Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hendrik Pieterse: Creating a “Global” or “Worldwide” Church: Does Our Language Matter?

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

As anticipated, the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA), the tome containing all legislation for the 2016 General Conference, features several proposals for more efficient denominational machinery to enable more effective witness in United Methodism’s increasingly varied ministry settings around the world. Among these are a revised “Plan UMC” (ostensibly fixing the shortcomings of the failed 2012 attempt); a substantive proposal from the Northeastern Jurisdiction (under the banner of the “NEJ Global Structure Task Force”); a couple of submissions (Northern Illinois, Wisconsin) essentially identical with the NEJ initiative; and an effort touted as “the simplest, least controversial way to move forward,” by a group laboring under the mantra “A Place of Reason UMC” (http://aplaceofreasonumc.org/). The latter three proposals presuppose the adoption of a “global” Book of Discipline (for the report and legislation about the global or “general” Discipline, see ADCA, pp. 895-901, pp. 1413-14).

Indeed, one might fairly consider the intent of these three proposals (NEJ, Northern Illinois/ Wisconsin, “Place of Reason”) to give structural shape to the logic driving the idea of a global Discipline, namely, accepting our growing cultural diversity as “a precious gift” while honoring the “essentials” that are “crucial for our Covenant and structural unity” (ADCA, p. 1413). For all three proposals, an equitable structural approach to the unity-diversity conundrum demands two moves: (1) Creating “central” or “connectional” conferences all the way down, including the United States; and (2) restricting the labor of General (or “Global Connectional”) Conference to “global” or “worldwide” issues only, employing the Global of “General” Discipline as yardstick and arbiter.

All three pieces of legislation deserve careful evaluation, but I’m not going to attempt that here. Nor will I dissect the legislation for the global Book of Discipline. Instead, I focus my musings on the language we United Methodists use to couch such solutions to our unity-diversity challenge.

Two terms have become key to our restructuring parlance over the past several years, namely, global and worldwide—with some people opting for one term over the other, while others use both interchangeably. The ADCA reports and legislation reflect these habits. For example, the NEJ proposal prefers “global,” while the Book of Discipline report and legislation (pp. 465-66, 897-901), as well as the report of the Commission on General Conference (pp. 42-46), like “worldwide.” The Connectional Table report employs both “global” and “worldwide” without differentiation (pp. 781-83).

Is anything of substance at stake in the varied, at times, indiscriminate, use of these terms? Do they convey different convictions and meanings or are they pretty much interchangeable? In short, does our language matter in this instance? I suggest that it does.

It would behoove us to devote some thought to what we intend by global and worldwide, because, while related, these terms are not the same. And getting clear on the similarities and differences in meaning and nuance can improve the analytical rigor and thoughtfulness of our unity-diversity discussions. Let me briefly illustrate.

Take the term worldwide. It is primarily a geographical term, and as such denotes the denomination’s territorial reach. However, our use of this meaning harbors an ambivalence that often goes unnoticed. On one hand, it reminds us to respect the particularities of land, soil, space—and the stories, memories, and habits that weave a particular space into a place. This use is clearly evident in the global Discipline legislation and the various reports noted earlier. On the other hand, we employ “worldwide” missionally—to denote our desire to expand the denomination’s presence around the world. The ADCA offers ready examples of this use, as well.

We would do well to ask how these two meanings should function in the understanding of our mission. In a world awash in religion—both Christian and non-Christian—expansion can quickly turn into competition. And competition—even “holy competition”—tends to dull attentiveness to the often-fragile social, political, and religious particularities of a place. In some instances, the cost of such tone-deafness can be injury to ecumenical relationships, in other instances damage to volatile interreligious balances. Either way, a great deal is at stake in being “worldwide.”

The term global encompasses what we mean by “worldwide” but adds important angles of vision we would do well to keep in mind. “Global” invokes “globalization”—and so draws attention to the transnational political, social, economic, and religious forces that connect and shape, for good or ill, the myriad places around the world in which United Methodists find themselves. The constant, often contested, negotiation between the “global” and the “local” reminds us that “global” and “local” are always intertwined in a dance of give and take, enrichment and loss, accommodation and resistance. For better or worse, as some would say, our lives are best interpreted as “glocal.”[1]

And so one wonders: How might sustained attention to this global-local dynamic prompt United Methodists to question the ease with which the legislation calls for a U.S. central conference to “deal with U.S.-centric issues” (Executive Summary, “Place of Reason”; http://aplaceofreasonumc.org/executive-summary/); or for a “Global Connectional Conference” that “will ONLY deal with global issues ...” (ADCA, p. 468); of for separating the “essentials” from the “non-essentials” in our search for a “global” Book of Discipline (ADCA, pp. 1413-14)? Would deeper awareness of our increasingly “glocal” reality not at the very least give us pause?

I trust it is clear that I’m not suggesting we quit using “worldwide” and “global” in defining our ecclesial identity. Rather, I’m suggesting we do the hard theological work of clarifying what we mean when we talk this way. It turns out our language really does matter.

[1] See Robert J. Schreiter, The New Catholicity: Theology between the Global and the Local (Orbis, 1997), esp. ch. 1.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! Picking up to lead this week's UM Insight. Thank you!