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Rescuing Outler’s visions

Scholar says the late Rev. Albert Outler’s famous Uniting Conference address has been misinterpreted.
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

The interview below is an exercise in historical and theological imagination. Given the renewed interest in the “Visions and Dreams” sermon preached by the Rev. Albert Outler at the 1968 Uniting Conference, and given that the sermon has been quoted selectively to score contemporary points, omitting Outler’s warnings and criticisms, it seems only right to engage the great Methodist teacher himself.

While the conversation which follows is imaginary, the quotations and italicized words are taken directly from Outler’s published works and letters.

What do you make of the 50th celebration of The United Methodist Church and the frequent references in the church press to your “Visions and Dreams” sermon of the 1968 Uniting Conference?

By God’s grace, I am now beyond the push and pull of flattery, but I can say that there are still elements in my sermon that the church needs to address. And I would warn my colleagues on the other side of the Jordan not to read my sermon nostalgically nor out of historical context.

Would you give us an example of a misreading of your sermon?

Well, to start with, it would be simple honesty to remember that the sermon title was not just “Visions and Dreams.” Its subtitle — “the unfinished business of an unfinished church”— was a caution against triumphalist interpretations of our “United” Methodist Church, a besetting sin that Methodists have not yet conquered. Some of the 50th birthday celebrations seem to forget my warning at our first birthday party that “no part of our venture in unity is really finished as yet” and that “this is the day when the real work of the UMC begins.”

In what sense was our unity in 1968 incomplete?

I explicitly dampened the enthusiastic notion that “where once our differences kept us apart … now they are overcome” by the limiting comment that our many differences were “at least contained.”

Perhaps you will remember that I voted against the original proposals for the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist merger, not because I objected to the idea of a merger, but because that particular plan was a “merger with minimum change: union without reform. Union is not an end in itself nor is it an end that justifies any means used by a small group in their manipulations of the large generality of church members. …. Any act of union is itself a means to reform, renewal and a higher level of dedication and Christian service,” or it should be.

How did you propose moving beyond a mere “containment” of differences?

In the face of those “differences contained,” I proposed certain tasks: “our foremost need is for a vivid sense of the church we are called to be. By what norms shall we seek to transform our covenant into genuine koinonia? To what heavenly vision are we prepared to be obedient …?” I laid before the Uniting Conference a crucial dilemma for our newly formed unity. As United Methodists we will have either: “responsible prophecy, reform and renewal”; or, “the fatal consequences of destructive discontent.” Any fair use of my sermon would ask whether the church in 2018 has made good progress on these tasks and responsibly faced this dilemma.

Some of the folks quoting your sermon seem to be using it to support revisionist versions of United Methodism’s “unity” in the near future. How would you describe the different understandings of unity in 1968 and 2018?

The unity of 1968 was a matter of differences contained and how they would struggle to grow into a mature vision of the church they were called to be. The EUB Church seems to have been contained in, then absorbed by, the larger, more blandly “mainline” UMC. The unity being reformulated in 2018 seems to be a merely institutional containment of differences that are unwilling to be transformed or reconciled or obedient. In short, in one case we have a merger gently insisting upon unity; in the other, a failed unity now divided, seeking to redefine and legitimate itself.

In your sermon you upheld “three essential dimensions” for the future church by appealing to an ecumenical motto: “We seek to be a church truly catholic, truly evangelical, truly reformed.” Your definition of “catholic” has been picked up by some commentators as a warrant for their vision of a more open, inclusive, and diverse church with certain departures from church teaching on sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination standards.

Here, again, I would plead for reading my sermon in historical context, and at the very least, the context of my own writing. My use of the terms “open, inclusive, and diverse” was focused on the ecumenical reality of Christian communities across time and space. The current use of these terms is frequently grounded in an ideology with a political purpose.

But, doesn’t your definition of “catholicity” in that sermon explicitly use the terms “open, inclusive, and diverse”?

Yes, it does, but my definition of catholicity was always bounded by “that traditionary process by which Christianity lives and maintains its authentic continuity with the Christian past and its openness to the ecumenical future.” Catholicity is not a mere place-holder for anything we want! When I use the word, “I mean what the word meant originally: the effectual and universal Christian community.”

Comment:  The author of this imaginary interview admits that he has his own biases, and indeed significant disagreements with Albert Outler. But he must insist that Outler has a whole body of work that goes with his famous sermon. He should be allowed to speak for himself, not as a cipher for momentary opinions about the church.

Last Updated on January 10, 2023

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