So far in this series, I’ve been using the metaphor of a couple whose relationship has hit the rocks in order to talk about the difficult issue of the possibility of schism in my beloved United Methodist Church. If you’re just now coming into this discussion—welcome! You can catch up with what’s going on by reading this synopsis from the Religion News Service about the current situation. And, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on the situation, if you like. Now, to continue the saga…
By our third session, it has become clear to me that this couple I’ve been meeting with has some serious issues, most of which are much deeper than the issues that have been presented in our previous meetings. By now, I know them well enough that I feel a little more comfortable asking questions about their faith.
“What kind of shared faith do you two have? Do you go to church together, pray together, talk about God at all?”
Because I am primarily a spiritual director and not a counselor, this is territory that I find fascinating. As the old adage goes, “the family that prays together, stays together.” It’s corny, but I think it’s true. Couples and families that have a shared faith, in my anecdotal experience, have stronger and deeper relationships that those that do not share a common faith. This is not to say that it would be impossible for people of two different faiths to be married, or that people who have no religious faith are doomed to divorce (the statistics about divorce are pretty universal, regardless of faith or lack thereof). Instead, I usually advise that a shared faith is one of the tools that can help a couple deal with issues that come along in a relationship. And, it can help a couple to identify when the issues they are having are of a spiritual nature.
If we extend the metaphor to The United Methodist Church, you might be able to see where I am going with this. Take, for example, my own dear East Ohio United Methodists. We are a sometimes cantankerous lot, and we love to get all argy-bargy about the hot-button issues that seem to consume a lot of time at U.M.C. conferences. But one difference I’ve noticed about East Ohio (the same might be said about West Ohio, but I don’t have as much experience there yet!) is that we hold annual conference in a very different way than most. East (and West) Ohio holds its annual conference at Lakeside on Lake Erie, which is a United Methodist-related Chautauqua community located, as the name suggests, on Lake Erie. In the center of Lakeside is Hoover Auditorium, which is the site of concerts and art events throughout the summer season, but for two weeks in the summer becomes the center of Ohio Methodism. It is in this sacred building where we hold our conference plenary sessions, honor our dead, partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion, listen to great preachers, debate resolutions, pass budgets, ordain our clergy, and say goodbye to those who are retiring, among other things. Around Hoover are the cottages and shops that make up the Lakeside community. During annual conference, families and individuals rent cottages, hotel rooms, and any other available space in order to be “on the grounds” during the week. As one of my colleagues once said, “East Ohio is like a combination annual conference and camp meeting.” Many pastors and lay members of the conference bring their entire families to conference—it’s the highlight of our family’s summer!
The unique thing about doing conference in this way is that it’s awfully hard to argue with someone, or call them a heretic, or dismiss their claims to truth, when you’ve spent time sitting on their front porch, or sharing a meal, or passing the bread and cup. It’s even harder to do so when you have just spent an hour or so sharing with someone in the park about the ups and downs of parenting, while your kids play with their kids on the playground. When we confront one another and interact in such ways, it is difficult to maintain an “Us vs. Them” mentality for very long. Unless you don’t interact that much, that is.
At some point along the road, some people in our conference decided that it would be a good thing to cram all of the special interest group meetings, luncheons, and awards banquets into the week of annual conference. Makes sense—after all, we’re all there, right? Why not get it all done at the same time. So, you have your MFSA luncheon and speaker, your Evangelical Fellowship banquet and speaker, your vespers and communion held by the Order of St. Luke, morning watch sponsored by the evangelicals, yoga and meditation from the counseling center—you name it, if there’s a group organized around it in The UMC, we’ll have a meeting about it at annual conference. Over time, it’s become easier and easier to ignore people with whom we disagree, and we have surrounded ourselves with people with whom we already agree. So, instead of worshipping with a person from another caucus, getting to know them and their family on a hard-to-ignore basis, we simply walk past one another on our way to meet with our established friends and contacts. Annual conference done in such a way is more of a cluster of networking events than what John Wesley would call “holy conferencing.” Multiply that atmosphere by at least a hundredfold, and you’ve got General Conference as well.
“Do you pray together?”
“When was the last time you two had a quiet dinner together with no distractions?”
“How often do you go to worship as a family?”
These are good questions that any pastor or chaplain might ask a couple in trouble, but they’re also questions we need to be asking within the Church. Do we really pray together, or just pray near one another? (Or, as has happened to me, do we pray “at” one another?) Do we Methodists know how to share a meal with someone with whom we deeply disagree? Can we unite around the spiritual malaise that seems to exist in so many of our local congregations? Can we talk about how our debates about issues that are not considered central to our mission have derailed us from having an effective witness?
Let’s spend more time praying together, and less time arguing at one another.
Let’s meet at the table of Communion, and not worry about who’s in and who’s out for once.
Let’s sit in the park while our kids play on the playground and get to know each other.
Let’s sing the hymns and songs of our common faith.
Let’s rub shoulders, and sit side by side as we listen to great preaching that feeds our souls.
Let’s go out to lunch together, and have dinner together, and sit one each other’s porches again.
Christians, if we can do that, then this marriage might just be worth saving.
I pray it will be so.