The bish cited a study commissioned by The UMC on various aspects of our common life. He said (according to the study), United Methodists agree on theology, but disagree about . . . something or other that escapes me. Maybe the reason I can't remember what it is we're supposed to disagree about is that the proof of our overwhelming theological agreement was so arresting -- and so fudged.
According to the study, 97% of UM clergy and 96% of UM laity report that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are very important to their spiritual journey. Well, duh. Still, taking it for what it's worth, that is a nice testimony, I suppose. The one thing it is NOT is a theological statement.
Now, there are various ways to construct unity in evidence among Protestants. (Catholics have it simple: either the Pope's supreme, or he's not; everything else is secondary.) Lutherans are a prominent example of those who value doctrinal unity. Until and unless we can agree upon every last theological statement, we are not in communion with each other, and there is no unity. Anglicans dodged this problem by lifting up the value of liturgical unity. We may not cross every T and dot every I quite the same, but we are molded by our common worship life (and language). Evangelicals (including Methodists), however, typically express their sense of unity in the testimony of their experience. Their talk may be full of salvation lingo all the way over to Buberesque I-Thou idiom, but experience is the basis of their unity. What you believe/teach and how you worship is less important than how you articulate your experience of God.
What this means is that liberals and conservatives in a denomination like The UMC will both use similar language to talk about their experience of God, but that the God they describe from the pulpit may differ greatly from one person to another. The meaning of the Bible can be all kinds of different things. Doctrine can be highly personalized, even heretical, and not seen as in contradiction to the official pronouncements of the Church (which are often seen as outdated just because they are a couple hundred years old).
All this is not to say that there isn't a large agreement among UMs regarding the essentials of the faith. I'll bet there is. But I'll bet there's not a 90%+ agreement on anything. I'll also bet that the laity will be far more theologically orthodox -- as a group -- than the clergy. So why proclaim a kind of unity that really isn't in evidence?
Well, if you're trying to minimize the dangerous world of doctrine, where there are real and substantive disagreements that endanger our common life together -- because you want to tiptoe past that dragon in order to address the burning issue where we don't agree (whatever that was) -- then it's nice to tell everyone that we have overwhelming agreement on theology and don't need to argue about it.
Please note that I don't want to be like the Lutherans and insist upon 100% agreement on every last thing. But when I see studies constructed and cited in this way, my first reaction is, What a badly constructed study; who taught those guys how to validate a research instrument? Then I think about the highly paid and very smart people who make up and administer studies like this, and my next reaction is, What a slick piece of work; they really earned their pay with that one.
x-posted to methodism