Friday, June 27, 2014

Culture clashes, secularism, and the LGBT debate in the global UMC

Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne.  Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

In the 1980s Charles W. Ferguson argued that Methodism is America in microcosm.[1] In a similar fashion, I have argued that American Methodism has always been characterized by regional identities and that it is essentially a regionally-based denomination.[2] Specifically, via a contextualization process, American Methodism adapted the genius of Methodism to its various locations without compromising the heart of Methodism. In the process, it became an American tradition that has greatly influenced American culture even as it has been swayed by American culture.

Today, United Methodist regionalism conflicts with the national identity to which it aspires. Specifically, the growing hegemony of American secularism poses a challenge that highlights regionalism and questions whether the denomination can maintain its national unity. If the UMC decides to emphasize its national identity over its regional character, it must choose between adapting to the secular culture by jettisoning aspects of its tradition or rejecting aspects of secular culture. Both options pose a very real potential of alienating significant sectors of the US population.

Clearly, ideological secularism does not have as firm of a grip on the South from Texas to Virginia, as it does on other parts of the US connection. That is one reason why southern jurisdictions continue to affirm the language of the Discipline on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In fact, many southern evangelicals want the UMC to become a bulwark against the rising tide of secularism. In their vision, the UMC can save society from itself by remaining committed to “biblical” faith. Other regions of the UMC have made peace with secularism and want to become more “relevant” by affirming the cultural values of the majority population in the regions where they exist.

The fight for the heart and soul of the UMC also extends to the Central Conferences. Like the various regions in the US connection, they also reflect the values and culture of their discrete locations. According to a 2013 Pew Report entitled “The Global Divide on Homosexuality: Greater Acceptance in More Secular and Affluent Countries,” Western Europe, North American, and South America largely affirm gay rights. On the other hand, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia strongly reject gay rights and the normalization of homosexual behavior in society. Due to the location of the Central Conferences, the UMC can anticipate that global United Methodism will not follow the lead of the US connection on the issue of gay rights.

In an effort to explain the global divergence, the Pew report makes a significant observation that highlights the encounter between African traditional society and western secular society:

There is a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and opinions about homosexuality. There is far less acceptance of homosexuality in countries where religion is central to people’s lives – measured by whether they consider religion to be very important, whether they believe it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, and whether they pray at least once a day.

If the Pew report is correct, the homosexual debate should be viewed through the larger lens of a rising secularism that diminishes the influence of religion on society. At the deepest level, the confrontation reflects a clash of cultures. A recent AP report illustrates this point. Vice President Biden and the US administration stated that gay rights must take precedence over culture. In the article, Biden declares that “protecting gay rights is a defining mark of a civilized nation and must trump national cultures and social traditions.” One should assume that he includes deeply held religious convictions under social traditions. He also implies that African nations and American evangelicals that do not support gay rights are not civilized. He avows that the US will use diplomatic coercion and economic incentives to impose its gay rights agenda on African nations. For Biden, “civilize” means to become like and acquiesce to the values of the secular West. It also means that the West arrogates the authority to unilaterally determine what constitutes inviolate human rights even when there is no global consensus or historical precedent. Not surprisingly, African societies who have lived under the political, economic, militaristic, and theological domination of the West are actively pushing back against this ideological imperialism in an attempt to regain and/or reaffirm their native cultures.

Regardless of what happens within the American connection, I hope that American UMs will not mimic the vitriolic tone of Biden. Yes, proponents on both sides of this issue have gone the way of rancor and antipathy. At times the soliloquies have reflected disdain. In regards to global United Methodism, I have heard fellow UMs lament, “If it weren’t for the Central Conferences, the UMC would be a gay affirming denomination.” Others have suggested that the Central Conferences should not have equal representation at General Conference because they are not theologically adept. Such sentiment is unfortunate and not helpful in discerning the voice of God or maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In fact, it might be good if American UMs actually stopped being paternalistic long enough to hear the African critique of secularism, individualism, materialism, and permissive values related to human sexuality. After all, a global church should do theology in the context of the global community without disparaging any part of the connection.


[1] Charles W. Ferguson, Methodists and the Making of America. (Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1983).
[2] William P. Payne, American Methodism: Past and Future Growth. (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2013).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Nominate someone to be a speaker at the World Methodist Council 2016 Conference!

While the focus of this blog is on the global nature of The United Methodist Church as a denomination, the UMC is part of larger global contexts of Methodist/Wesleyan traditions.  The World Methodist Council is an important forum for bringing together these larger groups of Methodist/Wesleyan/Nazarene/Uniting/United denominations. In addition to the ongoing work of the Council (which you can read about on their website), they convene the World Methodist Conference every five years.  The next such Conference will be held in September 2016 in Houston, TX with the theme "One."

What's more, you, dear readers, have an opportunity to contribute to and shape this conference.  The WMC has announced a nomination process for speakers, preachers, and workshop leaders.  You can suggest United Methodists (or others) who you think would reflect well the global diversity of our denomination and Methodism in general and be able to speak to the conference theme of "One."

The nomination form is online or can be printed from the PDF form and mailed in.  You can nominate multiple people, and indeed the WMC encourages people to nominate at least two people.  Nominations are due on August 1st, so submit your nominations soon!  This nominating process is an important way to help shape conversations about Methodism as a global movement, and I hope you will contribute thoughtfully and prayerfully.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts on Inclusiveness - Elizabeth Tapia 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 Dr. Elizabeth Tapia, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global MinistriesDr. Tapia is commenting on paragraph 51 on "inclusiveness," from the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

How does the United Methodist Church today practice inclusiveness?  Where do I see the lack of it, and why? What is my part in widening the circle of inclusion, the table of participation, the mantle of transformative leadership in my church?  These questions surfaced in my mind as I re-read the 51st paragraph of Grace upon Grace’s portion on A Church Formed by Grace.

This mission study guide, produced twenty-six ago, made me think:  How does the United Methodist Church in 2014 practice inclusiveness?  What would the church look like if this statement of being missional and therefore inclusive was taken seriously?  The statement alludes to the church as the Body of Christ, but it does not tell me how people of various races, ethnicities, classes, ages, creeds, sexual orientations and gender identities become one, become united, in the Body of Christ.  Reconciliation is God’s gift, and yet decisions and the processes of reconciliation and inclusivity reside in each one of us.  While I believe the reach of God’s grace is unlimited, the people’s grasp of differences are often limiting and limited.

I believe our church is missional, but it is not fully inclusive.  I do not mean to pass judgment on anyone. Contextual realities of non-inclusiveness are legion.  I do not need to enumerate the existing “isms”.  I have, decades ago, been excluded in many ways (being young, a woman, a person of color, a poverty survivor, etc).  When I became mature, I realized I needed to do my part in overcoming structures and forms of injustice and discrimination.  For example, I questioned then why most scholarship recipients nominated and accepted were males; why most lay delegates to the General Conference from my Annual Conference belonged to the upper class of society; why grassroots people were considered partners in mission, when they were not included in planning the project from the very beginning; why people living with HIV-AIDS were stigmatized.

Now I celebrate the fact that churches and faith communities are making headway in building a more just, participatory and inclusive communities.  For example, in a recent US church poll, I take note that one of the top priorities of the UMC church members today is “youth involvement.”  Alleluia!  For so long, youth had been regarded as the “leaders of the future,” not of the present.  They were seen as decision takers, not decision-makers.  They were taught by missionaries then, but now the young people from “everywhere to everywhere” are becoming missionaries themselves (e.g. through the Transformation Generation program of the General Board of Global Ministries, UMC www.umcmisison.org/gt).

Yes, this paragraph reminds me that to be inclusive is to be missional.  Inclusiveness of all people is simply because we are all are children of God.  No one is considered less, no one is more.  God’s creation and creatures, including humans, are interrelated, interconnected.  If one is missing, the rest are incomplete. If one is hurting, the rest are groaning. If one is growing, the rest will thrive.  We lean on God’s grace as we acknowledge each other’s face.  When we are truly inclusive, we become more effective witnesses of God’s boundless grace.

The struggle to be fully inclusive, relevant and Spirit-filled communities of faith continues. Where do we go from here in terms of inclusiveness journey?  I have no ready answers. Perhaps we need to start by recognizing our shortcomings as well as sharing our dream for the inclusion of all peoples and creation, beginning with taking small steps of widening the table where you are.

Let us strive to become part of the church that is truly missional and inclusive. We do what we can. Remember John Wesley’s “all you can” practice?  “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in  all the  ways you can, in all the places you can, at all times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”  As the Triune God leads us in discipleship-making and mission engagement, may we create spaces where all are nurtured in faith, grow in love, are moved to compassion and service, following Christ’s example of compassion, acceptance, prophetic love and humble service.

In closing, I want to share my own credo on an inclusive church:

“The Church I believe in”

I believe in the Triune God who calls and forms the Church.
I believe the church is a koinonia of believers that worships God in spirit and in truth…
     a church that celebrates life and creation
     a church that struggles with the poor
     a church that repents,  one that renews for the sake of all,
     a church that is both prophetic and pastoral,
     inviting and forming a discipleship of inclusiveness.
The church I believe in does not pass judgment
On other people’s belief systems,
Is not arrogant and claustrophobic.
The church I believe in is one that is inclusive,
Open-minded, colourful, and caring
Whose deeds are congruent with their creeds.

I believe in the church
     where people are more important than rules and traditions
     where servanthood and accountability are applied to all
     where children and youth are valued, nurtured with nutrition and faith
     where women’s discipleship is  affirmed, and their rights respected
     where indigenous peoples are leaders, not  token participants or considered “guests”
     where the differently-abled have adequate mobility and involvement
     where people of various socio-economic situations and sexual orientations find full acceptance.

I strongly believe that by the Holy Spirit, the Divine Wisdom, the church is called
To be filled with love, faith, and hope,
To join the Spirit’s mission movement in a broken world,
To heal and be healed
To forgive and be forgiven
To be transformed and grow.

Finally, the church I believe in is a movement of persons, of compassionate communities,
     Ever committed to Christ,
     Journeys toward the full reign of God in their contexts.
     She is bold, simple and humble.
     Courageous enough to “turn the world upside down,”
     Spiritual enough to embody daily sacramental living,
     Child-like enough to be in awe and wonder in the ordinary,
     Secure enough to be the last, to doubt, to take risks and make mistakes,
     Prepared to lose oneself for a great cause, and by God’s grace, rise again.

This is the church I believe in.  This is the church I embrace. 

In the name of the Triune God who makes us One Body, many parts, many colors.
Praise to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Your chance to comment on the nature of the global UMC

This blog has since its beginning sought to foster conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church, both at a scholarly and a practical level.  Now there has come an opportunity to share your reflections on the issues raised in ways that can shape the conversations about both ecclesiology and structure going in to General Conference 2016.  The Connectional Table and the Missional Collaboration Group on the Worldwide Nature of the Church have announced a process of seeking feedback on how best to structure the international mission and ministry of the church.

The newly revamped webpage for the Worldwide Nature of the Church group contains a variety of materials to facilitate discussion about important questions related to the global UMC, the most pressing being this: "Where shall delegates from all the annual conferences in the US confer on issues, which are particular to the US?"  Related materials include an introductory video, a cover letter further explaining the process, an executive summary providing important background information, a PowerPoint presentation with explanations of current church structure, and a compilation of reports to previous General Conferences with previous recommendations about mission and structure.

These materials identify a series of particular questions for discussion:
* Where shall the UMC in the US “conference” on US-related matters for greater effectiveness in the mission of the church?
  A) as at present on the worldwide level of the General Conference?
  B) in establishing a central conference for the US (as other regions in the world)?
  C) in establishing a new structure? e.g. a joint meeting of all US jurisdictional conferences or other ideas?  Please specify your idea for a new structure

Related to this key questions, please discuss and give feed-back on the following:
* Which of the three options A, B, or C, would you prefer and why (and why not the other options)?
* How would your preference enhance or detract from our disciple-making capacity?
* Please reflect and comment on how you perceive the consequences of your preferred option on:
  - the present jurisdictional conferences in the US?
  - the present central conferences outside the US?
  - the general agencies?
  - the annual conferences?
  - the local churches?
* What are other matters to consider, linked to your preferred option?

Additional question:
* Should a name change for “central conferences” be considered because of the painful history of the central jurisdiction in the US between 1939-68?
* And if so, would you opt for “regional conferences” instead of “central conferences”? Or would you propose a different name?

The Worldwide Nature of the Church group is soliciting answers to these questions through an online survey.  While this survey is especially intended for delegates to General Conference, anyone can submit a survey.  I call on you readers of this blog to do exactly that and give your prayerfully considered advice for how to best shape the global ministry of the UMC.  The survey deadline is August 31st.  This blog exists to be in service to the church, and having these discussions and filling out this survey is precisely a way to do that.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Connectionalism and context - Hendrik Pieterse 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 Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Dr. Pieterse is commenting on paragraph 50 on "connectionalism," from the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

In her perceptive comment on the overview of this section (“A Church Formed by Grace”), Elaine Robinson refers to the paragraphs 50-54 “as a list of structural and relational commitments that are characteristically Methodist . . .” She identifies para. 50, on connectionalism, as one such “structural commitment.” While appreciating the document’s claim that connectionalism “expresses our [United Methodist] missional life,” she worries that the paragraph might serve largely as an “apologia” for the current churchly bureaucracy, perhaps most pertinently, its general agencies. She points to the increasing tendency in recent decades to trim the work of the general church to the aims of local churches, and rightly asks about implications of this tendency for United Methodism’s “global nature,” given its still-predominantly U.S.-centered configuration. As such, connectionalism, instead of serving as “rationale” for the church’s mission might in fact obscure or even obstruct it.

These are legitimate concerns. Surely, too often, and perhaps especially in recent years, “connectionalism” has stood proxy for bureaucratic navel-gazing and self-preservation. Yet, as para. 50 reminds us, “system” and “mission” are indelibly linked in United Methodist ecclesiology. The reflection on connectionalism in this paragraph of Grace Upon Grace, I hope to show, remains remarkably relevant to our efforts today to make our missional commitments concrete as a global connectional system.[1]

Paragraph 50 opens with the rather striking claim: “Connectionalism is the distinctive form of United Methodism’s organizational obedience.” Indeed, it goes on, “this connectional system expresses our missional life . . .” Given the increasingly contentious wrangling about denominational restructuring (typified, perhaps, most notoriously by the 2012 General Conference), the equation of “system” and “mission” here might strike many readers as not only hopelessly idealistic but also thoroughly misguided (not to mention, self-serving). Isn’t the “system” exactly the problem? Now, no one who is paying attention would disagree that United Methodism’s current system—from general agencies to local church—needs fundamental rethinking. Yet our debates often miss a key insight about the relation between mission and system: For United Methodists, structure, system, organization, and polity are indispensable modes in giving concrete form to our ecclesial convictions in a particular time and place. As para. 50 notes, it is precisely through the mundane mechanisms of structure, precept, and polity that United Methodists express “our bodily life in Christ”—or, equally, express our life in Christ bodily. In other words, structure, organization, polity, and pattern are crucial elements in the way United Methodists contextualize their mission in and for a time and place. Connectional “system,” then, in its often convoluted complexity, embodies and expresses what Russell Richey calls our “practiced or practical ecclesiology.” It is a form of being church in which theological self-understanding is “embedded in the everyday structures, policies, organizations, and patterns of Methodist life.”[2]

Now, lest I be construed as an unreconstructed apologist for the status quo, let me note a couple of implications that might shed light on the radical potential of our “practiced” ecclesiology for our mission today. First, if our system always embodies our missional convictions, then “structure” is always already theologically freighted. This means denominational restructuring efforts dare not proceed without careful theological work. For such theological attention allows us to ask the sorts of questions that often get sublimated in our politically-charged debates: What convictions, beliefs, and values do we seek or have sought to embody in a particular local, annual conference, or general church structure? How would such convictions, beliefs, and values be diminished, upheld, or altered by a proposed change? Indeed, how might prayerful theological reflection on these convictions, beliefs, and values in fact prompt or demand changes in the system? Moreover, and perhaps most important, how might such theological reflection remind us of dimensions of our Methodist self-understanding and missional practice that have become corrupted, covered up, or even abandoned in our current system?

Questions like these allow us to acknowledge the contextual nature of our connectional system (as pointed out above). As contextual, the concrete forms our ecclesial identity takes are always both timely and time-bound: timely so as to render a “faithful Christian witness”[3] in and for a particular time and place; time-bound, because contexts constantly change. It is lamentable that these rather obvious points about context and contextuality often receive so little overt theological consideration in our denominational deliberations. Such neglect prevents just the self-critical attentiveness to cultural embeddedness, if not captivity, that faithful “organizational obedience” to our connectional covenant in a particular context requires. A number of previous posts, including Dr. Robinson’s, have noted the deleterious effects of such contextual tone-deafness on our efforts to be a global church. Unwitting U.S. self-preoccupation continues to cripple our capacity to attend with theological integrity to the growing contextual complexity of our denomination around the world. Equally important, however, such tone-deafness discourages U.S. United Methodists from engaging their own rapidly changing context with the theological astuteness that effective contextualization demands. I suspect the tectonic cultural, economic, political, and religious shifts that are reconfiguring the North American context provide vital clues to why, how, and to what ends we U.S. United Methodists continue to fight over certain issues and neglect or ignore others.

Russell Richey observes that, at its best, connectionalism is “malleable, evolving, vulnerable . . . forming and reforming.” Our confidence in a connectional covenant that is Spirit-inspired and Spirit-led has prompted United Methodists again and again “to go with the Spirit, to experiment, to try new things, to change.”[4] Such attributes and virtues are critical to effective contextualization in the multivalent, complex, and rapidly changing contexts within which United Methodists find themselves today. However, as Grace Upon Grace wisely observed twenty-five years ago, these virtues and attributes (and their fruits, inclusiveness, ecumenical affirmation, global awareness, diversity [paras. 51-54]) will remain vibrant and effective only in a United Methodist connection that is “alertly critical of its context and self-critical of its relation to that setting.” (para. 55) Today, more than ever, do we need such theological vigilance, as the missional needs of an increasingly multicultural, multicontextual global United Methodist connection chafe under a connectional machinery designed for a U.S. context now rapidly disappearing.


[1] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2012 (The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), ¶ 125.
[2] Russell E. Richey, with Dennis M. Campbell and William B. Lawrence, Marks of Methodism: Theology In Ecclesial Practice (Abingdon, 2005), 1-2.
[3] Book of Discipline, ¶ 105.
[4] Richey, Marks of Methodism, 25, 28. Italics in original.

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.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Grounding ourselves in God - 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. Dr. Bellini is responding to Dr. Elaine Robinson's comments on the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I have been asked to respond 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).  First, I would like to thank Dean Robinson for her evident love of the church and mission and her prophetic insights and responses to the document. It is my blessing to be in dialogue with her and the church in these matters.

Historically a movement whose soteriology has defined its ecclesiology, Methodism has often lacked a robust ontology of the church. Robinson notes that “ecclesiology has never been a strong suit of Methodists” and has lacked “practical,” “experiential,” and I might add theoretical, reflection on the subject as well (Robinson par. 1).

Often considered more a soteriological movement, at least in its early years, Methodism at times has had a tendency to emphasize human response over against the sovereign acts of God, or at best a synergy of divine-human action. Robinson points out that GUG’s discussion on ecclesiology “conceives of the church in terms of the actions of human beings, rather than focusing on the formative and prior dimension of God’s grace” (Robinson par.3). I concur with Dr. Robinson and prefer her move to GUG’s that is to locate our starting point with the Missio Dei and thus our participation in the ”formative and prior dimensions of God’s grace.” The body of Christ finds its origin and purpose in God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

I would also extend the Missio Dei further even to a Missio Trinitatis and the internal processions of the divine persons, which ground the missio in the very ontological nature of God. Such a move could function as a corrective for an ecclesial body that tends to stress human and soteriological dimensions over against the eternal ontological dynamics of the divine. While pars. 47-55 are silent in regards to the Trinity, Robinson does make a brief mention of the Trinity and its mission to offer wholeness to the world. I think these are all forward moves, as we seek to discern and participate in the mission, as it originates and flows from the Triune God.

Like Robinson, I get the sense that GUG at times understands the formation of the church as more our “self-giving” rather than God’s grace-giving, or in my words more of our liturgy rather than God’s doxology. “A Church Formed by Grace,” pars. 47-54, does not begin ecclesiologically with God but with the church and its “worship and service” (par. 47). Instead of grounding our worship and service as the body of Christ in identification and participation with (the risen) Christ, GUG seems to root our ecclesial being in our “offering” and self-giving,” rather than on Christ’s offering and self-giving, which again goes back to Robinson’s original contention that ecclesiology has never been the strong suit of Methodists.” Thus United Methodist ecclesiology takes on a more functional rather than relational shape.

Robinson offers a corrective through a “more grace-centered theological statement” in which God “ingathers the church as the body of Christ where God is worshiped and the sacraments administered, in order that the people of God might be sent into the world to discover and participate in the Missio Dei” (Robinson par.3). Here ecclesial initiation is rooted in God’s acts, and mission flows from our sacramental union with Christ.

In spite of GUG’s emphasis on human agency, there is a place where GUG defines the shape of the church within our sacramental covenant with God, specifically the baptismal covenant (Par. 48). Although GUG spells out the implications of our baptismal covenant in terms of conversion and discipleship, it fails to discern the missional implications of our baptismal covenant, which is a call to ministry as well as a call to discipleship.  The administration of the sacrament of baptism is a call into ministry through participation in the death, burial, resurrection, life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

In par 49, GUG defines and makes clear the imperative for mission; “it is impossible to be a true church without being a missionary church” (Par. 49). Robinson seeks to strengthen GUG’s call to mission by connecting it to our Wesleyan via salutis. Mission is the natural fruit of growing in grace, from justification to sanctification. Dean Robinson also rightfully connects mission to the work of God’s prevenient grace (Par.49). God goes into the world before us and calls us to share in God’s mission and be stewards of this gift. Robinson, however, wants to stress that the “impetus and reason for mission” is “grace upon grace” more so than the duty and vocation of the church, as GUG seems to suggest (Robinson par. 5).

Throughout the document and Robinson’s response I picked up on the tension of synergy, and the need to identify the primary movement of God, especially in the missional life of the church. As the document seeks to define the church and mission, it does so through a theological lens that seems to reflect the missiology of a century ago, which was more invested in the human agency of the missional enterprise. Such a missiology is shaped and driven by our “vocation” and “service” to the world “in and for God’s kingdom”, rather than shaped and driven by God as the primary agent of mission in which the church is called to participate in the missional life of God (Par. 49).

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What the UMC's big tent looks like in Liberia

As the American branch of the UMC discusses the possibility of schism, one historic feature of the church that has been repeatedly highlighted is its nature as a "big tent" denomination - a denomination with room for conservative and liberal, progressive and traditionalist.  The example that is almost always used is that the UMC is the spiritual home of both Hilary Clinton and George W. Bush.  A recent article by Julu Swen of the Liberia Annual Conference shows us, though, that the US is not the only place where The United Methodist Church serves as a big tent capable of bringing together people across political (and theological) divides.

In an article from mid-April, Swen tells the story of Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh.  Dr. Tipoteh is an economist and politician in Liberia and a prominent United Methodist.  Recently, he has been sharply critical of the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and herself also a United Methodist.  In addition to his recent criticisms, Dr. Tipoteh ran against Ms. Sirleaf in the 2005 presidential elections, in which she ultimately went on to win and he finished far back in a crowded field.

Dr. Tipoteh's recent criticisms against Pres. Sirleaf's administration have to do with poverty and the state of the Liberian economy.  Dr. Tipoteh has accused Pres. Sirleaf and others associated with her with overstating Liberia's economic progress in recent years and downplaying the extent of the poverty that still remains in the country.  He has railed against foreign control of the country's economy, a pattern in which he alleges Pres. Sirleaf is complicit.  It's a sharp attack, and it's hard to imagine two more opposing political standpoints, both held by United Methodists.

This example of big tent United Methodism in Liberia is not only an interesting anecdote.  It also raises a question.  The UMC's big tent in America is threatening to collapse, weakened by increasing polarization and an erosion of the middle ground.  That is surely a lamentable state of affairs but also reflects wider American cultural and political trends.  Americans as a whole are polarized and uninterested in compromise on a whole host of issues.  The question then is this: If the American portion of the UMC's big tent collapses, what does that mean for the UMC's big tent elsewhere around the world?  Certainly, Americans don't have a monopoly on fractiousness, religiously or in other areas of life.  Yet is the potential effect of American plans for schism to export a particularly American form of religious and cultural polarization to the rest of the world?  Or is Methodism's big tent likely to remain standing in other countries, regardless of what happens in the US?