Official statements abound in the wake of last week’s Judicial Council ruling on the consecration as bishop of Karen Oliveto by the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church (#UMC). One that came across my desk this morning is from the Dean of Perkins School of Theology, Craig C. Hill. It came via the Huffington Post in a blog by Professor Jack Levison of Perkins. The post was intended to point readers to the Dean’s letter and contained a few brief affirmative comments regarding the letter’s substance and aim. One line from Levison’s post struck me, however, and prompted some further reflection. He writes, “Truth be told, authentic community doesn’t allow for sharp lines and clear distinctions.” I want to be careful because Levison didn’t offer much in the way of explanation in terms of what he meant. I don’t want to attribute views to him that he doesn’t express. Nevertheless, the comment prompts a number of questions and was offered in a public forum. So, public reflection on possible implications is fair play. Let’s have the conversation.
What sort of lines?
That’s the first question that comes to mind. I can only imagine that “sharp lines” here refers to community boundaries. The above quote follows on the heels of Levison’s stated commitment to holding the community together in the midst of discord, and Hill’s letter deals with questions of community boundary in relation to human sexuality. The context would suggest then that the “sharp lines” in question would be those that mark the boundaries of the United Methodist community and make a distinction between those practices that are acceptable and those that are not.
A group with no boundaries?
But this raises the question of what it would look like to have a community without “sharp lines” at the boundaries. What sort of group would that be? How would we know who is in that group? How would we know who is outside of it? How would we distinguish a group with no lines at the boundary from other groups?
If you were to ask someone who studies the formation and maintenance of social identities, they would tell you that distinction is the key category for defining a group. If you want to talk about a group in any meaningful sense, then you need to identify what it is that makes members of that group perceive themselves to be distinct from other groups. What values and commitments do they hold in common that distinguish them from members of groups that hold different values and commitments? Social identity theory recognizes that sharp lines at the boundaries is precisely the stuff of which groups are made. And if there are no lines at the boundaries, then there is no community to speak of. In reality, authentic community depends on sharp lines. Distinctions are the sine qua non of every group.
Where do we draw the line?
If you want authentic community, the question isn’t whether there will be lines and distinctions. The question is where those lines will be drawn. The line is currently drawn in one place; Levison and Hill would like it drawn elsewhere. No matter where it’s drawn, there’s still a line. And that’s what makes community messy or, as Levison puts it, “sloppy” and “unkempt.” If we didn’t have any lines, we wouldn’t have to worry with being unkempt, because there wouldn’t be a we in which to disagree. We only run into differences that have to be sorted out because we want to draw the lines in different places. The question of boundaries are precisely what makes community challenging. We have to come to some agreement on how we will conduct ourselves. We have to have some shared values and commitments that we will not betray. Sorting those out is tough. But sorting those out is also how the lines get drawn. Sorting those out is how the community gets formed. Clarifying and maintaining those lines is how the community is perpetuated. When a subgroup of the larger group crosses the line and refuses to abide by the shared values, the group is endangered. And if the lines get moved, the community will change. You are likely to lose some of the people in the community. New communities may form. However that plays out, things get messy. The point is that things are only messy because there are sharp lines. Take away the lines and distinctions, and the mess goes away also. But then so does the authentic community.
I noted above that a number of statements have been released. I decided to write about this one instead of the others because the commentary that accompanied it seems to me internally inconsistent. In the end, the argument for authentic community without sharp lines and distinctions regarding shared values and practices is self-defeating. There is no such thing as a community with no boundaries. Every group has lines drawn around it. That is unavoidable. The question for United Methodists going forward is where those lines will be drawn.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.