After Polarization: Lines in the Sand and Catholic Spirit

A friend dropped out of a project team this week because of a line in the sand. We actually agree on the issue, just not on where the lines go. He arrived at the point that he could no longer participate in good conscience.

Across the United Methodist Church now, I’m seeing a similar thing happen. People who had been united on a particular issue are dividing on how to handle it. When the question changes from “What do you believe about this issue?” to “What should we fight for and how?” the lines no longer cut so clean. Same for questions like “With whom will you associate and when?”

It would be easy to shake your head at new divisions––proof that settling one dispute only gives birth to three more. But it might get us further to acknowledge that we all have lines in the sand. All of us have some instance when we would say we can’t go along. We all have a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak. But what time is it? That’s often hard to know and a new opportunity for conflict. 

Polarization has made it easier for us to avoid these next questions. We align with our side and reject the other. This is why it’s so easy to put an (R) or (D) behind a name and assume we know everything we need to know. In the UMC, the letters behind the names could be (Prog) or (Trad). With these simple notations, we can identify allies and adversaries quickly.

But when we get to the other conversations, it turns out that you may be at odds with someone you thought was an ally. Sometimes in a surprising and personal way. That’s usually because they’re willing to tolerate less or more difference than you are. This is the even more challenging aftermath of polarization and division.

This kind of next-level division is likely to happen across the Methodist landscape in the coming years. Some people will have a high tolerance for working across the lines of division. Some will have almost no tolerance for it. Already, I’m aware of the potential to lose allies, partners, perhaps even friends—on one side because my lines in the sand are too far and on the other side because they’re not far enough.

After polarization, I expect some of our divisions to become more surprising, more nuanced, and more painful. The first round asked one question of us: “What do you believe about _______?” The next round will ask many. And that will force people still reeling from the first round to try to engage in new battles before the last wounds have even begun to heal.

As I watched that friend walk away this week from something that we had all believed in, I realized that at some point in the coming years, I’ll probably end up in the same position: having to separate from a dearly loved friend or respected partner because we can’t see a way forward together. I resolved that I want my primary stance through those difficult times to be one of grace and respect. Grace, rather than blame or disbelief, when a friend has to take a different course than I do. Respect, rather than scorn, when someone’s chosen path is one I can’t follow.

At some point, I’m likely to make the wrong choice in how I handle one of the many questions to come. I should expect others will, too. And it may take years or decades (if ever) before it comes clear to us what was good and wise. So I want to extend others the same grace and respect that I hope they’ll extend me as we try to make our way through an uncertain time.

John Wesley urged his people to have a “catholic spirit.” This is sometimes mistreated as indifference––tolerate all things and hold no firm beliefs or opinions. That’s nothing to do with what Wesley meant. (He took a lot of time in his “Catholic Spirit” sermon to say so.) What does a person with a “catholic spirit” look like, then? Wesley: “His heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit.”

The person with a catholic spirit may not be able to partner with all people at all times. But (s)he will extend grace and love to all people at all times. Though a time may come when we need to part ways, even with people we’ve long called friends or allies, I hope we can maintain this kind of catholic spirit. It may be after the polarization when that spirit is most needed.

4 thoughts on “After Polarization: Lines in the Sand and Catholic Spirit

    1. Hi George – what a great reference for this! I hope their relationship can teach us a lot.

      Right now, I think especially of what Whitefield wrote after he met with the Wesleys, couldn’t find common ground, and they cemented the divide in their movements: “It would have melted any heart to have heard Mr. Charles Wesley and me weeping, after prayer, that if possible the breach might be prevented.”

      It seems like we’re in a similar place now. We can’t find the common ground to continue together as one, and we need to go separate ways. But I hope that breach will bring weeping and desire for continued relationships rather than animosity. I’m thinking also of how Whitefield wrote about their relationships shortly before his death: “indissoluble union with them in heart and Christian affection, notwithstanding our difference in judgment about some particular points of doctrine.”

      I don’t know that everyone is ready to declare “indissoluble union in heart and Christian affection” right now because of some of the wounds they’ve incurred. Whitefield and the Wesleys wouldn’t have always been able to make that claim, either. But I hope it’s what a lot of us can claim at the end.

  1. Your post really hits the nail on the head. How do we react as church members as well as pastors to those we may have known for decades, but now see things differently on an issue rarely discussed among congregants? I will have to say that I am probably more “in the middle” of this controversy than most; I am LGBTQ, but also believe in the Scripture-based, traditional sexual ethic held by the church for over 2000 years. I understand why Reconciling members of the UMC feel as they do– they want the support and affirmation of THEIR church for choices that seem very natural, innate to them (and frankly, to me). Though I am non-affirming, the last thing I want to see is a new traditionalist church making light of LGBTQ choices and dilemmas, or ignoring the issue altogether (which we have been very good at doing in the past). I hope to see a new traditionalist church willing to welcome and support LGBTQ in an enthusiastic manner, yet within the bounds of Scripture. At the same time, I really do not want to join a church that follows a progressive reading of the Gospel. How do I relate to those in my church on either side? I fear that both sides see the issue in black and white, while the reality is in shades of gray. I am trying to resolve to say as little as possible, but hear everyone. We shall see.

    1. Hi EC,

      Thank you for sharing this. You may be in the most difficult position of anyone in the church right now. Hard to find people who will understand and welcome you well wherever you look. A dear friend of mine says “I’m a celibate gay Christian, and everyone has a problem with one of those words.”

      The kind of traditionalist church you describe is the kind I hope will emerge. Yours is a valuable voice right now. You bring more nuance and complexity to these conversations than most are allowing. I hope you’ll find people with ears to listen and places–especially a church–where you’re received well.

      Bless you.

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