Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Julu Swen & Phileas Jusu' top UMC communicators award is significant

In case you missed it, United Methodist News Service reported earlier this week that Julu Swen of Liberia and Phileas Jusu of Sierra Leone were awarded the United Methodist Association of Communicators' 2014 United Methodist Communicators of the Year Award.  In bestowing the award, the UM Association of Communicators cited Swen and Jusu's work in covering the Ebola epidemic.  This award is a significant story for at least two reasons.

First, it's significant that two Africans won the top award.  All of the other awards announced by the UM Association of Communicators were given to Americans working for one of the American annual conferences, UMNS, UM Communications, umc.org, or UMW.  In part, this reflects the resource differential between American annual conferences and annual conferences from the Central Conferences.  American annual conferences have more money to pay staff to focus on communications for the annual conferences.  But both Jusu and Swen work (at least in part) for annual conferences as well.  We should not assume that annual conferences in the United States are the only ones with messages to share or the resources and savvy to share them.

Second, it's significant that Swen and Jusu won by reporting on an issue of international significance.  Much of the communication generated by annual conferences is directed at internal audiences - ministers and members of those annual conferences.  That's usually appropriate.  Nevertheless, we should remember that what we do in annual conferences can matter to the rest of the connection as well.  Indeed, that's one reason why United Methodism's connectional system is significant - it allows for sharing and communication beyond geographic boundaries.  Certainly the serious nature of and international interest in Ebola helped garner Jusu and Swen's reporting attention, but there are other stories coming out of annual conferences that are worth being shared beyond the boundaries of the conference, even if they are less dire than Ebola.

Congratulations, then, are in order to Swen and Jusu.  This blog has been a fan and supporter of Swen in particular since before the Ebola outbreak, and it's nice to see him so recognized.  May we all be inspired by their work.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Valuable Themes and Unresolved Concerns: Thomas Kemper on Grace Upon Grace: Renewal (Part II)

Today's post is the the second of two concluding posts 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 Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. Mr. Kemper is commenting on the last section of the document, "Renewal." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

We come now to the end of this series of blogs that has explored the continuing relevance and value for mission of Grace Upon Grace, the last official and comprehensive United Methodist statement on mission theology adopted in 1988, closing with the document’s final paragraph (66), 18 lines on the topic of “Renewal.” Having already enumerated two themes from Grace Upon Grace that I find enormously valuable for the renewal of our understanding of and involvement in mission in the first quarter of the 21st century, I now conclude by proposing two clusters of concerns I think were undeveloped in 1988 but must be satisfactorily addressed today if we are to be viable as a church engaged in the missio Dei. Again, my reflections are those of a missional professional, a practitioner, a layman, not a formal theologian, having been a missionary in Brazil with my wife from 1986 to 1994, and now serving as a mission agency executive.

I find Grace Upon Grace lacking in two major ways. First, at least to my mind, it neglects health, healing, and the care of creation as dimensions of the missio Dei. By health and healing I mean more than humanitarian relief and medical services. I also mean spiritual and emotional healthiness, wholeness of person and wholeness of community. Care of creation relates to individuals, families, communities, nations, and to international relations. It incorporates ecology and the use of resources, which has strong economic implications. Mission needs to grapple with broad economic challenges, especially regarding the poor and the conservation of nature.

A second cluster of concerns is the failure of Grace Upon Grace to discern and take into account the mission energy of mission-founded churches in the Global South and Asia. That could even be seen in 1988. We Methodists have been deplorably slow in noticing something that was evident as early as the world missionary conferences of the late 1940s and 1950s that the younger churches are alive and potent with the Gospel and seen by other communions. We have too long navel-gazed about our denominational “worldwide nature” and allowed our structures get in the way of letting loose the gospel energy of our mission progeny. This relates, of course, to the shifting Christian center of gravity from Europe and North America to the global South.

The World Council of Churches’ 2013 statement on Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes—a wonderful title for excellent work—takes serious account of the implications for mission of the shifting demography. It recognizes and celebrates not the hope but the reality of mission from what was once seen as the margins—mission in Africa and Korea and Brazil that is alive in indigenous cultures but also reaching into the old Christian heartlands of Italy, Canada, England, and Oklahoma City with the ringing, compelling word and work of the Lord. We of the West may still have the dollars and euros but we are not the only, maybe not the primary, proponents of the missio Dei anymore. God has other missionaries too, and we are thankful that some of them from the Congo, and Colombia and Hong Kong and Ivory Coast are enlisting in service through The United Methodist Church. There will be more—of that I can promise you. There will be many, many more. I truly believe that God really is in charge of mission and will see to that.

Grace Upon Grace will remain a worthy landmark—a clear statement of faith and hope—in our mission pilgrimage. It is dated more by its omissions than its commissions. I keep a copy ready at hand on my desk.

I also keep handy a much shorter document, a statement of only some 850 words on mission theology drafted and adopted at the end of the last quadrennium by the directors of the General Board of Global Ministries. It contains a paragraph on grace at work but it is the last affirmation I want to quote in ending these reflections, for it reminds us of an essential reality of the missio Dei in this and any century:

"The Spirit is always moving to sweep the Church into a new mission age. With openness and gratitude we await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way."

(The full statement can be read online at http://www.umcmission.org/Learn-About-Us/About-Global-Ministries/Theology-of-Mission)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Race, gender, and nationality on UM & Global

Over the last two weeks, I've reported on the percentage of authors by race, gender, and nationality among those blogs submitted to Methoblog and on umc.org's Blogs and Connections page.  This week, it's time to turn the analysis inward and look at who's writing on this blog.

To start with, I as a white American male have written about 2/3rds of the posts on UM & Global over the lifetime of the blog.  As a regular rule, I write the Tuesday post, and a guest writes the Thursday post, but there are weeks where there's been no guest writer, and there were a couple of months at the beginning of the blog that I wrote exclusively.

The guest writers are invited from a network of professors, mission practitioners, and church leaders.  Thus, it is a curated collection of voices, as I discussed last week.  Guest writers are selected by a steering committee for this blog composed of four members of the United Methodist Professors of Mission including two white American males, one white European male living in America, and one white American female.  All but two of the guest writers were living in the US at the time of writing, though I know from personal contact that several of them are originally from countries other than the US.  Where that's the case, I have identified them in the statistics below by their continent of origin.  When I was in any doubt, I assumed the writer was American.

Out of our 31 guest writers, 11 (35%) are white American males, 4 (13%) are white American females, 4 (13%) are white European males, 3 (10%) are Asian-American males, 3 (10%) are Asian males, 2 (6%) are Latino-American males, 1 (3%) is a Latino male, 1 (3%) is an Asian-American female, 1 (3%) is an Asian female, and 1 (3%) is an African-American female.  That leads to 77% male authors, 71% American, and 61% white overall.

As the numbers show, there's been a noticeable gender imbalance in our authorship, reflecting in part gender biases in the academy.  African-American and especially African voices are under-represented on this blog.  There are some technological and linguistic challenges in including African voices, but that's not an excuse.  It is our intention at UM & Global to develop a more representative collection of United Methodist voices from around the world.

The single biggest thing UM & Global could do to present a more representative collection of voices, though, would be for me to write fewer of the posts.  That's actually a plan in the works.  While I will continue to manage the technology aspects of UM & Global and will continue to contribute posts, it is our intention to transition in 2015 to a format more similar to that used by UMC Lead, where there is a collection of regular writers for the blog, of which I will be only one.  These writers will come from among United Methodist professors, missionaries, theologians, and church leaders from around the world.  It will still be a curated collection of voices and probably still not be entirely proportional to the membership, but I do want be sure we are including a set of voices that reflects even if it does not quite proportionately represent the racial, gender, and national diversity of the UMC.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Valuable Themes and Unresolved Concerns: Thomas Kemper on Grace Upon Grace: Renewal (Part I)

Today's post is the the first of two concluding posts 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 Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. Mr. Kemper is commenting on the last section of the document, "Renewal." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Begun last November, this series of blogs has explored the continuing relevance and value for mission of Grace Upon Grace, the last official and comprehensive United Methodist statement on mission theology adopted in 1988. We come now to the document’s final paragraph (66), 18 lines on the topic of “Renewal.”  This short section presupposes everything that has come before on vision, mission heritage and reform, mission scope and agenda, and the transforming, supporting nature of grace itself. A range of deeply committed missiologists have looked at every section asking whether Grace Upon Grace provides foundation and/or vision for United Methodist engagement in God’s mission in the present century. My reflections here under the banner of “Renewal” must begin by acknowledging with appreciation all of the earlier blogs. They have significantly informed my mission understanding.

By and large, the contributors to the series find continuing value in the more than 25 year-old document, especially the emphasis on the inseparability of grace and mission. There is widespread agreement on mission as grace in action, and near unanimous appreciation for both the Wesleyan interplay of personal piety and social holiness, the Methodist capacity for missional contextualization, and reliance on the Holy Spirit.  There are divergent views on Grace Upon Grace’s treatment of Christian mission history in general and Methodist mission history in particular and on whether sections heralding diversity point to realities or are merely oratory.  I would agree with both these values and these questions.

The final lines on “Renewal” offer little new to the document. They are valedictory in much the same way as the ending of some of Paul’s epistles: confident, grateful, a bit flowery. The passage quotes the Great Commission, and actually concludes with the benediction from I Thessalonians 5:28: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Amen is about all that could be added to that.

I will use my space in this blog post to enumerate two themes from Grace Upon Grace that I find enormously valuable for the renewal of our understanding of and involvement in mission in the first quarter of the 21st century, and in a following post, I will identify two clusters of concerns I think were undeveloped in 1988 but must be satisfactorily addressed today if we are to be viable as a church engaged in the missio Dei. My reflections are those of a missional professional, a practitioner, a layman, not a formal theologian, having been a missionary in Brazil with my wife from 1986 to 1994, and now serving as a mission agency executive.

The two aspects of Grace Upon Grace that I find most profound, most useful, for mission today and in the future are:

1. Missio Dei” as our starting point. The term has grown steadily more pervasive in the mission vocabulary since 1988. The phrase, borrowed, I understand, from Augustinian roots, surfaced in post-World War II international missionary conferences [notably at Willingen in 1952] but did not gain strong traction until the early 1980s, partly in the context of preparation of the 1982 World Council of Churches document on mission and evangelism. I have informally heard that the late David Bosch, a Roman Catholic from South Africa, strongly influenced that covenant; at least, Bosch became one of the most well-known advocates and interpreters of missio Dei. It has become commonly used in most communions and confessions. The recognition that mission is of God is a major corrective to thinking that we are as humans have a mission to which we invite God’s endorsement and seek divine approval in building the kingdom. Mission and grace comingle, are inseparable. This was powerfully emphasized in my missionary training. But the very commonality of the term and concept gives me pause, as I will explain in my next post.

2. That mission/grace is active is a point strongly underscored in Grace Upon Grace and an insight to which current missionaries, especially the younger one, strongly resonate. I find in our classes of new Global Mission Fellows—42 this year—an enthusiasm to follow an active God. Yet I do not think that we have yet honed or refined an adequate language for speaking of how we as people of faith link into the active, grace-filled missio Dei. What terms and images do we have to name the “how” of church and people becoming part of God’s mission?  Very few.  We say that God is at work in all places and we must discern the where and join in, but what is the process of discernment that leads to grace-filled affiliation with the divine intention?  We cannot resort to a “what is to be will be” theology. How do we decide which mission opportunity to seize upon? I found it instructive in the series of posts that when confronted with the practicalities of discernment, as well as to illustrations of what we mean by “global,” missiologists tell stories of heroic missionaries or other servants of God and the church.  Perhaps this is not only appropriate but necessary, that we incarnate the concept of missio Dei in specific disciples, real people whose lives illustrate the action component of mission/grace. Have we any other option?  Was not the mission originally incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, a human being? We must pray that God continues to give us compelling examples of heroic mission.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Curation, representation, and democratic discussion in the UMC blogosphere

Last week, I wrote a post in which I demonstrated that white American men write the majority of posts in the United Methodist blogosphere, at least as measured by those blogs submitted to and compiled by Methoblog.  This week, I want to follow up by looking at another source of blogs in the United Methodist world: those blogs posted to the Blogs and Commentaries page on UMC's official website.  The Blogs and Commentaries page includes both links to articles on external blogs (including blogs by UMC boards agencies) and some content hosted by umc.org itself.  It is curated in that the articles included are there by choice, not automatically populated, though I don't know the curation policies used to select blogs.  Both in its mix of off-site and on-site material and in its curated nature, the Blogs and Commentaries page is different from Methoblog.

I was able to load articles from 25 authors whose race, gender, and nationality I was able to determine.  All but two of these authors wrote a single post.  Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, wrote several of the posts, so I'm going to analyze just the number of authors, not the number of posts, since any difference is almost entirely a result of Larry Hollon.

What do the numbers show? 36% of authors (9 of the 25) were white American men.  28% were white American women.  12% were African-American men.  8% were Latino-American women.  4%, 1 author, was an Asian-American man.  1 author was an Asian-American woman.  1 was a white European woman.  1 was a black African man.

These numbers are certainly more representative of the UMC as a whole than the numbers I found for the blogosphere in general last week.  Africans and Asians are still underrepresented, but there's a decent sampling from among domestic US groups.

These results show that curation matters.  The best way to have a relatively representative collection of voices in the blogosphere is to select those voices rather than wait for those voices to come to you.  This approach is also that taken by UMC Lead, a curated blog site where nearly half of regular contributors are women and at least a quarter are people of color.  That's also the approach taken by UM Insight, whose numbers I haven't had a chance to crunch.  It's the approach taken by this blog too, for its posts written by authors other than me, though I'll say more about us next week.

Of course, curation implies its own type of privilege - some people are chosen to be heard, confering privilege on them, and other voices aren't.  Those choices may serve good ends, like assembling a representative collection of United Methodist voices (however you may want to define that), but at the end of the day, it's not a system where anyone who wants can speak.  Yet, as demonstrated last week, a system where anyone who wants to can speak can end up dominated by those who speak louder or more frequently than others.

What we may be forced to admit is that there are at times tradeoffs between different standards for what counts as democratic discussion online (as in other settings).  Openness and representativeness don't necessarily coincide, and we may have to make choices between which of these is a more important criteria for democratic discussion.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Struggle and Triumph of Grace: Jacob Dharmaraj on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed 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. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. Dr. Dharmaraj is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Mapping the struggle:
Our world today is relentlessly threatened by ruthless tyranny, soulless greed, exploitative human trafficking, wide economic disparity, and environmental degradation. In the religious front, old models of ecclesial life and traditional forms of spiritual practices have been reduced to and deemed as antiquated and inadequate observances. Systemic barriers relating to race, class, gender, and other discriminations have created impoverished communities worldwide.

By 2050, global population will balloon to 9 billion. In coming decades, mass consumption, economic transition and limited natural resources will intensify competition for basic human necessities such as water, housing and food. It will create tension in multiple levels. It will also defy nature’s sustainability, accelerate global warming, and further endanger the fragile ecosystem.

The United States is rapidly changing. The nation will morph into a majority-minority country in a couple of generations. Our potential church membership base will change. Further, the traditional map of the aged church has become archaic and obsolete; the functional compass of our historic mission is warped and broken. The spiritual navigation system of our congregational gathering and worship has radically been altered. The religious topography has become pluralistic and new-fangled.

Contrary to the conventional notion that modernization and globalization would usher in the decline and demise of religious beliefs and practices, we watch and observe endemic resurgence of radical forms of religions in world affairs.

As a faith community, we have a great stake in preserving God’s creation for future generations, preventing any form of global disaster, and work for shalom.

Grace for grappling with the issues of our times:
We need to move beyond being mere wearers of faith badges. We must be ready to reach beyond denominational boundaries and religious fault-lines to connect with those around us – partners and allies -who are engaged in the transformation of the world. We need to be in “the womb of mutuality and we need to be swimming in the same water as everybody else” engaged in bringing about transformation.

Since the task before us is immense and monumental, our ecclesiology must have room to accommodate “secular prophets” such as environmentalists and human rights organizers who are already active in the kingdom of God.

Therefore, we need to work for the transformation of structures of injustices by critically analyzing social realities through lenses of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, and identifying the interconnected web of oppressive forces, and finally, honoring the agency of the marginalized, and working with the beleaguered in seeking a just solution. This progression involves building alliances and coalitions with secular and other faith-based agencies, collaborating on strategies for transformation, and walking in solidarity with those at the margins.

We also need to remind ourselves that change is inevitable and transformation is a choice. The path to transformation runs straight through action. This is the right time to put our knowledge into practice.  Action is a kind of everyday miracle.  Knowledge certainly helps, but transformation occurs only when we enact our ideas and implement our visions. We must bear in mind, If we want to save the drowners, we need to be swimmers.

Witnessing to Christ in times such as this:
The United Methodist Church has been called to witness to the Gospel and invite persons to experience the fullness of life Jesus Christ offers. As a first order of business, the church’s mission and ministry today is to be relevant and become effective.

I submit the following recommendations for consideration as we strive to be authentic witnesses to the Gospel:

While we, as a denomination, are determined to stay the course, we also need to create a meta-mission-theology which takes the mosaic landscape of changing migration patterns which impacts the global nature of the church, plurality of cultures, and resurgence of world religions into serious consideration. This theology also ought to interact between the global and local, intercultural and transcultural, monolingual and polyphonic, mission and evangelism, proclamation and social justice, and Christianity and other living faiths.

Since the connectivity and engagement of a vast majority of members of the UMC are un-tethered, we are to create a UM Christology that clearly defines and distinguishes our belief in Christ from other competing allegiances. A theology or a set of guidelines that blithely confess “all religions are the same” would undercut the very foundation of the church and the new and abundant life offered in Jesus Christ.

Creating and fostering synchronous collaboration between the diasporic community that is readily available in the pews and pulpits of our denomination and the denomination’s leadership at various levels, and crossing borders to employ these rich but much neglected U.M. diasporic communities would yield positive and lasting results. It would richly enhance our interactions with people of other religious faiths and in witnessing to the neo-immigrants who move into our neighborhoods as well.

Receiving the gifts from the margins of the growing church at the global south helps us, as we strive to “update” and “recalibrate” our missional engagements, I strongly believe that mutuality in mission as a designed mission theology will fill in the gap, serve as a catalyst, and enable us to confront the current storm; for mutuality doesn’t just react to crises, but proactively prevents them.

In the final analysis, we should never hesitate to migrate from the spirit of scarcity to the spirit of abundance, from the spirit of defeat to the spirit of opportunity, from the spirit of abandonment to the spirit of empowerment, and from the spirit of helplessness to the spirit of confidence and come up with contextual theological paradigms for mission today. I am convinced that the iterative theology of mission in the 21st century is the theology of mutuality.

We are not alone in this journey. The God of the Bible is with us. This is not the first time we have gone this way before. Just as T.S.Eliot has said in his poem, The Rock, “And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.” We are reminded to break the shackles of the past and emphasize newness, openness, innovation in order to be transformed and be transforming. God’s abundant grace and assured presence is with us: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65: 17). In times such as this, may we unapologetically “account for the hope that is in us,” the grace we received in Christ (I Peter 3: 15).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Does the blogosphere reinforce white, American male privilege in the UMC?

I am a white, American, male.  In this regard, I look a lot like most bloggers in the United Methodist blogosphere.  I was reflecting on this fact after reading a post by Drew McIntye in which he questioned Jeremy Smith's critique of the proposal to close General Conference as only coming from white men and pointed out that Jeremy was himself a white man.  I thought to myself, "Here are white American men arguing with each other about their whiteness.  Isn't that how the blogosphere goes?"  I decided, as a white American man, to do some research to see how extensive the white American male perspective is in the UMC blogosphere.

I chose as my source last week's blogs posts on the Methoblog platform.  I included everything posted from Sept. 30 through Oct. 6, with the exception of posts by GBGM (which I'll talk about next week), stories from UMC (which are news, not opinion), posts from UM Insight (which are re-posts), and posts where I could not determine the gender or, if male, race of the author.  That left me with 183 blog posts written by 92 authors in the last week.

Of these 183 blog posts, 79% were written by white American men.  14% were written by white American women (and 1% by a white American woman working abroad), 2% by American women of indeterminate race, 2% by white men from the British Isles, <1% by an Asian American male (a single post), and <1% by a Filipino male (a single post).  There were 0 blogs written by African-Americans, 0 blogs written by Hispanics, and 0 blogs written by Native Americans.  Of the authors, only 76% were white American males.  This is because white American males made up a higher percentage, 84%, of the frequent bloggers (more than twice a week, the average for all bloggers).

Whichever set of numbers you use, the conclusion is clear: white, American men have a voice in the blogosphere that is about three times as great as their proportion of the UMC membership.

First, a couple of caveats, and then some interpretation.
1. Methoblog does not include all blogs written by United Methodists.  African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and UMC members from outside the US may be writing lots of posts that aren't included in Methoblog's roles.  Even if true, this still seems like an issue to me, as it means there are separate online conversations by race and nationality in the UMC.
2. I relied on pictures of people to determine their race, and racial identity is not always something that is easily identifiable by sight.  That being said, it's unlikely that I'm wrong in enough cases to significantly alter the results.
3. Sometimes people write about things other than the UMC in their blogs, and sometimes people have guest bloggers write on their blogs.  I didn't read every single blog posted.  (I do have a job.)  I did try to determine authorship of posts on multi-writer blogs.  Again, these considerations probably apply only in a few cases, and that's not likely to significantly alter the results.

Even given those caveats, the conclusion seems to remain: white American men have a voice in the UMC blogosphere that is disproportionately large compared to their percentage of the UMC membership.  Now, there are two interpretations one could take of this fact.  First, one could assume that this reflects pre-existing white American male privilege.  White American males have more access to positions of power and to technology than other groups, and this makes them more likely to write blogs.  In this interpretation, the high proportion of white American male bloggers is a result, not a cause of other forms of privilege.

A second interpretation would see this inequality as causing or reinforcing white American male privilege.  While differences in other forms of privilege may explain some of who blogs and some of who doesn't, if the blogosphere becomes a forum for decision-making in the UMC, it means that those decisions will primarily be made by white American men.  If white American men receive a disproportionate voice in making decisions because those decisions are made in the blogosphere, then the blogosphere has not only reproduced by reinforced other forms of privilege.

I'll continue investigating this issue over the next several weeks, looking next week at blogs by the General Board of Global Ministries and other official church agencies and then finally critiquing this blog and examining the collection of authors it has hosted.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Cooperative Ecumenism: Glen Messer 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. Glen Alton Messer, II, the Associate Ecumenical Staff Officer of the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. Dr. Messer also teaches Christian History and Methodist Studies and is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Messer is commenting on paragraph 54 on "global awareness," 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.

Paragraph 52 of Grace Upon Grace gives a strikingly clear statement about how United Methodists are to understand ‘ecumenism’ — and in so doing, gives important guidance as to how the relationship between mission and ecumenism is to be understood. Among those working in the field of Ecumenism, there are many variations upon what the word means. The Vatican Council II statement on the subject (the decree on ecumenism entitled, “Unitatis Redintegratio”)[1] makes clear in its name the understanding of the term from a Roman Catholic perspective — the goal of ecumenism is reintegration of Christians separated through centuries of schism. Among many Protestants of Europe and the United States, ecumenism — or “Christian unity” — has been less an institutional goal than one of varying degrees of co-operation and fellowship. Many of the social reform movements, tract societies, and Sunday school efforts in the 19th century are good examples of this practical understanding of ecumenism. Striving for greater co-operation, we find the 1910 Edinburgh Conference trying to avoid competition among Christian churches and unnecessary duplication of efforts (e.g., building one hospital instead of two, etc.). And, while the Edinburgh Conference is often mentioned as the birth of the modern Ecumenical Movement, the Conference did not push in the of direction institutional consolidation.[2] With many options for how to understand the concept, Grace Upon Grace gives some shape — with the authoritative voice of General Conference to back it up — to how to understand the goals of United Methodist ecumenism and how these relate to the work of mission and the overall life of the church.

Central to this paragraph’s “ecumenical affirmation” are ecclesiological claims regarding the basic understanding of the very nature of the meaning of “church.” It states that, “Mission is ecumenical as we seek to live in cooperation and communion with the many authentic Christian communities that God in grace calls into existence.” This is not a vision of God’s church as broken and shattered into parts because of its various institutional manifestations and groupings of people into various Christian traditions. Instead, the communities are called into being through God’s grace — as expressions of God’s creativity — with the expectation of mutual recognition of kinship in the faith and life of God in Christ Jesus. Just as God did not make only one person to be “the” Christian, neither did God make only one institutional expression of church to be “the” church. Our unity is found in God and in our living the Christian life shown to us in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Our unity is in the grace of God experienced through God’s Spirit. And so, paragraph 52 concludes, “We desire to live in communion with all who are in communion with Jesus Christ. We are thankful for all sisters and brothers in Christ and we seek unity amidst our diversity.”

In many respects, this statement expresses a positive view of God’s creativity in multiplicity (expressed in our “unity amidst our diversity”). Typical of many Wesleyans over time, United Methodists often have tended to look at the glass half-full and have held to the expectation of its being filled (to overflowing); rather than moaning that it is half-empty and that God’s calling new Christian communities into being is evidence of the shattering of the one church. What is at stake is the question of relationship. How will we live together with other Christians in faithfully giving witness to the Gospel and the active love of Christ Jesus in the world? United Methodists have expressed in this statement that they are willing to call “Christian” all those who are in “communion with Jesus Christ.” There are no doctrinal or ecclesiological litmus tests that must be performed before we are willing to extend our hand in love and fellowship towards those who are fellow laborers called by God to work for God’s Kingdom. Our energy is applied elsewhere — in the desire to heal a broken world, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and offer hope to those in despair. It is a practical sense of ecumenism, a practical sense of ecclesiology — and a practical sense of mission.

That said, this “ecumenical affirmation” is in no way a surrender of a Wesleyan Methodist identity or a timidity about expressing that identity in how we live the Christian life. Just as other Christian communities have been affirmed in their authenticity, the statement no less applies to United Methodists as well. While we can look upon this statement as declaring that we seek to embrace other Christians in an effort to co-operate in mission together, it is important to be authentic in ourselves as expressions of God’s creative grace, not hiding our light under a bushel. Unless we make ourselves “present” by offering ourselves as ourselves to others, we invite others to an empty embrace in which their arms circle around nothingness. Being United Methodists in mission and ecumenism “inseparably bound” together we need to be more than ‘polite’ — trying to draw attention away from any possible points of difference. We need to add our voices to conversations and add our ideas to co-operative efforts. Our “ecumenical affirmation” in this paragraph is a challenge to be confident in who we are and affirming of others whom God calls to the Christian life in different communities.

One of the great gifts of the Mission Movement of which we are a part — out of which Methodism came into being, in fact — is that mission work has called various communities of Christians together. The work of love has drawn us from relative isolation in our own communities to realize that the ‘scandal of disunity’ is a failure to be united in love and compassion towards all Christians, all persons, and all Creation. United Methodists in mission are engaged in the work that strives towards unity through our faithfulness in the work of ministry by which we love as Christ loves and live as Christ lives.


[1]For the full text of this document in English, please see, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html.
[2] John N. Collins, "Theology of Ministry in the Twentieth Century: Ongoing Problems or New Orientations," Ecclesiology 8 (2012), 12-13.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What is world communion?

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday in The United Methodist Church. This begs the question: What does the UMC mean when it talks about "world communion"?  We will look at three different answers in this post.

On the most practical level, World Communion Sunday is one of the six Sundays of the year that the UMC has designated as denomination-wide Special Sundays, where special offerings are collected to serve specific ministry purposes in the church.  The offerings from World Communion Sunday are split.  Half goes to scholarships for ethnic minorities in the United States; half goes to the Central Conferences outside the United States to be used for educational purposes.  This happens through three programs: the World Communion Leadership Development Program, the Ethnic Minority Scholarship Program, and the Ethnic In-Service Training Program.

On a second level, one might think about the "communion" mentioned as the sacrament of communion.  Since World Communion Sunday is on the first Sunday of the month, many United Methodist churches will be celebrating communion this Sunday.  World Communion Sunday thus becomes a chance to think about how people all over the world are celebrating communion on the same day.  This sacrament unites us on levels of both practice and theology.

This leads us to a final notion of world communion: "communion" as being joined together, as the etymology of the word would suggest.  On World Communion Sunday, we celebrate how the church around the world is joined together as one.  In the UMC, we are joined together by denominational structures and organizational and financial considerations.  We are also joined together in a spiritual sense, though.  As Jesus prayed in his petition to God for unity among his followers, "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us." (John 17:21)  We Christians are all united because we are all part of Jesus and God the Father through Jesus.  Therefore, we are connected to one another.  We might also think of the body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12 here.

The 1 Corinthians 12 passage reminds us of a corollary of this interpretation of world communion: we are joined to people who are different from us.  Perhaps that difference is, as this blog frequently highlights, a difference of culture and nationality.  Perhaps that difference is, as much of the rest of UMC blogosphere has been talking about, a difference of theology or views on sexuality.  That difference can take other forms as well.  The bottom line, though, is that if we're connected to Jesus, that also means we're connected to fellow Christians, even fellow Christians that we may not agree with or like or want to be connected to.  Yet this too is a sign of grace - that God's love, God's fellowship, God's communion is greater than we are, that the Spirit overflows our boundaries and runs into the entire world, bringing the good news with it.