by John E. Harnish
April 23, 1968… Dallas, Texas.
That was the day the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church came together to become the United Methodist Church. The day was marked with high hopes and bold dreams about how these two denominations which had been so close in so many ways could now move forward as one. The great Albert Outler was asked to preach the sermon for the uniting ceremony. The title of the sermon was “The Unfinished Business of an Unfinished Church.”
Reading it 50 years later, it is still a powerful statement of who we wanted to be and what we wanted this church to become.
Outler looked back to the days when there were actually five branches – the Methodist Episcopal Church in the north, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, the United Brethren Church, the Evangelical Association and the Methodist Protestant Church. He said, “Where once, scarcely a generation ago, there were five churches, now there is one. Where once our difference kept us apart, now they are overcome or at least contained within a larger circle of committed fellowship.”
The bulk of his sermon was built around the motto which was familiar in ecumenical circles at the time: “We seek to be a church truly catholic, truly evangelical and truly reformed.” I won’t go into detail, but there is one paragraph that seems to speak to the United Methodist Church today. It has to do with the word “catholic.” Outler said,
“The basic meaning of the word ‘catholic’ is ‘whole, universal, open.’ It reminds us that true unity not only allows for diversity, it requires it. Catholic has never rightly meant ‘uniform, lock-step, produced by template.’ It means ‘inclusive’ – a community in which all the members ‘belong’ equally. It means ‘open’ – a community whose boundaries are set by the Christian essentials (and the bare essentials at that). This rules out all distinctions based on race, sex, class and culture – and so also distinctions based on partisan emphases on this doctrine or that, this form of worship or that, this pattern of polity or that.”
Then of course, he referred to John Wesley’s sermon “On the Catholic Spirit,” which should be required reading for all United Methodists today.
I lift up Outler’s words on this 50th birthday because I think they speak to where we are today. Right now there are groups within the church who seem willing to destroy our unity over “distinctions based on partisan emphases on this doctrine or that” – specifically over our stance on homosexuality (which by the way, I don’t consider to be a “doctrine,” but rather a social issue calling for our response). Even as they try to lay claim to the historic creeds of the church, they have lost sight of the fact that, as Outler said, catholic means “open, inclusive, allowing for and in fact requiring diversity.”
Even as they seek to be the truly orthodox expression of Wesleyan tradition, they seem to forget that when Methodism has been at it’s best we have sought to live by the dictum “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” When we have been at our worst, we have separated over things like language and national origin, slavery, and the role of laity in the church. After bringing all that back together 50 years ago, are we actually going to break up again over this one issue?
Once again, in Outler’s words, I hope that “Where once our difference kept us apart, now they can be overcome or at least contained within a larger circle of committed fellowship.” I hope we will continue to be truly catholic, truly evangelical, truly reformed, truly United Methodists.
Happy 50th Birthday, and I pray for many more!