goodbye, we should be embracing and saying, “See you tomorrow.” We are all blood-kin, by the blood of Jesus Christ. It may be our differences from each other are our gifts to each other. Our congregations are not as monolithic as we think: if we allow ourselves to continue this binary thinking, we will dismiss a LOT of United Methodists. We often forget that for many, Methodism is the meeting place for many who cannot abide the extremes of Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist dogma.

The extremes may realize that they made a huge mistake in dismissing the middle. Despite what some may say, there is a LOT of middle left. They may not say much, but my hunch is that they aren't going anywhere, either. We are not the “either/or” people some would like us to be.

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