This week it’s the United Methodists, meeting at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, who are claiming the headlines as they seek to sort out essential matters of relationship and identity. But, face it, the news stories could be about any of us in the mainline denominational church. We’ve all encountered these same conversations, the same kind of painful conflict in this era of cultural transition, and the frequent response, which has become a kind of knowing mantra is this: “It’s all about relationships.”
We hear this mantra in parking lot conversations, read it in responses on social media, and it surely does sound meaningful. But what does it really mean? This phrase, like so many such phrases that promise wisdom and guidance, functions like a mirror, reflecting back the meaning that we prefer it to hold, so that it confirms what we already believe. And simply marking that relationships contribute something important, something necessary to our lives, which of course they do, does not engage us in the difficult work of actually relating nor does it recognize that not all relationships are healthy or generative. After all, the Mafia, Al-Quaida and the Third Reich each exhibit the marks of effective bonding relationships.
The early church struggled with this same issue—the crucial need to sort out individual and collective identity and worth (for example, read Acts 15), to mark essential relational practices (for instance, Matthew 23:23), and to live out calling in community in ways that were faithful, productive and healthy. In his journey across the Mediterranean, the Apostle Paul planted small communities, Christian colonies of care, mission, and interaction with the surrounding non-Christian populations. His letters of wisdom and guidance demonstrate the complexity of living in Christian community in the relative stability of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Think about how Paul might have framed these letters if a much larger cultural transitional moment formed the context for these communal relationships. We currently live within such a moment in human culture, and the upheaval may find its resonance in the prophetic words from the poet William Butler Yeats in his poem, “The Second Coming”:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So, in this disruptive moment, as we continue to discern and converse about the nature, the purpose, and the worth of our community as the Presbytery of East Iowa, perhaps we need to start with some basic questions about our lives together to discover if we share any common ground, and if we do, how we might build healthy community upon this sacred real estate.
Sociologists help us to understand that humans hold limited individual capabilities. While we can accomplish many things as distinct individuals, there are some enterprises that we can only do together, as neighborhoods, communities, cultures and nations. And the idea that sustains these kinds of communal investments, the ultimate goal, is creating a common good, something that makes us and those around us healthier, wiser, stronger, safer, more whole, a more true iteration of who we are together. Something that marks our individual identities as human beings even as it takes us out of ourselves, away from personal concerns.
So how and why are we in community as the Presbytery of East Iowa? What common good, what common calling urges us to invest in each other, to engage in common enterprise for this common good that we hold?
The second thing that sociologists share with us (and the idea that usually follows the mantra about relationships) is the way that institutions work. If it’s all about (presumably positive) relationships, the argument goes, then there must be a roadblock to realizing these relationships, and that boulder is institutions. In other words, the charge is that institutions preclude us from finding the relational common ground and flexibility that is the ideal.
We humans use institutions as cultural instruments. Institutions order our common experience and help us to preserve and transmit our culture to future generations. Institutions contribute systems of development and reciprocity along with accountability to the shared enterprises that we undertake. Institutions facilitate our finding others like us and forming bonds with them as well as building bridges across diverse collections of individuals or groups. We cannot sustain any kind of culture without some institutional contribution used instrumentally to reach larger outcomes.
At best, the boundaries born from Presbyterian institutional dynamics remind us that we humans, created by God in God’s image, live in covenant community in which we are mutually accountable as we live out our shared calling from God. At their best, these institutional dynamics not only assist us in finding common ground, but in planting a bountiful garden on it to nurture ourselves and others in generative relationships, sharing God’s word and mission in the world.
At worst, the temptation to engage Presbyterian institutional dynamics as if they are the dynamics in play in the world at large brings operational stasis, the tyranny of hierarchies, conflictive membership issues, the burning desire for power with an overweening focus on political advantage, and divisive ideologies, each of which can prompt institutions to become ends in themselves rather than facilitators of integrated group dynamics.
So how can we form healthy community that resists this temptation, that centers not on self-focused desire or affront, but on a larger common good that extends beyond our doorsteps?
Can we find such common ground for God’s sake? Are we willing to set out on this journey together?