A UMC Problem: Authorities in an Age of Authority

Church historian Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015), has argued that every 500 years the culture goes through an upheaval, and the last upheaval was called the Great Reformation. For those of you counting, this year marks the 500 year mark since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenburg door. If Tickle is accurate, then we are right in the middle of a new upheaval (which she calls a "new rose"). 

Tickle also makes it clear that a core issue in these upheavals is the question, "Where now is our authority?" Here is a three minute video that makes the point from Tickle herself:

If you did not watch this video, Tickle sates that Luther's theses were at their core an argument that the Pope was not the authority any longer because the office had become corrupted. As such, Luther argued, the old authority is not longer authoritative. What he offered as the new authority was the scripture (Sola Scriptura).

This new authority has held, according to Tickle, for 350 years but is now facing the same situation the Pope faced with Luther. Sola Scriptura is no longer culturally identified as authoritative as it was because it has become used by so many for corrupt purposes. (Note I am not saying scripture or the Pope are corrupt but have been used for corrupt purposes).

Now that we are in the middle of this 500 year upheaval, the question is the same - "Where now is our authority?" And just as Luther offered a new locus of authority, others today offer their own sense of where the authority is now. Here is a short list of examples as I see them (please note these are generalities and I am aware of the shortcomings of making generalities):

  • Non and Post-denominational Christians elevate scripture as sola authoritative [When a church calls itself a "Bible Church" (as though other Christian churches are not) it is sort of a give away.]
  • Secularists and Democrats elevate science as sola authoritative
  • Academics and Technocrats elevate reason as sola authoritative
  • Conservatives and Catholics elevate tradition as sola authoritative
  • Pentecostals and Relativists elevate experience as sola authoritative

Again, there are great exceptions to this short list, and truthfully I am sure that I can be wrong on the diagnosis, but I believe the point stands - in the upheaval, every camp is claiming an authority and the more there is unrest the tighter each camp will cling to their declared authority. Which leads to the problem in the United Methodist Church: The UMC does not claim an authority. The UMC claims authorities.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a man who placed a preimum on Scripture, but also understood there were other authorities that were valid and gifts from God. Wesley was a priest who did not want to break from the Anglican Church (thus upholding tradition), he was a product of the Enlightenment (thus upholding reason) and he had a number of powerful personal encounters with God, such as when his "heart was strangely warmed" (upholding experience). Wesley knew of the value of holding these authorities in tension and the danger of putting all authority in one source.

The UMC faces the problem of holding onto the community of authorities that guide us while living in a time where people want/need/desire to collapse all authority into one source. When things are complex, there is a desire to simplify things and seek one authority source. The Christian witness of the Trinitarian God is that the mystery and interconnection of a community of authority is where we find God.

Now if we could just hold on.