Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grounding ourselves in God (Part 2) - Peter Bellini on Grace Upon Grace: A Church Formed By Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Rev. Dr. Peter J. Bellini, Assistant Professor in the Practice of Global Christianity and Intercultural Studies in the Vera Blinn Chair at United Theological Seminary. This piece is the second part of Dr. Bellini's response to Dr. Elaine Robinson's comments on the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  The first part of Dr. Bellini's response is hereUse the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The comments below continue my response to Professor Elaine Robinson’s thoughts on paragraphs 47-55 of the document “Grace Upon Grace:  a Church Formed by Grace,” a theological reflection on the mission of The United Methodist Church, approved by the 1988 General Conference (hereafter referred to as GUG).  Again, it is my blessing to be in dialogue with her and the church in these matters.

In pars 50-54, GUG speaks to a vast “list of structural and relational commitments” that have been discussed at other points in this series, and so Robinson limits her analysis to the discussion of “connectionalism” and “inclusiveness.” Her basic critique of the statement on connectionalism is that although the document claims connectionalism as “the primary and distinct vehicle for the United Methodist Church’s “missional life”, it reads more like the typical need to justify the top heavy machinery (my image) required to keep the church connected. The result is an apologia for connectionalism rather than for the missional life of the church.

My read is similar to Dean Robinson’s, and in the end the connection becomes a mission and end in itself. Robinson states that “No mention is made of the scale at which mission can unfold in a connectional system nor of the work of grace in creating the bond that enables the connection to “discover and support” mission” (Robinson par.7). We have an infrastructure and possibly the vehicle for mission in connectionalism, but we lack or are unaware of the true tie that creates the connection and the fuel that drives the mission, and this is Spirit of God at work in the global and local church. Simply put, connectionalism needs to be identified and built around the unity of the Spirit found on the local and global levels of the church rather than in the denominational machinery, which ultimately is a connectionalism that becomes an end in itself.

Finally in par. 51, GUG makes a clarion call for inclusiveness to be “characteristic of the missional church.” Robinson notes that the document’s call to inclusivity is an embrace of the variety of difference in the church, i.e. “race, ethnic, class, age and gender differences.” She recognizes that behind this call to inclusivity however is a tacit claim of the normativity of whiteness in the church (Robinson par. 8). “Whiteness” becomes the de facto norm and default for race and ethnicity. In fact, we often refer to non-whites as “racial and ethnic people,” as if “white” were the norm and not also another racial and ethnic social category. Even the Book of Discipline par. 162 A refers to the “Rights of Racial and Ethnic Persons.” The very notion and development of Whiteness Studies was to recognize that such language, ideas and categorizes have come to construct a world where white is the norm and default and other groups are construed as “other.”

In this way the hegemony of whiteness remains ubiquitous and yet invisible and unquestioned, as opposed to being another socially constructed category and power play. Thus like Robinson, I believe a hermeneutic of suspicion is called for here to discern what we mean by “norm” and “difference,” especially since, as Robinson has indicated that the racial makeup of the United Methodist Church in the United States does not resemble the demographics of this nation (Robinson par. 8). She rightfully calls for a “mutuality of mission” in which the church is open to be transformed by the so-called other, “a relational commitment to mutuality.”

One other point that was not mentioned by GUG or Dean Robinson that I might briefly add in terms of diversity and global awareness, (pars. 53-54), there needs to be some statement that begins to address global faith in terms of theologies of religions and comparative theology, either in the way of awareness, frameworks, or guidelines.

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