Unity versus uniformity at General Conference

May 17, 2016

There is one word which seems to be uttered more than any other word at the 2016 General Conference gathering. That word is unity. Unity. Unity within the Council of Bishops. Unity within the UMC. The question has been raised, can the denomination find unity in regards to human sexuality; in regards to church structure; in regards to our interpretation of Scripture; in regards to what it means to be a United Methodist? Will we be a united church at the close of our meeting on Friday?
I continue to find myself wondering if there is a common understanding of what the word unity means. There is a difference between the words unity and uniformity, and yet they are often used interchangeably. Uniformity, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is defined as "the quality or state of being the same," or "the quality or state of being uniform." There were multiple definitions of the word unity including "the state of being in full agreement," "a condition of harmony," and "a totality of related parts: an entity that is a complex or systematic whole."
When the word unity is spoken and sung by the Bishops, worship leaders, speakers, delegates, observers and Twitter participates, I have to wonder what definition is assumed? Are we as a church seeking a unity as a condition of harmony? Harmony allows for diversity. Harmony assumes different notes, or voices, being shared at the same time. Unity as harmony allows us to create a beautiful sound, a beautiful church in which all voices can be lifted and included. A church which recognizes that multiple voices enhance rather than detract from what life in Christ can be.
Is the UMC understanding unity as harmony, or unity as uniformity? Uniformity does not lead to harmony. Uniformity argues for identical thought and belief. Uniformity leads to a cookie-cutter approach to church and ministry, and fails to take into account the unique contexts within our global church. Uniformity states we must all agree, and without agreement we cannot be united.
It is clear we are not in agreement about human sexuality. It is clear we are not in agreement about the interpretation of Scripture. It is clear we are not in agreement about how to move forward as a denomination. It is clear the Council of Bishops are not in agreement about how to lead. We are not in agreement, but can we still find harmony? Can we be united in a Weslyan way, placing our common value of love above the need for doctrinal uniformity?
We are the United Methodist Church. We can be a united church when we seek harmony with diversity. We can embody Wesley's words calling us to love alike even though we may not think alike. Will we chose unity as harmony, or unity as uniformity this General Conference? The answer to that question may just decide how we move forward.