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The Dean's Perspective

Grounded in the Story: Duke Divinity School's Methodist Identity

“Why does Duke Divinity School maintain its affiliation with the United Methodist Church?” Not infrequently, someone asks me this question. When the question is asked, it is usually not just a simple request for information; it is more often a challenge.

Some argue that a university divinity school should maintain a stance of non-confessional neutrality, or radical pluralism. They sometimes regard Duke’s specific Methodist ties as meddlesome interference with the academic business of the university. Others contend that Protestant denominations belong to the past, not the future, of the church. The United Methodist Church looks like an unwieldy bureaucracy that hinders the school’s mission more than it helps.

And others have theological or political quarrels with the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition: the Methodist Church is too liberal or too conservative on social issues, too vague on eschatology, too optimistic on sanctification, and so on. Why not cut the ties?

The underlying assumption behind the question seems to be that ecclesial particularity is problematic and that the school would be stronger if it had a generic identity purified from any particular denominational coloring.
To explain why I think this assumption is wrong, I want to tell you a story.

Back in the 1970s, my wife and I joined several other strongly committed young Christians in forming a house church, which we called Metanoia Fellowship. We rejected all ties with established churches because we wanted to start fresh and recreate the pure New Testament church that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:41– 47; 4:32–35). We prayed together daily; we had free-form worship services with guitar music; we sought to share our goods with those who had needs; and we created our own decision-making structures from the ground up. It was a spiritually profound and formative experience for all of us.

But within three years, the community began to fracture. I think there were three important reasons for our disintegration: (1) We were not accountable to anyone beyond ourselves, and so we lacked the wisdom of critical perspective from beyond our own communal life; (2) we lacked a longer historical view, and without realizing it we began to recapitulate in microcosm the church’s long experience of heresies and schisms; (3) we became internally focused and insufficiently engaged in mission to the wider world.

To make a long story short, I eventually went on to pursue the academic study of Scripture and to reground myself in the specific disciplines of my own Methodist tradition. I came to believe that it is wiser for Christians to be rooted in a particular tradition than to imagine we can conjure a truer and more faithful church or school out of thin air. Everyone lives and thinks out of some tradition, some story. We do well to claim the story that gave us birth and shaped us. We may work to renew or reform the community that gave us the gift of that story. But apart from grounding in the particular story, we are like Lennon and McCartney’s “Nowhere Man, living in a nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”

The actual history of Duke Divinity School is deeply shaped by its grounding in Wesleyan and Methodist traditions. Of course, those traditions bear their own characteristic flaws and blind spots. But they also offer us a firm scriptural foundation, a deep confidence in God’s powerful grace, a passionate hope for transformation of broken people and institutions, and a generous ecumenical spirit that welcomes communion with other Christians of all stripes. Our particular history gives us both a legacy to celebrate and a charge to carry forward the gospel in our own time and place.

The more discerning question, then, is not “Why does Duke Divinity School maintain its affiliation with the United Methodist Church?” The wiser questions are, “What is the meaning of Duke Divinity School’s United Methodist identity, and how does that particular identity shape its mission in the university and the world today?” That is the question addressed by this issue of DIVINITY magazine.