Thursday, February 22, 2024

Jefferson Knight: Addressing Human Sexuality in the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline: A Missional Imperative

Today's post is by Jefferson Knight. Knight is Program Director of the United Methodist Human Rights Monitor in Liberia and a delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference to the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church is currently embroiled in a significant crisis regarding the definition of marriage within its doctrine. The looming conflict arises from the potential attempt by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to change the definition of marriage, a move that could lead to serious repercussions across its global connections.

One of the primary reasons for the potential conflict is the disparity in the legal and cultural context of marriage across different regions, particularly in relation to same-sex marriage. In the United States, same-sex marriage has been legally recognized since the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015. However, this legal framework is not universally applicable, especially in other parts of the world, such as Africa and certain other regions.

In many African countries, laws criminalize same-sex marriage, reflecting deeply ingrained cultural and religious beliefs. As a result, any attempt by The United Methodist Church to change its definition of marriage to include same-sex unions would clash with the legal and cultural norms prevalent in these regions, potentially causing significant discord within the global church community.

Furthermore, United Methodists in the United States and other Western countries may find themselves in a constant state of conflict with the Book of Discipline of the UMC if they were to adhere to their national laws, which permit same-sex marriage, while other countries, particularly in Africa, maintain laws that explicitly criminalize such unions.

This stark contrast in legal frameworks creates a complex and challenging situation for the church, with divergent interpretations of the Book of Discipline causing tension between different regions and members.

This situation has led to the formation of the Global Methodist Church, a US-based denomination that broke away from The United Methodist Church, and it has also led to the disaffiliation of churches from the UMC, mainly in the United States.

In light of these challenges, it is evident that The United Methodist Church must seek a solution that respects the diverse legal, cultural, theological, biblical, and regional contexts within which it operates. One potential path forward could involve defining marriage within the Book of Discipline based on regional contexts wherever applicable.

By acknowledging the legal and cultural differences across its global connections, The United Methodist Church can strive to define marriage in a manner that respects the varying perspectives and realities of its members. This approach would entail recognizing and respecting the legal frameworks and cultural norms related to marriage in different regions, thereby allowing for a more inclusive and harmonious coexistence within the church.

Moreover, establishing a framework that respects regional variations in the definition of marriage would help mitigate potential conflicts and foster a spirit of unity and understanding within The United Methodist Church. By embracing diversity and adapting its doctrine to reflect the complex realities of its global membership, the church can navigate the current crisis and emerge with a strengthened sense of inclusivity and community.

However, it is essential to recognize that the missional context of the church extends far beyond the confines of any single issue, including human sexuality. The UMC's global reach necessitates an approach that acknowledges and respects the diverse cultural, social, and theological perspectives of its members across different regions. The proposal to regionalize the church as proposed by the Christmas Covenant underscores the recognition of these differences and the need for a more localized understanding of faith and practice.

The idea of regionalization holds significant potential for addressing the complexities surrounding human sexuality within the UMC. Rather than attempting to impose a singular stance on this issue that may be incongruent with the beliefs of certain regions, a regionalized approach allows for the accommodation of diverse perspectives in accordance with the unique cultural and contextual factors at play.

In conclusion, the crisis facing The United Methodist Church in relation to the definition of marriage underscores the need for a thoughtful and inclusive approach that respects the diverse legal, cultural, and regional contexts within the church's global connections. By defining marriage in the Book of Discipline based on regional context wherever applicable, the church can pave the way for a more harmonious and respectful coexistence, ensuring that all members feel valued and heard within the broader church community.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Recommended Reading: Cambodian Theology Students

Cambodia is one of six Mission Initiatives supported by Global Ministries. Mission Initiatives are endeavors to spread Methodism to countries where it did not previously exist. The Cambodia Mission Initiative is a unique undertaking because it is jointly sponsored by Global Ministries, Connexio (the mission agency of Swiss United Methodists), the Korean Methodist Church, the Singaporean Methodist Church, and the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. Together, these five agencies have sponsored the growth of the Methodist Church in Cambodia, a soon-to-be-autonomous denomination.

Part of the process of a church growing toward autonomy is developing indigenous leadership, which the Methodist Church in Cambodia has done. Congregations are led by indigenous pastors, and there is a Methodist Bible School for training pastors. As part of their partnership with Cambodia, Connexio has shared a recent interview with two students at the Methodist Bible School (translated into English here). The interview is a good snapshot of what life is like for young adults preparing to enter the ministry in Cambodia. It's worth reading for the sake of learning more about Methodism in Cambodia, Mission Initiatives more broadly, and pastoral ministry in different cultures.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

David W. Scott: Exploring Intercultural Connectionalism

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. This piece originally appeared as a commentary on the United Methodist News Service site and is republished here with permission.

As 2024 begins, many United Methodists are looking toward the next General Conference, to be held April 23-May 3. This legislative gathering has the potential to make significant changes to The United Methodist Church through regionalization and other proposals.

Whatever happens at this General Conference, it will be historic. For over 240 years, General Conference has always had a majority of U.S. delegates; however, 2024 is very likely to be the last time a regular General Conference will have a majority of delegates from the United States.

The upcoming shift in delegates reflects a shift in membership in The United Methodist Church. Even before the recent wave of local church disaffiliations, membership decline in the United States and membership growth in Africa meant that more United Methodists have been living outside the United States than in it for the past several years. This membership shift coincides with a season in which United Methodists are seeking to reexamine and revitalize relationships with ecumenical partner Methodist churches throughout the world.

These changes present United Methodists and their ecumenical Methodist partners with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to shift from centuries of U.S.-dominance in the church. The opportunity is to reflect better the multinational, multicultural nature of the church universal. Multiculturalism has been part of the church since its beginning in Acts 2 and will continue to be part of the church in heaven, according to Revelation 7:9-10.

For the church to avail itself of the divine opportunities of being a multinational, multicultural church, it will need to engage in both deconstructive and constructive work.

The deconstructive work involves letting go of the presumption that the church should revolve primarily around Americans and their values, concerns and standards, and dismantling or reconfiguring the structures that solidify that presumption.

This work is underway throughout the church, often carried out under the term “decolonizing church.” One example of such work is the book of essays I have edited with Filipe Maia, “Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church.”

The bishops’ initiative over the past several years to “dismantle racism” is a related endeavor, and many other scholars, agencies and church leaders are involved in such efforts as well.

The constructive work necessary for becoming a truly multinational, multicultural church is for the church to increase its capacity to communicate and work across cultures and contexts. Communicating and collaborating across cultures requires not just intellectual commitment to the importance of being a worldwide church. It requires specific skills in listening, seeking understanding, being flexible and adapting.

Again, this work is being carried out in many spots throughout the denomination. One such effort that I am involved in is a joint theological task force between the United Methodist boards of Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry. Joining me in that work are the Rev. Dr. Greg Bergquist, Dr. David Field, the Rev. Dr. Paulo Roberto Garcia, the Rev. Dr. Jean Claude Maleka, Deaconess Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, the Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella, Dr. Amos Nascimento, Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse and Dr. Ulrike Schuler.

This task force was convened to reflect on theological grounds for greater collaboration between the two agencies. One of the major insights from our joint reflection is a concept we are calling “intercultural connectionalism.”

The term “intercultural connectionalism” builds on the Methodist tradition of connectionalism as a central ecclesiological concept. I have written about connectionalism elsewhere, but briefly it refers to the structures, practices, relationships and theology that connect local congregations to one another, in the process creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Adding the term “intercultural” recognizes that the connections that make up The United Methodist Church (and its ecumenical partners) cross lines of culture and other elements of difference. Intercultural connectionalism thus offers a factual description of the current nature of The United Methodist Church. (And much of its history, too, if we have eyes to see it — as in, for instance, this article.) It also offers a normative aspiration — that the church will learn to connect in ways that take cultural differences seriously.

Indeed, to push the claim further, we cannot truly understand the nature of United Methodist connectionalism unless we consider various cultural perspectives on the concept. I have written elsewhere about how the understanding of what a denomination is varies across contexts and how European and Filipino United Methodists have unique perspectives on the nature and meaning of connectionalism.

Thus, intercultural connectionalism involves a different approach to theological reflection in and for the denomination. It requires that United Methodists engage in intercultural dialogue as we seek to understand the nature of our church and how God is calling us to join in God’s mission around the world.

While General Conference does provide a venue to engage in intercultural dialogue, United Methodists should avoid associating intercultural connectionalism only with General Conference. Although it brings together United Methodists from around the world, General Conference, because of its limited time frame and legislative focus, may not always be the best place for United Methodists to engage in deep listening and learning across cultures.

Instead, it is better to think of intercultural connectionalism as a principle that various parts of the denomination can incorporate into their practices. This includes the general agencies, the Council of Bishops, the ecumenical office, the Commission on Faith and Order, scholarly networks and mission partnerships. Whenever United Methodists from varying cultural backgrounds gather, attention should be paid to how those cultural backgrounds inform their understanding of United Methodism and what they can learn from one another.

The Global Ministries/Higher Education theological task force has developed a discussion guide to help United Methodists and their ecumenical Methodist partners engage in conversations related to intercultural connectionalism. The study guide, which is available in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and German, moves from reflections about our Wesleyan origins through our history to our hopes for healing and renewal and the actions inspired by those hopes. The four-session discussion guide can be used in various settings, from the local church to seminaries to connectional bodies.

The guide ends with questions about how we can act as United Methodists. This is significant, because while conversation and conferencing are important realms in which to live out intercultural connectionalism, intercultural connectionalism must also characterize our joint work in the world. United Methodists have always had a strong sense that one’s faith must be lived out. Living out our faith with others from different cultural backgrounds, as together we engage in mission and ministry, presents new opportunities to learn from one another.

In this regard, United Methodists can learn from Interfaith Youth Core and other interfaith organizations which have concluded that generating understanding across differences should involve not just talking about those differences but also joining together in positive work in the world. Such joint work builds understanding and relationships. As I have argued elsewhere, relationships are a vital component of connectionalism, necessary to make organizational connectionalism work.

The Global Ministries/Higher Education task force, and the increased alignment between the two agencies broadly, including sharing a general secretary, represents a further opportunity here. Not only is education an important part of mission around the world, but this interagency collaboration is also a chance to bring scholarly conversation about intercultural connectionalism and the application of intercultural connectionalism in mission practice together.

Alignment between the two agencies creates possibilities for deeper learning about and better practice of intercultural connectionalism.

United Methodists are part of a multicultural church that is tied to partner Methodist churches from yet more cultural backgrounds. This has long been true and will only become truer in the future. For the church to embrace this blessing from God, we must live into the reality and the opportunity of intercultural connectionalism.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

David W. Scott: On International Mission and Cosmopolitanism

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.

International mission, by its nature as international, involves crossing national boundaries and, by its nature as mission, involves Christian practices of love and caring. Thus, international mission necessarily involves caring for and about others who are from a different nationality than oneself.

Put another way, international mission involves an extension of what Geert Hofstede and others have called the "moral circle" - the group of people who are within one's sphere of moral concern - those whom one sees as having the same moral rights as oneself - to life, health, happiness, love, etc. International mission is not the only way such an expansion happens - migration or contact with immigrants is another significant means - but it is an important way for Christians around the world to come into contact with people from other countries.

Granted, this extension may be imperfect and not lasting. Someone may participate in international mission and show concern for others without believing that those others are entitled to be treated by the same standard as oneself. Or, a Christian who takes a short-term mission trip may feel concern about the life conditions of those they encounter while on the trip, but three years later may largely have forgotten this new concern for people in other lands.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, international mission may be completely transformative of how one sees one's moral world. The annals of mission, especially of long-term mission, are replete with stories of Christians in mission who come to have a deep and abiding concern for the people of another country, wanting good for the people of that other country just as much as they want good for the people of their own country.

Beyond even that, there are stories of Christians in mission who come to see themselves as attached not just to another country and their own home country but attached to all countries, to see themselves as "citizens of the world." An academic term that describes this sense of connection to and concern for people all around the world is "cosmopolitan," which literally means "citizen of the world." It is clear that at least some Christians through their engagement in international mission take on a cosmopolitan outlook on life.

There is at least a little academic literature on missionary cosmopolitanism in the past two centuries of Western-led and then global Christian international mission. (See, this book for instance.) But the notion that Christians' sense of citizenship extends beyond a particular nation to encompass all goes all the way back to the roots of Christianity (as in, for instance, the Epistle to Diognetus).

Much of the academic discussion of cosmopolitanism, though, is not linked to religion but rather to secular forms of what might be called globalization - international trade, migration, international professional and cultural networks, etc. Moreover, secular cosmopolitanism is positively correlated with urban areas, wealth, and education and can carry a critique of rural provincialism.

These characteristics of secular cosmopolitanism and the existence of missionary cosmopolitanism raise for me a variety of questions, including the following:

First, to what extent is an openness to people from other countries a prerequisite for becoming involved in international mission, and to what extent is increased concern for people from other countries a result of participating in international mission? Both could be true. In a way akin to prevenient grace, perhaps a nascent openness to concern for others from other countries allows for the actual extension of moral concern to those others after participating in international mission. Yet I am left with the question of whether international mission only transforms the moral circles of those with larger than average moral circles to begin with or whether international mission has the power to potentially transform the moral outlook of anyone.

Second, if it is true that The United Methodist Church is a disproportionately rural church but secular cosmopolitanism is associated with urban living, where one is more likely to encounter people, goods, and ideas from other countries and cultures, then where does that leave the outlook for cultivating cosmopolitanism among United Methodists? Are United Methodists, because of their rural distribution, less likely to adopt cosmopolitan outlooks on the church than people in other, more urban, denominations, or does Methodists' penchant for mission increase their cosmopolitanism?

This question feels particularly important to me as the UMC looks forward to a more world-wide future. The ability to successfully live into that future seems to depend, if not on widespread cosmopolitanism, at least a sustained sense by enough people in enough parts of the church that they have a moral and religious connection to fellow denomination members throughout the world. A successful worldwide church cannot be the work of a few church bureaucrats or denominational insiders but must be rooted in the impulses of people in local congregations.

Third, where does the rising tide of nationalism over the past decade leave international mission and missionary cosmopolitanism? Nationalism emphasizes one's identity in connection to their home nation (however defined). It is thus in tension with cosmopolitanism, which views the world in a supranational way (that is, beyond one nation). Is international mission destined to decline or to become more of a niche endeavor if its association with cosmopolitanism goes against the nationalist trends of the day?

While I do believe that Christianity requires that we enlarge our moral circles, I don't think it necessitates that all Christians adopt a cosmopolitan view of the world. It is possible to live as a good Christian without much of a sense of the world community. Indeed, the vast majority of Christians across time and space have oriented their lives primarily toward local concerns. This localism often does not even rise to the level of nationalism, let alone cosmopolitanism.

Still, as someone who cares about the church as an international body, who cares about mission, including international mission, these questions about international mission and international Christian community on the one side and the idea of cosmopolitanism on the other leave me somewhat unsettled. Even if it will not be a primary concern for all Christians, how does the church keep alive the sense of the transcendent kingdom of God, which is beyond all nations or other allegiances, in the world, but not of it?

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Methodism and American Empire Book Now Out!

I (David) had previously shared an announcement and description of a book I have co-edited with Filipe Maia: Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church. At the time, the book was available for pre-order. I am happy to share that it is now printed and available for purchase! You can find it on Cokesbury, Amazon, or wherever you buy your books. Note that in addition to being the denominational book seller, as of this writing, Cokesbury has the book at a discount over Amazon.

Here is the brief description of the book from the publisher (Abingdon):

"Methodism and American Empire investigates historical trajectories and theological developments that connect American imperialism since World War II to the Methodist tradition as a global movement. The volume asks: to what extent is United Methodists’ vision of the globe marred by American imperialism? Through historical analyses and theological reflections, this volume chronicles the formation of an understanding of The United Methodist Church since the mid-20th century that is both global and at the same time dominated by American interests and concerns. Methodism and American Empire provides a historical and theological perspective to understand the current context of The United Methodist Church while also raising ecclesiological questions about the impact of imperialism on how Methodists have understood the nature and mission of the church over the last century. Gathering voices and perspectives from around the world, this volume suggests that the project of global Methodism and the tensions one witnesses therein ought to be understood in the context of American imperialism and that such an understanding is critical to the task of continuing to be a global denomination. The volume tells a tale of complex negotiations happening between United Methodists across different national, cultural, and ecclesial contexts and sets up the historical backdrop for the imminent schism of The United Methodist Church."

I am very impressed by the contributions to this volume of all the authors, and I think the book will make an important contribution to some really significant conversations going on in The United Methodist Church (and beyond). It was also a joy to work with Filipe Maia on this book. You can hear some more of his reflections related to it on this Bar of the Conference podcast. I'm proud to have worked on this book, and I hope you will check it out.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Future Is Networks

January is a time for making predictions about the future, so here’s a prediction: The future is networks, not formal institutions.

This prediction requires some elaboration of what I mean by networks and formal institutions. The prediction should also be qualified somewhat: This is less a prediction of what is to come and more an observation of how human organization has already been changing, coupled with an assumption that such a shift will continue.

Networks

A network may be defined as a collection of separate individuals or organizations that come together for collaboration. A network is definitely a type of organization itself, in that it organizes people or other organizations. Networks are, though, defined by their relational nature – relationships are the basis of their organization. There is a large literature in several social science fields on network organizations, and this post does not even begin to scratch the surface of this literature, but this definition will do.

A network may also be a type of institution, in that it may involve “rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior,” though it lacks much formalization of these rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations. Instead, a network relies on relational ties to produce those qualities. Moreover, the focus of a network may not be so much on regularity of behavior as on responsiveness, that is, on coordinating behavior in response to particular conditions or events rather than coordinating behavior toward a pre-determined end.

As relational organization, networks involve (relatively) equal status among their constituent parts. They may be organized around common interests or a shared desired outcome. They may also be short- or long-term oriented. Networks, especially those organized around shared interests, are often open ended, with the purpose of the network evolving as its constituent relationships evolve. Thus, networks are a relatively flexible form of organization.

Networks usually serve as avenues of communication among their members and for exchanging or pooling resources around shared objectives. A network may carry out a project as an organization itself, but more often, networks serve to loosely coordinate the activities of their members through exchange of information. Thus, those members are the primary actors in carrying out any work, not the network.

Formal Institutions

A formal institution may be defined as an organization with formalized rules and structures for working towards a goal or goals. Such formalized rules and structures include aspects such as legal incorporation, by-laws, assigned roles and responsibilities within the organization, clearly defined leadership roles, organizational hierarchies, defined mission and vision, etc. Formal institutions as organizations are defined by their formalized nature.

Formal institutions tend to be goal oriented. They are very concerned with regularity of behavior and planning toward a particular end. They exist to direct the behavior of constituent parts and the use of labor and financial resources towards certain goals.

Formal institutions tend toward a long-term orientation. Their formality gives them a greater permanence, and some of a formal institution’s efforts are likely to be directed towards the continuation of the institution. Formal institutions can and do change, grow, and shift over time, but their focus is on regularity.

Contrasts

Both networks and formal institutions are solutions to the problem of collective action – how can humans act together for the sake of achieving goals beyond what any individual is capable of? Formal institutions and networks can be thought of as two ideal types of solutions to this problem with actual organizations falling somewhere in the middle. Moreover, networks are often composed of formal institutions as members. Again, there is a large literature available for those interested in the spectrum of organizational types.

Each of these solutions is better at some things and in some situations. Networks have advantages at information sharing and are more flexible. Formal institutions are better at standardization and central coordination.

Yet whatever the absolute advantages and disadvantages of each organizational form, there has been a significant shift in recent decades away from formal institutions towards networks. Formal institutions were one of the crowning achievements of the modern era of human history – the world coordinated through bureaucracy, in a non-pejorative sense. In the 21st century, however, the flow is in the other direction, towards the creation of more networks and the dismantling of some existing formal institutions.

Applications for Churches

This shift from formal institutions to networks has implications for many areas of life, the church among them. Three ways in which this shift will impact churches are in denominational structures, ecumenical organizations, and ministry collaborations.

Denominations are, at their most basic, an organization that brings together multiple congregations. Yet there are varying ways in which denominations can serve to organize congregations, and some are more similar to networks, while others more closely resemble formal organizations. Some of this depends on polity. (Baptists tend more towards networks; Methodists towards formal organizations.) But even within a denomination, shifts are possible. Thus, for United Methodists, a shift towards a more network understanding of denominational structures would mean structures that serve to equip and coordinate churches in their own work rather than structures that seek to represent churches through the work of the denomination.

A similar principle applies to ecumenical organizations. At one time, the National Council of Churches was a significant organizational force, carrying out major work itself, work that was supported by the member denominations because of the formal structures that tied them to the NCC. Nowadays, the NCC serves more as a forum for discussion among member denominations, who may sign off on statements released by the NCC, but who maintain more autonomy in deciding what of the NCC to go along with.

Such a shift applies to more local and regional forms of ministry collaboration as well. In the past, inter-congregational ministry efforts may have involved forming new formal organizations with carefully balanced representation from participating congregations and extensive binding agreements as to how the congregations would relate to one another and the new entity. Now, though, inter-congregational ministry is more likely to be ad-hoc and project-based, involve a sharing of information rather than entering an MOU, and/or involve creating an informal “coordinating committee” instead of founding a new 501(c)3 entity.

Again, these are not necessarily bad or good shifts; they’re just different. Walter W. Powell, in his 1990 article, “Neither Market Nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization,” wrote that “the open-ended quality of networks is most useful when resources are variable and the environment uncertain.” In that way, the shift away from formal institutions towards networks is a reflection of other shifts going on in society. 

The point is not to try to resist this shift or to try to be the first to hop on the bandwagon. The point is to recognize the ways in which how we as humans collaborate and organize work are changing so that we may continue to do what Christians have always done: work together to make disciples and transform the world.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Recommended Listening/Viewing: Thursdays at the Table

For over a year, Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling of the Washington Episcopal Area has conducted a video podcast called "Thursdays at the Table." Bishop Easterling's conversation interview style makes for engaging and thoughtful theological material.

Two recent episodes, both embedded below, are likely to be of particular interest to United Methodists who are interested in mission and service to others. First is a conversation with Rev. Janet Wolf about shifting from charity to partnership understandings of service. Second is a conversation with Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, about the spiritual underpinnings of transformative work in society. Both episodes are well worth their hour-long length.

Practicing Resurrection with Janet Wolf

Going to the Margins with Gregory Boyle