Preserving Unity by Compromising Catholicity: The Four “Marks” & #UMC Future(s)

United Methodists have been abuzz this week reflecting on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s hints at his plans for the Anglican Communion.  While we don’t have the full details, it seems he is going to go in the opposite direction of his predecessors: rather than trying to keep everyone at the table, Welby is floating the idea of loosening ties in the connection in order to prevent a full severing.  If they can’t be a true communion, the idea seems to be, let’s try a confederacy. I especially liked the unnamed source quoted by The Guardian, who said this was not a divorce, but “more like separate bedrooms.”

Classic teaching on the nature of the church holds that there are four marks of the true church, as confessed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

  • Unity: the church is one, a body of diverse parts under a sole head, Jesus Christ
  • Holiness: the church is set apart for God, called out of the world for the sake of the world
  • Catholicity: the church is universal, not just one congregation, but existing across spans of space & time
  • Apostolicity: the church is built on the foundation of early witnesses to Jesus Christ, and only exists she is in continuing with their message

This definition is reflected in our own doctrinal standards; the “four marks” are included in Article V of the EUB Confession of Faith: “We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic.” 

Icon depicting Constantine and bishops at Nicea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. (Public Domain.)
Icon depicting Constantine and bishops at Nicea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. (Public Domain.)

I was recently conversing with an Episcopal friend of mine about the future of our two churches, and it occurred to me that the United Methodist Church is actually a more “catholic” (i.e. “universal”) body than the Anglican Communion.  Why is that?  The Anglican Communion tends to rely on national borders, while the United Methodist Church crosses them.  United Methodists in Malawi get the same vote as United Methodists in Wisconsin.  Every four years the whole church comes together, not as a variety of national churches, but as a whole church, under one Discipline, enforced (theoretically) by a single Council of Bishops, held in check (sometimes tediously so) by one Judicial Council.  For all our problems at the general church level, it’s a truly beautiful thing that we are a worldwide church rather than a conglomeration of national churches.

I am not against re-arranging our polity in some manner so that we can release some pressure and go about the work of making disciples (and I don’t want to delve into all those options here). I do believe it’s worth pausing to realize the choice we are making, though.  We are essentially choosing one mark over another.  In the name of unity, and because of competing visions of holiness, we entertain compromising our catholicity.  That may be a necessary choice, but it is not one we should take lightly.

And then there’s that final mark, the one we haven’t really considered: apostolicity.

Do we really, as a worldwide communion, have a shared vision of what our message is?  As others have recently pointed out, the best structure in all of Christendom becomes moot if those who live within that polity don’t have a shared understanding of its content (that is, its vision or telos).  This is the deeper issue that may truly divide us, but one with which we have not even started to wrestle because we are too busy having superficial arguments over sex and schism.

Being a person of faith, I believe it is very possible that the Spirit will move afresh and give United Methodists in 2016 a way to live together despite our differences over sexuality, albeit in separate bedrooms.  We may well sacrifice a degree of catholicity, so that we can be united despite competing notions of holiness.

That still leaves the fourth mark, though, and with it serious question unaddressed: What is the message of Jesus? What is the content of “the faith once and for all delivered,” (Jude 1:3) and how do we share that message with the world?  We could have a supernatural intervention in Portland and still be left with haunting questions that Wesley addressed at the very first Conference: What to teach? How to teach it?

I hope we can find a way to live together.  I believe we can, and we should.  But we should also remember the conversation we are not having, which is the conversation we will eventually have to have if we seek to truly be a church: who is the God we worship, and what would that God particular have us do?

That’s the hard conversation need to have, and I confess a degree of trepidation at the prospect.  Why? Because, as much as we are pretty forthright about different ideas of polity, structure, order, and holiness, if we seriously address apostolicity we might well find, beneath these superficial shouting-matches and name-calling, we actually worship different deities altogether.

For all the bluster and identity politics, the back-room deals and histrionics, there simply can’t be a church without Jesus.

The second stanza to one of my favorite hymns, UMH #545 for you worship nerds out there, speaks to me here:

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth;
her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.

The church can be elect (called out, holy) from every nation, over all the earth (catholic), and one (united), but all of that matters little if she forgets her (apostolic) charter: “one Lord, one faith, one birth.” (paraphrasing Ephesians 4:5)

The Missio Dei has been entrusted to the Body of Christ, and that Body is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  To my United Methodist neighbors, near and far, friends and critics, left, right, center, and everything else: are we drawing nearer to the true church, or moving away from it?

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10 thoughts on “Preserving Unity by Compromising Catholicity: The Four “Marks” & #UMC Future(s)

  1. Drew,

    The Anglican Communion is and always has been closer to the World Methodist Federation since its founding in the 19th century after the CoE decided to quit being quite so colonialist in its structure.

    So yes, it really isn’t like The UMC. We are the one Protestant body in the world that can lay claim to being a global church. There really aren’t any precedents nor any close contenders at this point. We’re it.

    And the question is, I think, whether that is actually workable for the long term without an established magisterium. Can our bishops, who have teaching responsibilities, but only in a fairly highly circumscribed role further delimited by the massive administrative responsibilities they must also undertake, even begin to carry out this function?

    I ask this because the only other model we have of an actually global church is the Roman Catholic Church, and I think it may be beyond debate that what has kept it unified to the degree it is and has been has been precisely its centralized magisterium, embodied most explicitly (but not exclusively) within the office of the pope and the Vatican.

    But this raises a further ecclesiological question about catholicity. Is it possible to retain catholicity, per se, while not insisting on uniformity grounded in hierarchal polity from place to place? Actually, if we think the Anglican Communion, or the Orthodox Church for that matter, have continued to be models of catholicity, the answer may well be yes. And let me suggest further the answer may still be yes for the kinds of enhanced federalism Archbishop Welby seeks to introduce into the life of the Anglican Communion. As I read him, the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral is not in question as a continuing mark of unity, right?

    Which brings us back to The UMC. Would we in fact be compromising catholicity, or simply living out a bit differently, if we were to loosen up the political structures that currently seem to define our connexion? Indeed, don’t we already have some precedent for that in the considerable leeway already given each Central Conference to rewrite vast swaths of the Book of Discipline for their contexts? Might we discover in the process of considering how we might engage such a “loosening up” the deeper things that should and perhaps in fact do continue to form what Anglicans refer to as the true bonds of affection among us, enabling our variances to become an occasion for an exchange of gifts rather than suspicious glances?

    I’d like to think so.

    1. As I re-read your post, I was reminded of my admiration for your thoughtfulness and the obviously deep commitment to theological integrity and to keeping our floundering ship in one piece as it teeters on a huge oyster rock.

      Stephen Rankin raised precisely the same question that you have raised in his last blog post.

      My other thought is that you reminded me of our Supreme Court. Federal Judges are constantly creating and applying balancing tests. How do we balance this penumbra that emanates from this or that Constitutional provision over against the reality that we really have no business discerning penumbras, because they emanate from our policy choices and not the Document that is supposed to guide our decisions.

      Apostolisticy (SP?) is not a policy preference we can weigh against other policy preferences. A Church deceives itself if it claims to be able to bless the rebellion of our pagan culture and remain apostolic at the same time. The UMC tried to give up on any pretense of fealty to the Apostolic Tradition when we embraced abortion on demand in 1972. Each subsequent General Conference (except for 2012, thanks to the Presiding Bishop) nudged the old derelict ship away from its drift toward the abyss, but for all practical purposes we threw catholicity out the window precisely because our leaders (most of them) are whoring after false gods.

      Do you really think we can throw out what the Church of Jesus Christ has always and everywhere believed, taught and confessed concerning the gift of sex and make any claim to being apostolic?

      We keep having the same discussion, with no resolution. I realize the harsh rhetoric of the above question, but I think at some point you’ve got to answer it, and with theological integrity.

      Jim Lung
      Greensboro

  2. Drew,

    A question and a comment.

    First, the question: are you saying that debates about sexuality and schism amongst we United Methodists are, by their nature, “superficial arguments,” OR are you saying that the way we presently engage those arguments is superficial?

    Second, the comment: You said, “…If we seriously address apostolicity we might well find, beneath these superficial shouting-matches and name-calling, we actually worship different deities altogether.” Some have been saying this for years and have actually pointed to this very fact as a key reason why we cannot agree on certain ethical issues, ala human sexuality. I’m certain you know this but wonder why you’ve flagged this implication now (so, maybe another question).

    At first glance, the question of whether we hold to the apostolic faith is, to me, of first importance, not the issue to finally address once we’ve bickered over the furniture. To use your housing metaphor, why debate what bedroom to live in and how to arrange the furniture if we’re not even in the right neighborhood?

    1. Casey, thanks for the thoughtful engagement. I would say the way we are engaging these questions is superficial. Most conversations boil down to competing visions of Biblical interpretation and/or holiness or justice, but those visions are asserted more than they are ever really argued. I flagged this particular implication now simply in the course of thinking through the four marks of the church, and realizing that the current debate touches on unity, holiness, and catholicity, but we never really get around to apostolicity. In other words, that aspect came about organically when I sat down to write, it was not in my initial thought process. I would agree that this aspect is of prime importance and your housing analogy is important. To answer your question, I would say that my experience with progressives and conservatives, in addition to denominational leaders, is that almost no one wants to actually talk about first things, i.e. doctrine. We tend to only elect bishops who are bureaucrats, and they only take their teaching office seriously when it comes to social matters (the environment or war, for instance, to look at the episcopal letters – and those are a rarity). Progressives generally tell me that doctrine is a distraction and evangelicals regularly tell me that their arguments about sexuality are doctrinal in nature (which I reject). I’m more concerned that we have ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits than anything to do with the discussion about sexuality (where I believe there is room, unlike core doctrine, for compromise), but on that score I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

  3. I am not sure if i should leave a reply, but i feel compeled. Onething that stricked is “the catholicity” or the “global nature or polity” of the UMC. If you ask me, the written global or universal polity of UMC is well written and underlined in the Book of Discipline. But i am double sure that UMC parishes, annual conferences, clergy and laity living on other continents except the USA would really have or live a different reality.
    If our UMC was global in nature, all the delegates to the General Conference were and are supposed to be elected and not hand-picked by the resident bishop (it is in the book of discipline), infortunately its the case in some annual conference.
    In the same logic, how can a church be universal, with the so many theologians we have, consecrated person who was never ordained a deacon or an elder a bishop. Or have unordained pastors appointed District Superintendent. Thats to name a few examples i have witnessed myself.
    To me that pin points to the fact our church is universal in the written form and not in the real life. Except if the global nature of UMC you are talking about, is that of having parishes everywhere on all continents. If thats what we are talking about, then we are not unique for even other denominations have that.

    If you ask me,in the UMC we are already in “separate bedrooms”. For even on apostolicity; its either we have no clue what the first witnessed of Jesus teachings or message or we are ignoring it. For if we were a global church and beleiving in the teachings and messages of the apostles ; we would not be having to much discussions and disciplinary measures or issues such as human sexuality.

  4. A view from the pew: This question right here is where the UMC has come completely unhinged: “What is the content of “the faith once and for all delivered,” (Jude 1:3) and how do we share that message with the world?” I have been stunned at the diverse theology floating around the UMC. I was even more stunned when the senior pastor of the UMC I attend concluded a sermon series on Wesley one week and the very next week announced he was hosting a study by Marcus Borg of the infamous Jesus Seminar. I am familiar enough with Wesley, I seriously doubt that he would have ever let Borg darken the door of a Methodist Society. In the beginning, when people signed on with Wesley, they signed on to a particular set of beliefs, understandings/doctrine; in fact, Wesley had a doctrine before he ever had a structure. Within the UMC there is currently no common faith to deliver to the person in the pew much less the world. I now rely on the Daily Text at seedbed.com for guidance. J. D. Walt is currently doing an amazing series on 1 Corinthians; check it out for a week and see what you think! When I started reading the Daily Text a couple of years ago, it felt like I had stepped out of a fog into the sunshine.

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