I have been contemplating two contradictory aphorisms as we approach this month’s called United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis, a meeting that will deal with the highly contentious issue of human sexuality: “Change is the only constant,” and “Some things never change.”
Perkins has undergone considerable change in recent years, such as the revamping of the Houston-Galveston program and the creation of elective concentrations at other professional schools within SMU. In many essential respects, however, Perkins remains the same. One thing that has not altered is its abiding commitment to serve the Methodist Church, whatever its institutional forms (the UMC, of course, but also CME, AME, AMEZ and others). That mission is central though not exclusive: We are committed to preparing “women and men for faithful leadership in Christian ministry,” irrespective of denominational affiliation. Moreover, that preparation includes not only our degree programs but also the Course of Study School and encompasses the ministry of both clergy and laity.
It is important to remember that change is more or less a constant throughout church history, whether for good or for ill. Most dramatically, one thinks of the great East-West Schism of 1054, when the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches formally broke communion, and of the Protestant Reformation five centuries later. Even in the New Testament period, there is evidence of at least significant tension between different Christian groups, if not open separation, such as actually did occur in the second century.
The history of modern Protestantism in particular, with its less centralized authority, is a case study in diverse opinion. The current situation within the United Methodist Church is, in that respect, nothing new. There have been countless such disputes in the past, and doubtless there will be others in the future. Fortunately, many did not result in open division, but instead led in time to less disruptive but still significant change. In the case of the UMC, two such transformations involved moments of restoration and renewal, first in 1939 (the reunification of Northern and Southern churches) and then in 1968 (the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church).
Although the history of disagreement within the church is not particularly encouraging, there is consolation to be found. Across all centuries, the one universal church has endured – and so we believe will continue to endure. Though I am a cradle Methodist, I am grateful that the body of Christ is something so much larger and greater than the UMC. No denomination contains the whole of God’s church.
From its inception, Perkins School of Theology has sought to serve that whole, undivided church, not simply one fraction or faction of it. Our history is one of inclusion: Perkins led the way in 1952 with the admission of five African-American students, resulting in the racial integration of Southern Methodist University two years before the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. Students representing dozens of denominations – Wesleyan in heritage and many others besides, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox – have attended SMU’s School of Theology over the past century. Nothing that happens at General Conference will change that. Already, we are a diverse community that welcomes students, staff and faculty from a wide range of traditions and perspectives. We see this as both an abiding strength and a positive goal. This is in concert with the commitments of the larger institution in which we are imbedded, Southern Methodist University, whose nondiscrimination statement reads as follows:
Southern Methodist University (SMU) will not discriminate in any employment practice, education program, education activity or admissions on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, genetic information or veteran status. SMU’s commitment to equal opportunity includes nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
I often tell prospective students that, yes, they will leave Perkins with a deeper and clearer understanding of their own beliefs. That is to be expected. Less obvious but just as important is the need to leave with a deeper, a clearer and a more empathetic understanding of those who hold different beliefs. The church (and the wider world, for that matter) needs leaders able to comprehend other viewpoints and to recognize that they are not the only ones possessing integrity, intelligence and faith. We need leaders who see others first as persons and not as theological or ideological positions, who therefore can transcend boundaries and can find common ground where it exists. That kind of leadership is learned in a place where it is actually practiced, not in an echo chamber where one hears only reinforcing voices, and where outsiders are demonized and dismissed. One of the most remarkable things about Jesus was his continual recognition of outsiders, of “the other” – Samaritans, lepers, centurions, tax collectors, women, the poor – as persons worthy of love, attention and even sacrifice. For his disciples, disagreement can never justify depersonalization.
The simple fact is that none of us is always right about everything, and none of us is always wrong. I have taught with a very wide spectrum of colleagues over three decades, and as far apart as we might have been on some vital issues, there wasn’t one of them from whom I didn’t learn something important. So I challenge incoming students to see what each individual at Perkins has to teach them. (Seeing where they disagree is invariably the easy part.) All of us are more limited in our understanding than we can possibly grasp, and all of us need others to help us to comprehend what we otherwise could not know. A little intellectual humility goes a long way.
But the value of a learning community like Perkins is not simply pragmatic. After all, Jesus did not command us merely to tolerate one another. The standard he set us is to love even those with whom we are most at odds. “’If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them’” (Luke 6:32). We might paraphrase, “If you associate only with those who agree with you, what more are you doing than anyone else?” There are fewer and fewer places where it is possible both to learn from and to influence persons of varied opinion, much less to get to know them as unique individuals and, in Christ, to come to love them. The goal is not to turn out students who all think alike, but to turn out students who think both deeply and broadly and who understand and care for others, however different they might be.
In service to and modeling the example of Jesus himself, this is the kind of community Perkins strives to be. We warmly welcome everyone and, whatever the future form of the United Methodist Church, for which we profoundly care and daily pray, we will continue to do so. That, too, remains a constant.
Grace and peace,
Craig C. Hill