Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. It is the second of a three-part series. The first part can be found here.
In the previous blog I described three processes of decision making from outside the West. All western structures for making decisions are equally a product of culture and cultural assumptions. And there is simply no reason that the various cultures of the modern west should be privileged in determining key values, who makes up the membership in the church community, and how decisions about the community will be made.
Yet that is what the United Methodist church, in its long history of colonial domination of Methodists outside the US, has done. It has privileged its values, its rules of order and its form of community discipline over all other cultural forms of decision making and discipline.
We pretend to be global church, but the designation is purely geographical, because so long as our decision making processes are carried out under the illusion that our patterns of decision making are somehow a-cultural and universal we are really just a Western church with colonies worldwide.
Will this be changed by the recent decision of the General Board of Global Ministries to reorganize into regional centers across the globe? Or by the shift in the majority of General Conference delegates to those outside the US?
I doubt it. What appears absent in the GBGM announcement, as was entirely absent in the recent General Conference debates, is the recognition that the UMC is made up of a complex plurality of cultures and that cultural difference does and must pervade all our decision making.
Let me offer some examples.
In the extensive debates about same-sex marriage and ordination both “traditionalists” and “progressives” have worked within and debated within the same dichotomy of “modern/postmodern” versus “traditional.” References to the world outside the US, when they were made at all, were sweeping; treating Africa, Asia, and Europe as mere extension of American theological traditionalism, aka orthodoxy. It is as if the whole world is theologically divided between the modern and the non-modern, and other cultural differences are irrelevant. As if the whole evangelical - liberal debate in the West was determinative of the coming shape of global Christianity.
This has been particularly true with regard to the majority that now controls the General Conference. It is perfectly willing to allow the continuation of a structure that grants central conferences the privilege of adapting the discipline to their contexts, but refuses to make the United States, or its regions, into similar central conferences. Why? It appears to me that this is the continual privileging of the US context as the universal context of theology struggle (between orthodoxy and modernity). Other people have cultures that vary. We have the universal.
This is a bogus understanding of the United States and the West more generally. Serious social scientists know that we are a nation of different cultures. The recent work of Colin Woodard on America’s Nations is just one example. But the General Conference, as well as advocates on both sides, have thus far has steadfastly refused to recognize culture as a factor in understandings of marriage.
I expect we’ll quickly discover that those cultural differences we have steadfastly ignored are relevant. American United Methodism’s acceptance of divorced clergy and bishops is unlikely to be accepted in cultures for whom divorce and remarriage is unacceptable. (It is completely unacceptable in the churches I served in Southeast Asia) At the same time polygamy, unacceptable in American culture, is acceptable in many African Christian cultures. Different cultures have different constructions of gender and gender roles, and these influence both family structure and responsibility in ways that are bound to affect ideas about marriage and child rearing among clergy and laity.
In the end agreement between American traditionalists and United Methodists in the rest of the world on same-sex marriage will prove to be a superficial cover over substantive cultural differences regarding gender, gender roles, child rearing, and structures of authority in the family. The same can be said of superficial agreements between American progressives and such allies as they find in Europe and parts of Latin America.