United Is More Than An Adjective

On Wednesday, the headline “United Methodist Church Faces Schism Over Same Sex Marriage” scrolled across the secular newsfeeds as the Huffington Post republished the article that first appeared in The United Methodist Reporter last week. The headline was followed by the provocative question, “Will the United Methodist Church soon have to drop the “United” part of its name?”

I have been dreading hearing those words for as long as I have been in ministry. In a world filled with division, pettiness and war, as a follower of the Prince of Peace, I have always been proud that my tradition proclaimed unity in the midst of differences. United is more than a word, and it defines us more than we realize. Or it used to.

We do not merely use the word “United” as a qualifying adjective, a la The United States. While our tradition is often erroneously referred to only as The Methodist Church (an omission seen as insensitive by other Methodist traditions), the United part of our name is equally laden with history and significance.

The “United” in United Methodist is derived from the Evangelical United Brethren; who derived their “United” from the United Brethren; who derived their “United” from a close friendship between Martin Boehm and Phillip William Otterbein; who derived their united from a committed friendship and a common desire for a more engaged and passionate religion.

It would be hard for me to forget that, because my first pastorates were on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania – regions of our country where the origins of the “United” in United Methodist are still deeply felt. Some people even still see themselves as more United than Methodist.

That is not hard to understand when you take into account that the UMC did not exist as the UMC until 1968, a mere 46 years ago; before that we existed as The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren. In fact, the United Methodist Church was born several years after our Gen X members began coming into the world. For many of our members, that is far from ancient history; that is when our congregational matriarchs and patriarchs were building their careers, raising their children or grandchildren, or adapting to changes achieved through the Civil Rights Movement.

In fact – in what is likely more a move of the Spirit than a coincidence – the UMC became the UMC on April 23, 1968, less than three weeks after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

We are a church that was born into a world of division and turmoil, where hearts were broken, hopes were denied, and the pain was so deep that it could only be expressed through the riots that ravaged our cities.

Into that world, we dared to give birth to a new tradition built not upon division and separation, but built instead upon the foundation of unity; constructed out of mergers rather than schisms; built out of necessity and our recognition of our need for one another.

Into a world that struggled to hold onto The Dream of unity in one of its darkest hours, we dared to give that newborn tradition the name “United.”

Have we found ourselves defeated in that high calling so quickly?

Will we now let the world around us tell us – prophetically – that we have not earned the right to call ourselves United? That we have not proven ourselves worthy?

Is our Methodist tradition no longer worthy of the legacy of the United Brethren?

Let us not forget that it was The United Brethren that started ordaining women with full clergy rights in 1889; they proved themselves able to see beyond the traditional interpretation of the Holy Bible’s statements about not allowing women to have authority long before others. It would take The Methodist Episcopal Church (pre-United) nearly 70 years before it finally began giving women full clergy rights in 1956.

Let us not forget that it was The United Brethren that took a firm stand against slavery, and by 1837 no longer allowed slave owners to be members of their churches; they proved themselves able to see beyond the traditional interpretation of the Holy Bible’s statements about slaves submitting to their masters. The Methodist Episcopal Church (pre-United) would split in 1844 over the issue of slavery and spend nearly 100 years divided. Despite Wesley’s firm abolitionist stance, the Methodist Episcopal Church divided along geographic lines as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South led the charge by seceding from their denomination twenty years before the Confederacy seceded from the nation.

When we hear voices around us proposing that the United Methodist Church may lose the right to call ourselves United, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether it is an indication that we already have.

When Phillip William Otterbein ran up to Martin Boehm at the end of his sermon back in 1767, he addressed him, in the language of the struggling immigrants of the time, with these words: “Wir sind Brüder” – “We are brothers.” Out of that encounter, The United Brethren were born.

That recognition of family, of kinship, of unity is something that we have lost. If we are acting like family at all anymore, we are acting like a dysfunctional one – not a family that the casual observer would want to be adopted into. We stand up at microphones and say we “love” one another while our tone and words do not convey love. To the outside observer, I would assume that our behavior looks as though we have been trained in public speaking by watching Steel Magnolias; as if we have internalized the belief that saying “God love ‘er” before insulting someone or spreading malicious rumors about them makes it okay. Who of any of us is truly fooled by that?

I John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” It is not enough to say we love someone; they ought to be able to agree that they feel that love. We do not get to just do and say whatever we want and call it “tough love” – that is patronizing rather than respectful of the Spirit at work in each person’s life. Despite what I John says, we are not little children, and we do not need to talk down to, punish or patronize one another.

There are forces at work within our denomination that are neither United nor Methodist; if we continue to allow them to use our politics to manipulate us, then we will receive the just desserts of our own choices. We will be merely a reflection of the cultural wars that rip our nation apart.

We will have lost the legacy of 1968 – the choice to come together across differences while the rest of the world rips apart – the choice to be bold about justice as the United Brethren were.

If my generation of leaders is left with a church torn apart and hurting, I am confident that we will be up to the challenge of bringing healing, but it will be a cruel legacy to have to carry.

Whether we divide or do not divide – let us do so kindly; not only with words that claim love, but with actions that convey love.

I have no patience left for the “God love ‘er” tone of our discourse. I am hungering to hear “We are brothers/sisters” instead. I am longing for us to take the legacy of the word “United” seriously.

*Cover photo courtesy of stock_xchnge user edman_pl

  • GaryBT

    Well said. Let’s stop arguing and stand up to the real sin of our world and country: violence, especially gun violence. 30,000+ deaths EACH YEAR: homicides, suicides, and accidents (just this week and 1 years accidentally killed his 3 year old brother when they found a gun at an aunt’s house). Let the UMC stand up against the carnage, not the piddly issues we get so worked up over.

  • Christy Reynolds Dirren

    Amen, Hannah! Your words are so timely. Not just in the big picture sense, but perfect in timing for many local church settings. Thank you!