Paul Seay: What do we mean by unity?

Paul Seay: What do we mean by unity?

Participants at a "Forward United" gathering meet at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, on May 9. The Rev. Paul Seay was one of several speakers. Photo by Annette Spence

It was the beginning of a new school year with a new roommate. We were dividing up the dorm. This will be my closet. That’s your dresser. Do you mind if I use that desk? Good fences make good neighbors and all that. I already had milk and orange juice in the refrigerator, and I told him he could help himself. Why don’t we just share. I bought it this time. You get it next time. We each take what we need. No, he said. I’d worry that it might come out uneven. I’ll get my own. I don’t want to end up owing you money for milk.

Because I am among those praying for The United Methodist Church to remain united, I think it’s worth asking what we mean by unity. There must be more to unity than a 50/50 split where we simply coexist. This half of the room is yours, and this half is mine. Stay on your side.

But neither can unity be the erasure of all difference and distinction. That’s the melting pot fallacy, where the majority becomes the whole and all the beautiful and rough edges, particular and painful histories, are lost in a sea of vanilla. The advantage of these extremes is certainty. We know where the line is. Unity, however, is somewhere in the complicated space between, the wilderness where we learn to rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Unity is frustrating 
Unity is not the avoidance of conflict where we pretend like everything is ok when it’s not. A friend with whom you’ve never had an argument isn’t a friend. At best, they’re a friendly acquaintance. Friends tell you the truth as they see it, and friends don’t hide the truth from each other. Friendships are also humbling, because in friendship I learn to admit when I’m wrong. I sometimes learn that what I thought was true is only partially true. I learn when I’m self-deceived. Unity is inconvenient, hard work.

Unity is dangerous
If things aren’t divided 50/50, then sometimes you might have more than I do. Or, as my roommate feared, I might be in your debt. I’m a person of privilege, and I’m used to the advantages that go with that privilege. As a white male, when I speak, there’s a good chance people will listen. I have and will be given opportunities that others haven’t and won’t. There are things I’m rarely if ever questioned on, like whether I belong. Unity can be dangerous for a person like me, because it asks me to recognize my privilege and be willing to share more radically than I might otherwise be inclined to.

Unity at all costs?
People and congregations will leave The United Methodist Church. Some kind of separation is coming. We don’t need to go to war to stop this. And while we don’t want leaving The United Methodist Church to be easy (it can’t be as easy as walking out of a movie), we shouldn’t force people to remain. I hope that most churches and clergy will continue to move ahead as United Methodists. But any clear-eyed assessment of the situation must acknowledge that not everyone will stay. Division is sad, but, with God’s help, it can be done in a grace-filled way. Kindness and respect can prevail.

If a parting of ways is inevitable, how can we still talk about unity? Is unity precluded by the looming schism?

Unity as gift and a goal
Unity has already been accomplished, given to the world through the church by God in Jesus Christ. So, more than mere possibility or potential, it is reality, God’s reality. Unity isn’t our doing. It’s not our achievement. Unity is something which God has done and we are called to live in to. This is what the Apostle Paul celebrates in Ephesians 2:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (see Ephesians 2:13-22)

Jesus died violently, rose gloriously, ascended triumphantly, and is with us powerfully through the Spirit. In Christ, God has rocked the cosmos. The dividing wall of death has come down.

I once heard Bishop Will Willimon compare baptism, both infant and adult, to dressing someone in a robe which is way too big for them. Picture a toddler trying to wear an adult choir robe. The child is lost in the thing. She might poke her head out, but it will be years before her arms are anywhere close to the sleeves. This, Willimon said, is what God does in baptism. God gives us a garment that we’ll spend the rest of our lives growing in to. So it is with the gift of unity which Paul writes about.

The United in our denomination’s name has always pointed to a goal, a hope, at least as much, if not sometimes more, than it’s truly been an accurate description of our shared life. It’s not that United was a status we attained once and for all in 1968. We’ve always been becoming United Methodists.


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Paul Seay

The Rev. Paul Seay is senior pastor at Abingdon United Methodist Church and Charles Wesley United Methodist Church, both in Abingdon, Virginia. The Holston Annual Conference elected him to serve as a General Conference delegate in 2019.