Monday, May 20, 2013

Lessons for a Global UMC from Macedonia

Today we feature another guest blogger, Dr. Robert A. Hunt.  Dr. Hunt is the Director of Global Theology Education and Professor of Christian Missions and Interreligious Relations at Perkins School of Theology.

 To be a global church what we really need is an ongoing global dialogue that doesn't rush toward crystallization in structures, creeds, systems, or principles. It's easier to walk together when we aren't chained together.

I spent this past week in Skopje and Sturmica, Macedonia, giving lectures on unity, diversity, and dialogue. I was reminded again of the extent to which the concept of a Global United Methodist Church represents a challenge that we haven't begun to really explore.

The United Methodist Church and its antecedents have been in Macedonia and its antecedents longer than it's been in Texas. But it is still a small church, too small to have a local superintendent much less a bishop. So its most senior clergy leader, its superintendent, and its bishop come from three distinctly different cultures and social situations.

As a church it lives in a social situation, as part of a brand new country in tension with its immediate neighbors, that is as unique as it is largely incomprehensible to most UM leaders. Within Macedonia it lives in considerable tension with the majority Macedonian Orthodoxy church because their very ways of conceptualizing "church," not to mention human nature and the gospel, are quite different. Warm personal relationships between priests and pastors are possible. But how does a Protestant church build on the concept of individual confessions of faith (a distinctly modern concept) and live with a Christian neighbor who claims the population as its own purely by accident of ethnic and linguistic heritage combined with the artificially created boundaries of a new state?

Over and over I heard that becoming Christian meant leaving Orthodoxy. And in one case (from an Orthodox priest) that becoming United Methodist meant leaving Christianity/Orthodoxy. And when in my lectures I suggested that Methodists might seek to understand Orthodox spirituality the older members of the church suggested I wasn't really a Christian. An Orthodox woman at the same lecture said it was the first time she had heard a Protestant pastor that didn't denigrate her religion.

Let's not even talk about the impact of half a century of communism on Macedonians, or before that being part of a Serbian Kingdom and before that the Ottoman Empire.

And of course in Macedonia we are talking about a largely rural church of congregations with a dozen to 20 people. A clergy that has only the most basic training – and for whom no university level seminary degree is available in their own language. Not even course of study. Half a dozen UM churches in Dallas alone have more members and clergy than the whole Macedonian UMC.

Up until now our United Methodist leadership has seen being a "global church" as a matter of perfecting certain structures and finding transnational commonalities in Christian expression. The small Macedonian Church, with its massive complexity and difference from the majority of UM churches, suggests to me that this isn't the right approach. The word "culture" as used by our church leaders doesn't begin to comprehend the differences between Macedonia and the United States.

Ultimately what we have in common as United Methodist churches is nothing more than a idiosyncratic and sometimes awkward history that often quite arbitrarily and artificially traces its origins to the Wesley brothers. To be a global church what we really need is an ongoing global dialogue that doesn't rush toward crystallization in structures, creeds, systems, or principles. Its easier to walk together when we aren't chained together.

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