By Bud Reeves
Senior Pastor of First UMC Fort Smith
The “Common Core” refers to an often controversial set of state standards for education that was enacted a few years ago and is still supported in most states. The Common Core is knowledge that students should know by the end of a particular grade. The goal for the Common Core is to prepare students for success in post-secondary education. If all students possess similar levels of educational expertise, the pedagogical playing field should be more level, and there should be less need for remediation. At least that’s the theory.
When I go to our Arkansas Annual Conference, it reminds me of the Common Core of Methodism in our home state. I’ve been a Methodist all my life and a pastor all my adult life—“deeply ingrained” would be an understatement. At Annual Conference I experience worship and business the way we do them. I renew relationships with long-time, well-beloved colleagues and friends. I am reminded of our Wesleyan theology and our practices of faith that are uniquely Methodist. I would be so out of place at a Southern Baptist convention or an Assembly of God conference. I am Methodist to the core.
Although I am writing this before Annual Conference, I am anticipating the presentation of a letter that will affirm our common core as Wesleyan Methodists. There is deep division within our denomination, made deeper by the General Conference of last February. As members of the Arkansas United Methodist family, several of us (of different perspectives on human sexuality) were invited by our bishop to have dialog about what unites us. We quickly came to affirm what we share in common, because what we share is broader, deeper, and perhaps more important than what divides us. The letter shared at Annual Conference included these points of commonality:
- We believe in the Triune God, salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, in the unconditional love of God, and in God’s grace sufficient for every need. We believe in the faith delivered to the church in the historic creeds.
- We cling to our Wesleyan heritage as Christians of a Methodist tribe. This includes:
a. A Wesleyan understanding of grace—prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
b. Theological and social discourse grounded first in Scripture, informed by tradition, experienced in personal and corporate dimensions, and articulated with the best of human reason.
c. Christian discipleship consisting of both vital piety and social action.
d. Adherence to the General Rules given by John Wesley:
1) Do no harm.
2) Do good.
3) Attend upon the ordinances of God.
- We believe the mission of the church is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We affirm the trajectory of the Arkansas Annual Conference “to make disciples who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities, and the world.”
- We believe that whatever happens to the structure of the United Methodist Church, we will respect our fellow Methodists, and our interactions will be characterized by:
a. Listening well. We invite the members of Annual Conference to truly listen to one another as we share in conversation.
b. Loving well. As disciples of Jesus Christ, love is at the center of who we are and what we are about. Jesus tells us, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)
- We believe we are stronger and will accomplish more working together in our social witness. We commit to support our Annual Conference initiatives: 200,000 Reasons to stop childhood hunger in Arkansas, UMCOR, Volunteers in Mission, and disaster response initiatives.
This common core is often referred to as our “Methodist DNA.” (I’m no geneticist, so cut me some slack for the sake of analogy.) Each organism in God’s vast creation carries a genetic code made up of DNA, which is enclosed in chromosomes. Every cell in an organism carries this unique genetic code. But the slightest variation in composition introduces mutations into the organism. Human beings have 46 chromosomes, but the mutation of even one of those chromosomes can produce a substantially different organism.
In 1972, a mutation was introduced into the Methodist DNA with the “incompatibility” language inserted into the Book of Discipline. Mutations can be good or bad, and opinion is certainly divided on the character of that mutation. But mutations are part of the process of evolution.
The “incompatibility” mutation and its subsequent reinforcement may indeed produce a different organism in the Methodist family. It has happened before. The species methodista pluralis has continued to evolve. My point is that most of our DNA is still intact. We share a common core. My hope for the future is that whatever organisms evolve, we can affirm that we have more in common than what divides us. We can coexist in peace, and perhaps even cooperate. We can all make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
At least that’s the theory.