Last June while attending the North Georgia Annual Conference, I wrote the following as I wrestled with a deep personal concern about the dangers of denominational unity at any cost:
Betty Crocker is not real.
She was conjured up by someone at the Washburn Crosby Milling Company who wanted to personalize the responses to baking questions of housewives who wrote in. Betty’s now-famous signature was the result of a signature contest at the company. To produce her face, they called every female employee into the room and had someone draw a composite of all their features.
That face — the one that looks like everyone’s mom — became the face of the world’s first boxed cake mix, so complete that all you had to do was add water. It was supposed to make a perfect cake every time.
Does it get any more convenient than that?
It bombed. Folks who tried it felt like they were contributing nothing to the process. It was too easy; in fact, it was offensive to any serious cook. Betty’s creators tried again. This time, they asked the customer to add an egg in addition to water.
That worked. The new, improved cake mix (which didn’t actually need the egg) was a huge success.
I wrote the above as I heard colleagues in the hallways at last year’s conference say things like, “Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we agree to disagree? Can’t we just be a family, with all its dysfunctions and crazy uncles?”
This is a very United Methodist question. For decades, our denomination has stretched to make room for a widening array of opinions and theological perspectives. We’ve somehow made room for conservatives and liberals, universalists and literalists, traditionalists and charismatics. Every time we’ve flexed to include another perspective it is as if we’ve added another face to the picture. We have allowed ourselves to become the Gospel According to Betty Crocker — a composite of everyone’s theological profile.
Pleasing, non-offensive. Just add water.
That hasn’t worked for us, any more than it worked for Betty. At the end of the day, all the blending — as well-intentioned as it has been — has made us something so generic, pleasant and convenient that we are unpalatable to the rest of the world. Our numbers bear this out.
Today as General Conference nears its close, I am only confirmed in my opinion: Our structure is not designed to withstand our diversity. By trying to make it fit, we’re doing no one any favors. By adding yet another study commission to the pile, we’re only prolonging the pain. Meanwhile, we’re filing the edge off our personality. It is a downright shame, because Wesleyanism was so edgy when it was Wesley preaching it. We were distinctive enough to get kicked out of places. Today, I’m not sure we could get kicked out of anything.
Like I said, a shame.
I am praying that those doing the work of the church in Portland will hear the wisdom of angels: Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. I’m praying for voices in that room audacious enough to suggest creative alternatives to simply placating every opinion and stripe. I’m praying for bishops with courage to step up and lead honest conversations now, rather than delaying the inevitable. I’m also praying for folks with courage to confess our differences and spiritual maturity to consider the very real possibility that unity at this point holds no integrity.
I am praying for Spirit-led minds at General Conference who want to do more than “just add water” — keeping us conveniently bound to the most generic face possible.
That face is not a fair representation of anyone’s gospel. It simply isn’t real.