“Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity were safer and seemlier for Christian [people], than hot pursuit of these controversies, wherein they that are most fervent to dispute be not always the most able to determine.”
-Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
The church is about Jesus. That seems obvious, but we humans are a distractible lot, easily thrown off course. Yes, it seems obvious that the Body of Christ is to be centered in Christ. But in large, bureaucratic organizations, mission drift is all too real. As a big-tent denomination, our variety of goals, agendas, and callings within the United Methodist Church is a strength (other large denominations, or even megachurches, would apply equally, here). Taken individually, most of these are even noble and life-giving, but they can also take us off-center. Put another way: there are many centrifugal forces at work in the church.
Wikipedia defines centrifugal force in such a way that I am reminded of the UMC at present:
A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those. All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources. One veteran of a similar family feud is R.R. Reno, who draws on Anglican priest-theologian Richard Hooker for advice on weathering the storm:
“For a great Anglican figure such as Richard Hooker, the deepest law of ecclesiastical polity was preservative, and all the more so when the church was threatened by centrifugal forces that threatened ruin…he was convinced that the church communicates the grace of God as a stable and settled form of life that is visibly connected to the apostolic age. His via media was precisely the willingness to dwell in this inherited and stable form, especially when uncertainty and indecision about pressing contemporary issues predominate. For Hooker the first imperative is clear: to receive that which has been given, rather than embarking on a fantasy of constructive theological speculation and ecclesial purification that would only diminish and destabilize.”
In the midst of “centrifugal forces” that sought to destabilize and harm the Body, Hooker’s strategy was to stay close to the apostolic deposit which had been received, on his view, from Christ an the apostles. I am especially drawn to Hooker’s insight, quoted by Reno in the original section above, that the quickest to debate might be the last people you want trying to make decisions.
We all know the swing is fun. The centrifugal force brings a rush; it’s a blast to swing out as far from center as possible and look around. But the Body can’t maintain itself if too many of us are constantly playing so far from center that we forget what home looks like. As Reno hints at, “when uncertainty and indecision” abound (hello GC2012!), it’s time to stay close to center, to what has been received.
After all, it’s impossible to build on an unstable foundation. Even the friendliest centrifugal forces still need a center off of which to pivot. What would it look like for protestant Christians, and especially for United Methodists, to dwell in the inherited forms today? What would it look like for us to get off the swing?
Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).