Monday, November 23, 2020

Recommended Readings: German Plans for Denominational Future Solidify

As this blog has previously shared ([1] and [2]), German United Methodists have been working on a solution that would preserve the unity of the denomination in the country while allowing for differences in understandings of human sexuality, including the practice of gay marriage and gay ordination by some. This process has been led by a roundtable group appointed by Bishop Rückert.

As this recent article (in German) by Klaus Ulrich Ruof indicates, this roundtable process has now come to an end, and the roundtable has submitted its proposal to the central conference's Executive Committee. The proposal calls for removal of passages of the German version of the Book of Discipline that prohibit gay marriage and gay ordination and the formation of an association of traditionalist individual and congregations within Germany to facilitate mutual support among those holding traditionalist views. This proposal came with a high degree of support across the theological spectrum.

As further reported by Ruof (again in German), this past weekend, the proposal was considered by the central conference's Executive Committee. The Executive Committee decided to implement this solution provisionally until it can be formally approved at the next meeting of the Germany Central Conference, currently scheduled for fall of 2021.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Recommended Reading: International Mission from the Global South

All too often, United Methodists from around the world think of international mission as something that flows from the West to the global South. I have heard even missionary candidates from Africa say that they thought of missionaries as being Westerners until they applied to be one. Increasingly, though, this West-to-the-Rest model is an outmoded way of thinking about mission. Global Ministries' practice of sending missionaries "from everywhere to everywhere" is one example of international mission from the global South. African annual conferences sending evangelists to nearby countries is another.

There are also increasing instances of health, education, and other development institutions from the global South engaging in international South-to-South mission. Mary Johnston Hospital in the Philippines has previously trained doctors from Africa in C-section techniques. And just recently, another example of South-to-South international mission within The United Methodist Church has been reported: The UMC in Cote d'Ivoire, which maintains an excellent school system, has entered into an agreement with the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) to build a system of schools in that country.

These trends are likely to only increase in the future as United Methodists in the global South continue to assert their agency in mission.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Some European United Methodist Churches Faces New COVID Restrictions

Just as the United States has experienced a sharp upswing in the number of COVID-19 cases this fall, many European countries have encountered their own spikes in cases. In some instances, this spike has triggered a new wave of social restrictions in European countries. These social restrictions have included, for some, limits on the number of people allowed to gather for worship services or a temporary outright suspension of group in-person worship.

Countries where the government and/or the local unit of The United Methodist Church have suspended in-person worship, at least in significant portions of the country, include Switzerland, France, Austria, Slovenia, and Norway. In some other countries, such suspensions have gone into place but have not (yet) been announced via the annual conference's public internet presence. Moreover, even in European countries where in-person worship continues, it often does so with size limits, and online worship continues to be an important option offered by local churches and/or the annual conference.

Most European countries had strict limitations on public gatherings, including worship services, in the spring that were relaxed over the summer, when the number of COVID-19 cases in most European countries was quite low. This new wave of restrictions, however, seems less comprehensive and less wide-spread that the restrictions in the spring. The restrictions are, in general, also more temporary, with expiration dates within a few weeks or a month, as opposed to the spring restrictions, which in some cases were indefinite when announced.

Whether the different nature of these fall worship restrictions is a feature of having learned about the virus since the spring or just a sign of growing tired of the pandemic, this fall lock down will not be quite the same experience for United Methodists as the spring lock down was. Still, COVID-19 continues to disrupt church life for many United Methodists around the globe.

Monday, November 16, 2020

UM & Global Collection: Culture, Context, and the Global Church

Three previous UM & Global collections have looked at issues of global ecclesiology: one on the UMC as a global church, one on church autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), and one on ecumenical perspectives on the global UMC.

The latest collection continues that theme by looking at culture, context, and the global church. These pieces examine the impact of culture on what it means to be a global United Methodist church, the challenges of communicating and doing theology across cultural differences, the definition of contextualization, issues of contextualization in Europe and the United States, and ministry practices for multicultural congregations.

The collection includes twenty-four essays, many of them by Robert A. Hunt. Additional essays are by David W. Scott, William Payne, Darrell Whiteman, Barry Bryant, Michael Nausner, David Field, Hendrik R. Pieterse, Heinrich Bolleter, and David Markay. As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Recommended Viewing: Jenny Phillips on Green Technology and Mission

As part of the "Get Your Spirit in Shape" video podcast series, Joe Iovino recently interviewed Rev. Jenny Phillips, Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability at United Methodist Global Ministries, for an episode entitled "Technology and Mission." The half-hour long conversation includes a discussion of solar power generation solutions and other green technology being deployed in current United Methodist mission, the theological underpinnings of creation care as a United Methodist mission activity, and the variety of benefits of adopting such technology. The link to the podcast also includes a transcript for the podcast for those interested in the subject but looking to more quickly familiarize themselves with the material.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What Would a Distributed General Conference Look Like?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Since this blog raised the question of what happens if General Conference does not meet in 2021 (see Part 1 and Part 2), that possibility has been much discussed in a variety of contexts, including a UMNS article and a Connectional Table interview of Bishop Thomas Bickerton. The Commission on General Conference has named a "Technology Study Team" (see press release, UMNS story) to explore online participation in the next General Conference.

Much of the discussion about possibilities for General Conference 2021 is whether the event could become "virtual." However, I would like to suggest that most Americans' understanding of a "virtual" event do not fit with what a technology-assisted GC2021 would actually look like. A much better way of thinking about that possibility is to talk about a "distributed" GC2021.

For those in the United States, the term "virtual" connotes Zoom meetings or other online events where each individual participates from their own home, office, or home office. Virtual schooling, virtual church, virtual work have all operated on this model of individual participation in technology-mediated online meetings, where each person has an internet device and is in a separate location from others.

The problem with this model in many parts of the world is that individuals do not have reliable, high-bandwidth access to the Internet in their homes or even offices. Thus, a General Conference delegate from Mulungwishi, DR Congo is unlikely to be able to Zoom into General Conference while sitting on a couch in their living room, even if a delegate from Memphis, Tennessee could.

This does not, however, mean that the Internet is completely unavailable in DR Congo or other developing nations. In almost every country, the Internet is accessible somewhere, usually in urban areas and/or hotels and conference centers that cater to global business travelers and NGOs.

Thus, for delegates from such countries to participate in an online General Conference would probably mean gathering these delegates at a central point or central points, where they could then access the meeting through the reliable internet of whatever facility in which they were meeting. Several African commentators suggest such a possibility in the UMNS piece "Should General Conference go virtual?"

Thus, an online General Conference would not be virtual in the sense of each delegate accessing the event individually; it would be distributed in the sense of there being multiple sites at which General Conference delegates gather, with each site linked through technology, but not necessarily each delegate on an individual internet device.

Such a distributed model of General Conference would probably be necessary to ensure access for delegates from many countries in Africa and perhaps parts of the Philippines. It also probably makes some issues like translation a bit easier, or at least no harder. Nevertheless, it also raises some issues and challenges.

First, it is technologically more complicated to ensure participation if not every delegate has a personal device to access the internet. Would delegates at the distributed points each be provided with devices to access the online event? Would the event be live streamed on a single screen? If it is live streamed, how could individual delegates interact with the proceedings?

Second, there are logistical procedural challenges to having delegates from multiple different group locations participate in an online event. How would sessions be scheduled to accommodate different time zones? How would raising questions or making comments work? Could or how could committees function if their members are in multiple different locations without access to individual internet devices? How would votes be tabulated if not every delegate has their own internet device?

Third, there are issues of relationship building and trust. Many General Conference decisions are made not because of what happens in the plenary session but because of the conversations that happen on the margins of the meeting--over meals and in hallways. If delegates are still having such conversations, but only with others from their geographic area, how does that change the approach to decision-making? Especially in the light of possible voting irregularities in GC2019, how do distributed sites retain trust in what is happened at other sites when there is less central verification of processes, procedures, credentials, etc.?

Thus, while holding a distributed General Conference might be a logistical necessity to ensure equitable access to an online event, it is by no means an easy or simple solution, and it poses a variety of challenges. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Technology Study Team or the Commission on General Conference itself might conclude that an online General Conference is simple not feasible and, despite the challenges associated with not having a General Conference, conclude that further delaying General Conference is still the best option.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Andrew Harper: TheologyX Provides Greater Access to Theological Education for All

Today's post is written by Rev. Andrew Harper, Director of Global and Learning Innovation, Cliff College, UK. It is part of an occasional series on new, missionally-focused forms of theological education.

In May 2020, the International Association of Universities (IAU) published its Global Survey Report concerning the impact of COVID-19 on higher education around the world. The IAU canvassed four hundred and twenty-four higher education institutions (HEIs), representing one hundred and nine different countries. Their report paints a startling picture of how deeply the pandemic has affected institutions and teachers alike. Fifty-nine percent of HEIs reported the total cessation of all campus activity.

As one might expect, this has had a devastating impact on the delivery of student education: an overwhelming majority of HEIs (ninety-eight percent) replied that their teaching and learning had been affected in some way. It is also clear that students in the Global South suffer disproportionately compared to those elsewhere. Whereas eighty percent of European students will be given the opportunity to complete their exams, only sixty-one percent of African students will enjoy the same. Indeed, although ninety-seven percent of American and European HEIs reply that they have adequate communication infrastructures in place to keep their students up to date, that number drops to sixty-six percent for African HEIs.

TheologyX is perfectly positioned to respond to the global tumult caused by COVID-19 and to remedy the deleterious effects it has had on higher education around the world. Based on Open edX (used by nine of the ten highest ranked universities), TheologyX provides an online learning platform specially designed for theological education. Indeed, it utilises certain tools and features which help to overcome those geographical, financial and social barriers to learning exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in the Global South. Developed in partnership with Cliff College (Derbyshire UK) and the Methodist Church of Great Britain, TheologyX makes it possible to access theological education at a time when it might otherwise be out of reach and many theology departments in the West are adjusting to the peculiar demands of online pedagogy.

TheologyX’s digitalised curriculum makes it unnecessary to travel long distances just to learn, and its inexpensive programme of delivery eliminates the prohibitively high cost of entry associated with traditional forms of education – boons which stand to benefit believers in the Global South disproportionately more than students based in the West. To send an African student to the U.K. to obtain a theology degree at Cliff College, for example, would cost around $75,000. For the same amount, TheologyX can train thirty-three African students for an MA degree.

Of course, TheologyX wouldn’t be possible without accessible and affordable technology, funded by Cliff College as well as others. Participating colleges receive web cameras with built-in microphones and books on Wesleyan theology from Cliff College. In addition, TheologyX provides these colleges with a ‘Theo’ box – an intranet device which creates a local digital learning environment for up to fifty students using an internal data / Wi-Fi connection. Each box hosts the entirety of TheologyX’s digital theological library, and all the tools necessary to facilitate teaching at all levels. It provides the opportunity for users around the world to access global theological materials, no matter the user’s location.

Its library boasts diverse curricula covering a variety of subjects, with lectures often arranged in ten to twenty-minute "bite sized" chunks to accommodate best pedagogical praxis. The Theo box boasts dual SIM card slots which can be set up to facilitate further content, but – critically – it does not itself require an internet connection to function. Broadband is sparse in Africa, but almost every African has a mobile phone, hence why the Theo box is fitted to run on signal data. It is effectively a Bible college in a box, accessible to believers in diverse locations and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

We are personally familiar with institutions based in the Global South that have faced lockdown and which have also seen their doors shut immediately in the wake of COVID-19. TheologyX has been able to step into this situation, providing a virtual learning environment that has equipped those institutions to maintain the same degree of rigour and depth of substance, but in a way that grants its students easy access to learning without them needing to be technically proficient. In short, we have had the privilege of helping institutions keep their doors open, albeit virtually. These institutions would otherwise have faced significant financial problems – potentially closing forever as a result, a tragedy both academically as well as for the local Church. In the meantime, TheologyX has given institutions the space to breathe and to reflect, providing a "sandpit" environment in which to play and create and see what might work in a post-COVID world.

And perhaps best of all, as colleges and believers across the world contribute to TheologyX’s online platform, we are teased with the exciting possibility of western learners bearing witness to the quality theological teaching and research coming out of the Global South. We hope TheologyX will thereby serve not only to bless and equip those in diverse contexts, but also to train and encourage those of us in the West with the unique gifts and perspectives found only in the Global South.