Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Commission on a Way Forward in the context of global UMC structural reform

News broke this week about plans made by the executive committee of the Council of Bishops for the Commission on a Way Forward, the group tasked with carrying out the bishops' plan approved by General Conference to try to find a resolution to highly contentious debates on homosexuality in the UMC. You can read stories on these plans from both UMNS and the United Methodist Reporter. The press release by the Council of Bishops is also available online. In short, plans call for a commission of 20-25 people chosen by the bishops by Aug. 31 to spend the next 18 months preparing for a likely called General Conference in 2018. The Council of Bishops will update the church on the work of the commission every 4-6 weeks.

The work of the commission comes at a time when the possibility of schism over issues related to sexuality seems quite real. There are three important things to keep in mind, however, when assessing the significance of the commission for the future of the denomination.

1. The commission is not just about sexuality but about structures.

Debates over sexuality are certainly the immediate cause that led to the formation of the commission. Yet, as the bishops acknowledged in their statement, "The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition."

Hence, the scope of the commission is significant: "Therefore, we should consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions, in understandings of episcopacy, in contextual definitions of autonomy for annual conferences, and in the design and purpose of the apportionment. In reflection on the two matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering 'new forms and structures' of relationship and through the 'complete examination and possible revision' of relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness."

Phrasing the scope this way seems to be an indication by the bishops that everything about how the denomination is currently structured is on the table. Certainly, this is an indication of the severity of the situation in which the UMC finds itself. Yet despite the broad mandate, there are reasons to think that the proposals by the commission may be less than completely revolutionary. Previous study commissions authorized by General Conference have felt beholden to Wesleyan frameworks of understanding the church and its ministry and the accumulated weight of Methodist tradition. That's not to say that the commission might not propose significant changes, but just to note that tradition will constrain the range of options, even given a broad scope of possibility.

2. There is other significant work going on regarding the future of UMC structures, but the various components of that work will not necessarily be coordinated.

Darryl Stephens has provided this helpful rundown of the various referrals by General Conference of work related to the global structures and forms of ministry that characterize the UMC. In Dr. Stephens' list, the Commission on a Way Forward is only one of nine separate efforts to reshape global structures. According to Dr. Stephens, these nine referrals involve seven existing entities and four new ones, including the Commission on a Way Forward.

The degree of communication or collaboration between these nine separate efforts remains to be seen. Certainly some could proceed without much collaboration (the study of US jurisdictions and the global Social Principles, perhaps), but at some level these are all grappling with parts of a larger issue: What does it mean for the UMC to be a "global church" that operates in very different local contexts while preserving some form of connectionalism?

The Commission on a Way Forward has the potential to be influenced by the work of these other groups (though timing may not allow that completely), to ignore that work and proceed entirely on its own, to preempt that work (by proposing its own solutions or by providing for the division of the denomination), or to defer to these groups and leave aspects of reforming the church's structures to them. It is hard to say which approach it will take, but it will be interesting to see.

3. Culture is a significant factor in all discussions about church structures, theology, and sexuality in a "global" denomination.

Robert Hunt recently made this point in a series of articles on this blog (Parts [1], [2]. and [3]). Simply put, while God may be outside human culture, humans are not, and thus views on church structures, theological stances, and understandings of sexuality are all influenced though not wholly determined by culture. The Commission on a Way Forward would do well to recognize this factor.

Therefore, it would behoove the commission to benefit from the insights on the role of culture in Christianity provided by the discipline of missiology. To that end, if you are so moved, write your local bishop and suggest that she or he include a missiologist on the list of names she/he submits for the commission. Then stayed tuned for Aug. 31st to find out who is appointed!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography, Defines Global Church, Part III

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 third of a three-part series. The first and second parts can be found here and here, respectively.

The problem of culture that I developed in the last blog doesn’t just apply to understandings of gender and social institutions like marriage. Institutional structures and decision making processes are also deeply influenced by culture.

The General Board of Global Ministries is now imagining itself as “an agency that comprises global mission connections. In doing so it recognizes that ours is a multi-centered world in which Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted to the Global South and East. These changes invite dialogue and mutuality among local churches, mission partners, and the world’s vulnerable people.” This means in practice establishing “global mission connections” in various sites around the world: one in South America, one in Africa, and one in Asia. Thus the GBGM will “explore mission in deeper ways through the relationships we will be able to form on the ground in key geographic regions.” (http://www.umcmission.org/learn-about-us/news-and-stories/2016/may/0506surprisingactivity)

It isn’t clear that this new structure takes seriously enough the complexity of culture. Can a  “connection" in Korea will be relevant to mission in Vietnam or Indonesia or the Philippines? The latter two countries have a wide range of languages and cultures, none of which share the worldview and situation of Korea or even one another.

Buenos Aires, the location of the Latin American connection, is a city that is far more European the Mezo-American, a place where Spanish is still spoken with an Italian accent. Argentina has virtually none of its indigenous or African slave population left.  Apart from remnants of German colonists and refugees what does it have in common with Portuguese speaking Brazil, a country with a huge Afro-Brazilian population and an extraordinary number of indigenous peoples living in Amazonia? Or with Central America and its very different political problems and peoples?

My fear is that the United Methodist church conceives of being global church in purely geographical terms rather than in terms of cultural difference.

Which returns us to decision making. An earlier blog pointed out that the customary timing of US annual and jurisdictional conferences isn’t shared world-wide. Do we realize that this difference is cultural? US Annual conferences take place when the public  school year is ending and thus pastors with families can easily move. And that in turn is tied to the agrarian economic cycles typical of the northern hemisphere - cycles that demanded that children be available to help their parents on the farm.

As I quickly learned as a missionary with the GBGM, these cycles aren’t found elsewhere in the world. Schools in Malaysia and Singapore aren’t on holiday from June to August - because they have very different cultural patterns to follow.

But it isn’t just when we meet. It is how decisions are made. The whole UMC is set up in decision making structures that are distinctly Anglo-American in culture. (What could be more Anglo-American that Robert’s Rules of Order?) These structures are significantly different from those of ethnic minorities within the US, and even more so United Methodists outside the U.S. But I have yet to see any recognition that these cultural difference make a profound difference in how decisions are made, and can be profoundly disenfranchising of individuals and whole peoples. Mere translation is a minuscule part of inclusion. No matter who attends the General Conference, its entire structure, from the daily schedule to the overall plan privileges Anglo-American culture and empowers those who have mastered it - while disempowering those who have not.

In the worlds both of global business and of multi-cultural institutions such as hospital and universities there has now been for the last 40 years intensive interest in cultural difference and how that plays out in different values as they are realized in all social settings. The work of Hofstede, Minke, and Livermore on intercultural understanding and practical intercultural team building and decision making is a commonplace in these environments. In Dallas I’m regularly asked to provide training in cultural intelligence for institutions serving diverse cultures. Global businesses, who actually sponsored a great deal of contemporary research on cultures and values, also consciously adapt to local values and decision making processes.

But as near as I can tell, not the UMC. With the exception of the Rio-Texas conference I know of no conference wide effort to insure that every UMC leader understands cross-cultural dynamics and is developing the skills to that are absolutely necessary to function effectively in a complex cultural environment. Has the council of bishops engaged in training in cultural intelligence and cross cultural relationships and values? Have the leaders of the general boards and agencies? Have any of the boards of ordained ministry in the different annual conferences? Or do they assume that Robert’s Rules will insure the openness and fairness of their deliberations?

The announcement of the reimagining of Global Ministries is interesting in this regard. It envisions global connections through regional centers. It foresees an international coaching network. It foresees expanding the number of missionaries from around the globe. It looks forward to initiatives in global health. It talks about a commitment to responsible stewardship. And not once, not once, does it mention the word “culture.” Or indeed even allude to the concept.

Coaching, Christian witness, health, stewardship: these are concepts and activities that are deeply embedded in culture and influenced by culture. But there is no mention of culture and addressing it as a specific issue. In my experience the unnamed is the unthought.

This may not end well.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography, Defines Global Church, Part II

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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography, Defines Global Church, Part I

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 first of a three-part series.

A global church must engage seriously the reality of multiple cultures, not just geographical locations and languages.

Early in my time as a missionary in Malaysia I was invited to go into central Borneo Island, about 3 days by boat, to visit an Iban community that was considering becoming Christian. They had heard the gospel from Iban Christians, including one of my students, in a nearby longhouse. But they wanted to talk to someone from the seminary.

I won’t recount the entire adventure, only this: that many of the questions they asked were more pragmatic than theological and had to with maintaining local customs. Some questions were simply part of a kind of religious bidding war. The Bahai’s promised them an electrical generator. The Muslims promised them government jobs. Methodists didn’t make any such promises, but we did have a good record of serving people’s needs.

But the kind of bargaining that was going on was only part of a much larger set of cultural differences. Our discussions took place well after 10pm, and only after the women and children had gone to bed. Their local elder had slaughtered a chicken and waved it over our heads to invoke blessings on the coming discussion. We had sipped rice wine, and then for the thirsty cases of Carlsberg beer had been broken out. We finished talking at sunrise, when men went about their work and we returned to our village by boat.

The actual decision was made the next evening when, again late at night, there was a hours long discussion by the senior members of the longhouse. And the next day the eldest member of the community, having considered everything, and having noted carefully the flights of various bird species over the longhouse for the last several days, as well as his own dreams, announced that the entire community would be baptized and become Methodist Christians. My student and his father, both licensed pastors, carried out the baptisms (several dozens) a few weeks later.

Let’s travel halfway around the world to Vienna, Austria, where for seven years I served a dominantly West African congregation made of refugees and immigrants. Once a month the African choir sang in worship. And the day before they sang they met for rehearsal and lunch, which took all of Saturday. As pastor I was interested in knowing what songs I should put in the bulletin for Sunday. They never told me. Instead they informed me that over the course of the day they had sung many songs in different languages and in the end had chosen the song leader. And the song leader, led by the Spirit, would tell us all what to sing on Sunday.

Back in Malaysia. I’m attending one of the many committee meetings that make up academic life in even a small theological school. It looks like a meeting should look. People around the table. An agenda. Multiple comments made on each item. But on each action item the chair of the committee simply announces the decision. No “I move.” No “I second.” No vote. When I first arrived in Malaysia I would have found this bizarre and irritating. But a good friend, and relative of my Chinese wife, explained the way things work. “The purpose of the committee is to ratify the decision of the chair.”

I highlight these experiences because they indicate a much larger and more complex truth: All processes of decision making are bound to culture and cultural ideas about values, who the members of the community are, and how they come to a common mind.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Kale Yu: Speaking for the Persecuted

Today's post is written by Dr. K. Kale Yu. Dr. Yu is a Lecturer in the Religion Department at High Point University, a United Methodist-affiliated institution.

On June 30, 2016, The New York Times reported that ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of a Coptic Christian priest in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The Rev. Rafael Moussa, 46, had earlier left a church in the area where he attended a church service before being gunned down on the streets. He died instantly after being shot in the head. In a message distributed on social media, the Islamic State called Moussa as a “disbelieving combatant.” The killing of Moussa represents the latest in a long line of violence against Christians in the Global South. Reports indicate that such violence has intensified in recent years.

In predominantly Muslim Egypt, Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, live as a minority and endure social prejudice and workplace discrimination. The experience of Coptic Christians in Egypt is not unusual for many Christian communities in the Global South as living as a minority and marginalized faith remains a constant. This means that such Christian communities have to embrace the stark reality that simply professing oneself a Christian courts social and legal discrimination, incarceration, and even death. As the discourse on missiology shifts to non-Western regions, many Christian communities in the Global South are linked by tenuous, existential bonds of Christian affiliation and devotion while enduring at the same time hostility not unlike the conditions facing early Christian communities that were perceived as threats to the governmental and religious authorities. For many parts of the Global South today, declaring oneself a Christian often entails a conscious commitment to a faith that threatens not only their personal security but also the livelihood of their family and relatives.

The recent shooting of Rev. Rafael Moussa exposes the challenges of developing a hermeneutical understanding in the theology of missions. Many Christians in the Global South must learn to navigate the perilous water of being a Christian in a hostile environment where enduring potential persecution remains a crucial element in one’s self-understanding of his or her Christian faith. Often relying on a hermeneutical process tied to human reasoning, Western missiological perspectives, however, generate little discussion on the unwanted yet undeniable offensive reaction the Gospel produces in many communities in the Global South. For Christians living in hostile environments, abiding in Christ comes at a cost. As militants in the Global South marshal their forces—military and ideological—into a combat position against Christian communities, vigilance against attacks has become the benchmark of their Christian experience.

In the shift of focus to the Global South, our missiological understanding of the Christian witness and the missionary nature of the church must explain not only the simple reality of the pitfalls that come with Christian faith but also equip believers with methodologies to navigate through societies that labels them as “disbelieving combatants.” The absence in speaking, clarifying, or guiding believers in what is becoming heightened antagonism toward Christians in the Global South underscores the incomprehensibility of evil, and it also points to the inadequacy of missiological approaches to convey the realities and magnitude of developing events in the Global South. The silence on this topic is not confined to Western missiologists, but extend to Christian leaders in the West who feel discomfort in broaching the issue altogether, as if it undermines the edifice of Christian conceptualization. Perhaps the baggage of colonialism continues to weigh on Western missiologists and engaging the subject does not fit within intellectual framework, but we are reminded that many Christians in the Global South live in a fraught existential nature that demands our attention at a most crucial time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Recommended Reading: Rosemarie Wenner - "How We Learn to Argue"

In a blog post last week, I suggested the following: "I think that greater reporting on these annual conferences [outside the US] could also remind Americans of an important truth: annual conferences are not and should not be just about politics. They're also times for revival, renewal, worship, and fellowship."

As it so happened, later that day I came across a piece written by Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner about how Methodist conferences can be a place to learn how to disagree as Christians, not just conduct business. I have translated it below for our English-speaking readers. The original German can be found here.

How We Learn to Argue
By Bishop Rosemarie Wenner
In Methodism, Annual Conference is not only a place for business meetings. Rather, we can allow God’s grace to flow through conversations that we have in Christian community. We should practice this and create the social space in which we can learn speech that builds up and constructive arguing.

Four conferences lie behind me. Three happened in various corners of Germany. The General Conference met in the northwest US. As different as the places and the external circumstances were, in all conferences we came to the unifying theme: How do we live out the mission of the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ in a constantly changing world?

Whether these were good conferences or not will be determined by how this impulse is taken and put into action. At General Conference, “Christian Conferencing” was often spoken of. This term, which goes back to John Wesley, is difficult to translate. We need not incorporate the awkward phrase “Christliches Konferenzieren” into our language. We should, however, practice the culture of dialogue that it signifies. John Wesley expected that we could let God’s grace flow through conversations that we have in Christian community. He formulated the following guiding questions:

“Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is that we build our conversation aright? Is it filled with grace? Is it seasoned with salt? Are we endeavoring to offer grace to our listeners? Are we speaking too long on a given subject? As a rule, is not an hour long enough? Would it not be good to prepare for our conversation? And to pray before and after?”

The conferences are over. The dialogue process goes on. In north Germany, there are committees that will begin to work on the questions identified about the future. In east Germany, congregations are busying themselves with the question of how to reach out with less baggage to people in their neighborhoods. And in south Germany, the districts are taking the visions for the future sketched by the District Superintendents to direct the work of the congregations accordingly.

Church as a place of learning for society
The question of how unity in diversity can succeed concerns us not only on a world-wide scale. In the larger political sphere and in our everyday lives, we encounter many situations in which words fuel conflict. We urgently need room in which we can learn speech that builds up and constructive arguing. This also means that we name our feelings and conflicting interests and search for good compromises. If we learn these practices in the church, it will also benefit our wider surroundings.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Global inequalities in annual conference scheduling and the Methodist news cycle

As any reporter knows, there are cycles to the news - periods when stories are more frequent and more significant, and periods when there are fewer stories and/or stories of less significance. While I'm not a reporter, I have discovered over the past several years of running this blog and its associated Twitter account, that there are also cycles to global Methodist news (news about Methodists working together across national boundaries, news about Methodists outside the US, and/or news about Methodists interacting with international issues, either internal or external to the church).

Within that cycle of global Methodist news, June is a slow month. Sure, there have still been stories the last month about the work of Methodists around the globe and stories about international issues such as immigration that affect the church, but the volume is less than other times of year. Undoubtedly this decrease is because much of the attention is focused on more local and regional news coming out of the annual conferences happening in June. Yet if one pushes a little farther on this observation, it becomes apparent how this lull in global Methodist news in June is actually a reflection of geographic inequalities in the United Methodist Church.

First, it's important to point out which annual conferences are meeting in June and which aren't. All of the American annual conferences met between late May and the end of June, mostly in the first two weeks of June. Yet few of the annual conferences from the central conferences met then. Many of those annual conferences already met, earlier in the spring. Thus, the lull in global UMC news in June is because much of the denominational apparatus is focusing on the US for several weeks, more so even than it usually does.

This focus on the US would not necessarily be a problem, but this year's news cycle highlights the significant implications of this schedule of annual conferences especially in years when General Conference has been held. It's not that no annual conferences have taken actions in the past several weeks that will have implications for the denomination as a whole. Varying resolutions on sexuality and reproduction taken by several annual conferences undoubtedly will. It's that it's only American annual conferences which have been meeting and taking those actions.

Thus, the scheduling of annual conferences ends up reinforcing American dominance of the denomination and the link between General Conference and American issues. Not only do the sorts of things that come up at General Conference tend to reflect a particularly American set of cultural understandings, values, and battles, Americans are then given the first chance to react to those issues through annual conferences and thus shape how decisions at General Conference will play out in the life of the denomination.

While the seemingly obvious answer to this problem is to change the schedule of annual conferences, there are dangers here as well. Requiring annual conferences from the central conferences to meet in June is imposing an American standard that may not fit realities in different contexts. Scheduling American annual conferences at more greatly varying times would be another solution, but the situation noted above would still create an incentive for conferences who want to have greater influence to meet in June, just as American states jockey for influential spots in the schedule of presidential primaries and caucuses.

One thing that could make a significant impact regardless of scheduling changes is better and more extensive reporting on annual conferences in the central conferences and the decisions taken there. There is already some of that, but there could be more. I think that greater reporting on these annual conferences could also remind Americans of an important truth: annual conferences are not and should not be just about politics. They're also times for revival, renewal, worship, and fellowship. These elements are also worth a story or two.