Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Size, globality, and the ghost of empire

I came across an interesting tidbit in my research recently. I've been doing research on the missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), one of the precursors of the UMC. In 1900, the MEC had churches in twenty-nine countries on five continents. When investigating some other aspects of that era, I was a bit surprised to realize that this made it one of the most widely distributed human organizations on the planet at that time.

While I have not run the comparative figures for all other possible contenders (such as banks and shipping lines), and there's some fuzziness as to what exactly "most widely distributed" means, thus far I have been able to find find four other institutions with comparable or greater geographic scope: the Catholic Church, the British Empire, the French Empire, and the Eastern Telegraph Company (which may have been the most widely distributed institution of its day).

While I relished that finding for its own particular historical curiosity, it also prompted me to think anew about the current discussion about how the UMC can be a global church. It suggested two questions that I think we in the UMC need to take serious as we seek to grapple with that question:

1. What does it mean for the UMC to claim to be a global church when we are less global that our predecessor bodies were 100 years ago, while many other organizations are more so? The MEC was in the top ten, if not top five institutions for geographic coverage 100 years ago, and that's without adding in the additional countries where the MECS, MPC, EA, or UBC has a presence where there was no MEC presence. Today, even with the impressive number of countries in which UMCOR works, I doubt the UMC would make the top 100 list of human organizations with the widest geographic reach. Through the creation of autonomous Methodist churches, we have gotten smaller while so many other organizations have gotten much bigger - businesses and UN bodies, as well as INGOs and other denominations.

2. How can the UMC be a global church in a way that distinguishes itself from the Ameri-centric, colonialist approach that characterized the church during its geographic apex? One of the implications of the above paragraph is that most global = most widely distributed geographically, which may or may not be true. Still, if we do make that assumption, can we do so in ways that don't reiterate the sort of "conquering the world for Christ" ideology that too often meant "conquering the world by Americans" that characterized even the best Methodist mission thinkers of a century ago? Can we value geographic distance without feeling the need to overcome the difference entailed therein by imposing some sort of American-derived sameness?

These may not be easy questions to answer, but if we are to plot a successful path into the future, we need to take seriously the perspective provided by the past.

1 comment:

  1. We might begin to become more global if we recognized the distinction between being "universal" in the sense of "catholic" in our creed, and being "international" in the sense of participating in the present world-order of nation-states, and being "global" as in participating in movements of everything from disease to technology to religion to economic structures to worldviews across the globe in ways that confound the "international" order. As United Methodists we haven't yet fully conceptualized ourselves as part of the "catholic" church present in an international system. So we are little prepared to have agency in the midst of globalization.