Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Advocacy vs. Charity, Part III

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the third of a three-part series.

Our perplexities with advocacy arise primarily because we are offered either charity or advocacy as a missional choice. These two are perceived as mutually exclusive. Since many of our United Methodist constituents are preoccupied with this duality, dichotomy, and double with their favored mission principles and practices, it is imperative to scrap this unfair duality between advocacy and charity, and replace it with missional reality, scriptural faithfulness, and life-enhancing practicality. It can be achieved by creating and practicing a theology of advocacy.

Practicing advocacy takes into consideration the agency of the victims of injustices themselves as they engage in resisting and addressing the barriers and systems that deny abundant life to them.

Charity engages participants in a ministry of care and it facilitates space and means for providing their needs.  Advocacy, on the other hand, addresses the root causes of the problem of victimization, and stands in solidarity with the victims in their resistance and struggle towards wholeness.

Charity and advocacy may complement each other in their common goal and caring engagement of the weak and voiceless, but one should keep in mind that charity serves as anodyne alleviating the pain. Advocacy’s goal is to eradicate the root causes that continue to create the pain.

Advocacy is far reaching and all encompassing. It gives hope to the victims for a long haul. It is time consuming and a slow process, but it will not cease until the cause of its engagement is fully addressed.

We live in a world that is all too familiar with the template for the treatment of "the other." It is a grievous offence to refuse to comply with or show any form resistance in the face of oppressive and capricious institutions and decrees. All too often, it is a capital offence in some parts of the world. Charity plays a maimed role in such a context. Ministering with those victims and taking measures to address the root causes of the problems alone would give victims hope, as such an endeavor that would lead to transformation to recreate their future.

Hope is a thing with feathers
Emily Dickinson defines hope in concise dexterity: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Many well-meaning Christians don’t hesitate to identify with victims of abuse by journeying with them and sharing meals and means. Yet the root causes of the problems go unaddressed. Survivors of oppression get stuck in a limbo due to the lack of a sponsor to advocate for them. To be honest, in so many cases victims don’t need our tears but outrage and response against injustice, loss of dignity, and oppressive human or institutional cruelty.

It is simple and plain that when people are homeless or hungry or forcefully displaced, they lack more than shelter from the elements. Being a migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. What they are lacking is a stable life, a secure place, and a recognizable identity among others which charity cannot provide.

Public witness to the Gospel through advocacy work and active partnership with allies who share our values would be the way to effectively engage in mission today. Vatican II, a historic Roman Catholic mission conference, urged Christians everywhere to collaborate with secular partners in ways to improve the lot of humanity by building bridges even with those who question our beliefs. It said, "The church sincerely professes that all people, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live."

The United Methodist Church, through its mission boards and agencies is undoubtedly involved in such a ministry. But many of our constituents are bowling alone. They belong to fewer community-oriented organizations and are increasingly atomized, anomic, and apathetic subjects of the community rather than active participants within it. Our voice in public leverage and how to shape humans into transformative agents should never be limited or accrued to just a few tiers of our denomination. It should be picked up from annual conference to local church level.

In the final analysis, advocacy is not only our ecclesial modus operandi, but a timeless missional practice as well.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Steven Ybarrola - Response to Wonder, Love and Praise

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Dr. Steven J. Ybarrola, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Let me begin my reflection on the “Wonder, Love, and Praise” document by situating myself in this conversation. I am a secularly trained anthropologist (PhD Brown University) who taught 15 years at a loosely church-affiliated liberal arts college, and for the past 11 years have been teaching anthropology and missiology at a Wesleyan theological seminary (Asbury). Therefore, I approach this document more from a theologically-informed social scientific perspective than a social scientifically-informed theological one. Also, I am not a member of the United Methodist Church, so approach the document from a critical outsider’s perspective, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I am not encumbered by longstanding theological discussions and divisions within the denomination when it comes to the topics covered. The disadvantage is obviously the same—I am not evaluating the document based on issues that the UMC may have been dealing with for some time now. What follows is an anthropologically and missiologically Wesleyan-informed outsider’s perspective on this important document.

Based on my reading, I find this document to be a positive attempt to deal with the global diversity found within the Body of Christ. As the demographic shift has taken place from the West to the Majority World as far as the growth and expansion of Christianity is concerned, churches like the UMC, which tend to be declining in the West but growing, and in some cases thriving, in the Majority World, have had to come to terms with how to deal with this cultural diversity. This document, “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” seems to be a welcome response to this demographic shift of Christianity (though I will leave that final judgment to my brethren in the Majority World).

Following the teaching of Christ, and given the limits of space, let me concentrate on love. The document does a very nice job of pointing out that the UMC is but one manifestation of the Church universal, and as such, needs to take a humble and loving approach to our brothers, sisters, and their respective denominations, when it comes to working together in the missio Dei. The mission of God is not confined to any one denominational expression or understanding of God, but is what should unite us, even while we acknowledge and appreciate our different practices and, to some extent, beliefs. As the document states, “We might want to say, then, that, theologically understood, the church is not an association of like-minded individuals serving purposes they may have devised for themselves. Instead, it is a community established by God, grounded in the very life of God, an aspect of the new creation” (lines 400-403). The ecumenical focus of the document is refreshing, emphasizing as it does our unity as the Body of Christ without sacrificing or watering down the key elements of what it means to be the church in our contemporary global context.

The tension between our unity in Christ and our cultural/theological differences is a key theme in the document. As an anthropologist, this is a tension I am quite familiar with, as anthropologists distinguish between the emic (i.e., experience-near) and etic (i.e., experience-distant) in our research and analysis (see Geertz 1983 for an anthropological discussion of this distinction, and Priest 2006 for a more theological discussion).

The Scottish theologian and missiologist cited in the document, Andrew Walls, cogently discusses this tension by delineating the “Indigenizing Principle” and the “Pilgrim Principle.” Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with Walls’ distinction, but let me briefly outline each of these as I believe it gets at an important element that this document is addressing. The indigenizing principle as Walls describes it is the idea of “[t]he impossibility of separating an individual from his or her social relationships and thus from his or her society [which] leads to one varying feature in Christian history: the desire to ‘indigenize,’ to live as a Christian and yet as a member of one’s own society, to make the Church…‘A place to feel at home’” (1996, 7).

In other words, when people become Christians they do so within their sociocultural context, and as such become Christians within that particular understandings of the world. This may be referred to as the “particular” aspect of the gospel—to truly take root it must always be understood within its local sociocultural environment. But Walls continues that we as Christians should never feel too much at home in these environments, because we are also called to something greater, to see ourselves as pilgrims in whatever sociocultural context we find ourselves. He states,

Along with the indigenizing principle which makes his faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system….Not only does God in Christ take people as they are; He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be” (1996, 7).

This can be understood as the “universal” nature of the gospel, that the Kingdom of God calls us to be countercultural in whatever context we find ourselves, and unites us with believers from all over the world and from very different cultural backgrounds.

What this calls for, and which the document acknowledges (lines 107-109, and elsewhere), is an intentional reflexivity. As culturally different believers in the Kingdom of God we must be willing not only to learn from each other, but we must also be willing to take a critical look at our own beliefs and practices in light of how God is working in these different contexts. This has been one of the great blessings, and challenges, I have had in teaching students from different parts of the world, as well as traveling to different parts of the Majority World. Interacting with these believers has made me realize how deeply affected I have been by a modernist view of the world which, among other things, focuses on the material over the spiritual. I recall sitting in the international airport in Nairobi after participating in a consultation with believers from different contexts in east Africa, and feeling like a fraud because what I said I believed was just a shadow of what the Christians I interacted with had actually experienced. This is one of the real advantages of being reflexive in the context of world Christianity.

I’m certain there are constructive criticisms to be made of the “Wonder, Love, and Praise” document, some of which I’ve read and appreciated, but from a critical outsider perspective I believe the document is a positive step forward for the UMC as it struggles to maintain its unity not only as a denomination, but with Christianity globally, amidst the tremendous cultural and theological diversity that makes up the Body of Christ worldwide.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Advocacy vs. Charity, Part II

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the second of a three-part series.

Physicist Richard Feynman once asked, “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” He answered it himself saying, “I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

If a similar question can be asked about Christian mission today, “What single sentence or statement that would encapsulate Christian mission engagement in 21st century?” my response would be: Mission-Advocacy.

Unlike charity, which has been widely practiced and decorously promoted, advocacy does not get much fanfare or accolade today. It is not often preached about from the pulpits. Not much has been written about theology of advocacy. Confusion between the missional function of charity and missional task of advocacy abound. Hence, I would like to outline the importance of the creation of a theology of advocacy and the preclusion of charity and advocacy as binary division.

When I say theology of advocacy, I mean a theology of engagement, a communal activity, and a mobilized movement; a theology that would define advocacy from a biblical and theological perspective by seeking its place in the world which is a God’s intended entity not yet consummated; a theology that would help us faithfully engage in the public square, just like Moses, Joseph, Esther, and others did during Old Testament time; a theology that would help us actively witness to the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, just like Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, and others did during the New Testament time.

Advocacy theology versus theology of advocacy
Theology of advocacy is different from advocacy theology, which is highly accommodationist. Its terms of agenda are often set by those outside of the faith community and from there it works its way back into the church community.

Theology of advocacy, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in the very fabric of our biblical heritage. It is not just a bit of software in its operational function but a vital part of our ecclesial habitus and an integral component of our church’s mission. It cannot be easily uprooted or exchanged for a hydroponic version.

Christian advocacy, as mission principle, is habitually misunderstood primarily because of the absence of a theological rationale or biblical underpinning. The failure to articulate advocacy’s foundational characteristic that is rooted in the Bible and its lack of cohesive theological articulation is the root cause of its current predicament.

Proponents of advocacy work must make sure that charitable acts could never  be set against the vital role of advocacy work. The focus of charitable activities is to address the immediate needs, which is undeniably important in all crises situations. But relief work should not be used as a substitute from remedying long term suffering often caused by unfair structural policies and practices. Finding and working toward a permanent solution to end needless human pain, exploitation and travail should be the aim and goal of mission, not just a band-aid ministry.

Advocacy is not anti-Charity. Much like the poor, the rich and powerful have always been with us. Violence, injustice, all forms of oppression should make everyone at least a teensy bit nervous just as poverty and homelessness does. Both the victim and perpetrator should be given an opportunity to respond to the Gospel.

Advocacy is not antigovernment. Rather, it invites and revives major structures of power, including governments, as dynamic agents of change. It may move with glacial pace, but it is deep, effective and long-lasting.

Many in our time are ready and willing to donate a large amount of money, time and resources to alleviate hunger and eradicate killer diseases. They are doing this at a much younger age and take a much more hands-on approach. They want to save the world right now. But they are more into charity than change, more alleviation than transformation; more lineal and amalgamation than vertical and assimilation.

Our core mission, therefore, ought to be to sound the alarm about how even the best intentioned among us are engaged in only band-aid ministry, and fail to address the root causes of unnecessary human desolation.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity - The Free Methodist Church

This is the third in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies.

“How big should a global Book of Discipline be? And how big should regional units that craft contextual polity be?” Those are two questions that a comparison between the Free Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church begs, especially when The Wesleyan Church is also included in the comparison.

The Free Methodist Church originated in 1860, led by B. T. Roberts and constituted from members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The church spread to Canada in 1874 and overseas to India in 1881. Work in Africa and Latin America soon followed. Today, the denomination includes over 1.5 million members in 88 countries around the world. Over 90% of these members live outside North America, with large portions in Africa and Asia.

In many ways, the global polity of the Free Methodist Church is similar to that of The Wesleyan Church, profiled in last month’s piece on comparative global Wesleyan polity. Like The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church is composed of annual conferences (or districts in Wesleyan Church lingo), which are grouped into multiple General Conferences, all of which relate to one World Conference (or International Conference in Wesleyan Church lingo). The Free Methodist Church does not have Regional Conferences as an intermediate step towards becoming an independent General Conference, as in The Wesleyan Church. Instead, it has regional fellowships of independent General Conferences in the same geographic area of the world for the sake of camaraderie and coordination.

Free Methodist General Conferences can be smaller than those in The Wesleyan Church – only 5,000 members are required to form a General Conference. Consequently, there are more of them than in The Wesleyan Church. The Free Methodist Church has 13 General Conferences and two provisional General Conferences. Each has its own Book of Discipline. Free Methodist General Conferences are led by 1-3 bishops per General Conference.

Also like The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church has a common core that is affirmed by all General Conferences and thus binding on all Free Methodists around the world. For Free Methodists, this common core includes two chapters that are included in all Free Methodist Books of Discipline. The first contains a series of theological statements. The second includes rules about General Conferences, the World Conference, the international Council of Bishops, and the process for amending these two chapters.

For United Methodists, this two chapter constitutional core to the various Free Methodist Books of Discipline may make some think of the process of creating a United Methodist “global Book of Discipline.” The global Book of Discipline is an effort underway in the UMC to identify essential parts of the current UMC Book of Discipline which should be binding on all United Methodists everywhere and designate these as a General Book of Discipline. All other current provisions, especially those related to national property laws or specific national programmatic practices, would be left to regional bodies to determine.

Yet the Free Methodists, The Wesleyan Church, and The United Methodist Church have taken different approaches to understanding what constitutes the most important elements that should be shared by denominational compatriots around the world. For both the Free Methodist Church and The Wesleyan Church, the answer is that what’s absolutely essential for everyone in the denomination to share is some basic theological affirmations and an understanding of how they will relate to each other. As noted, for the Free Methodist Church, this core is presented in the first two chapters of all Books of Discipline, which is about three dozen pages of material. For The Wesleyan Church, this comes down to about two dozen pages of material contained in the “Charter of the International Conference of The Wesleyan Church.”

By contrast, even the stripped down General Book of Discipline in the UMC will still contain material from all six parts of the current Book of Discipline, the last part itself split into seven chapters. Work is still ongoing in developing the General Book of Discipline, yet the final product will likely come to over 200 pages, nearly twenty times as long as the common material for The Nazarene Church. Clearly, the UMC is opting for a much larger body of shared policies and procedures. There are advantages and disadvantages to such an approach, but the examples of the Free Methodists and Wesleyans should lead United Methodists to ask themselves what the advantages of a much larger shared body of policy are.

The size of the shared core of theology and polity is one question, and the size of the body elaborating the contextual aspects of theology and polity is another. For Free Methodists, these are the General Conferences and Provisional General Conferences. They are constituted on a national basis, and thus there are many of them, though not all national branches of the Free Methodist Church have become (Provisional) General Conferences. As noted, General Conferences can be as small as 5,000 people, though most are larger than this – in the 10,000s of members. In The Wesleyan Church, the General Conferences and Established National or Regional Conferences that write their own Books of Discipline can be either national or trans-national. A General Conference must have at least 15,000 members.

While this is still in progress, the bodies that will be adding contextual material to the General Book of Discipline in the UMC are likely to be the Central Conferences, which can be either national or transnational bodies. While there is no theoretical threshold membership level to become a central conference, in practice the smallest are Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference and the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, both of which have just over 15,000 members. For comparison, the largest, the Congo Central conference, has 2.2 million members. The five US Jurisdictions, ranging from about a half million to over two million members in size, may be given similar authority (though creation of a new US-wide body is also an option). Such a practice is actually prohibited in the Free Methodist Church, which does not allow for more than one General Conference (and thus more than one contextual polity) in a single nation.

Looking at these three models, then, there are two correlated dimensions to the question of the bodies creating contextual polity: whether such bodies need be limited by national borders and whether it is possible to have multiple contextual polities within a single nation. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to various answers. Nation states are not God-given, but their legal and political frameworks provide a reasonable set of contextual factors around which to adapt polity. Once these two questions are answered, then the question of size becomes in large part a practical matter based on the number of adherents within a particular subnational, national, or multi-national region.

Since the UMC is in the process of creating its General Book of Discipline, these comparative lessons from the Free Methodist Church and The Wesleyan Church are timely ones, and we would do well to learn from our sibling denominations.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Advocacy vs. Charity, Part I

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the first of a three-part series.

As we rumble along the potholed 21st century mission road, and when we look at the expansive landscape of God’s worldwide community and smell and inhale the overwhelming love of Jesus Christ for the whole of God’s creation, one resounding message the hurting world expects to hear from the church is this: “We see you; we truly care about you. We will not normalize destitution; we will not substitute Christian charity as a response to violence, oppression, inequality, and injustice.”

The overwhelming need of the hour is not being more religious but being more humane to listen to the cry of the victims of abuse and exploitation both in our own backyard and beyond; not to be more dogmatic in our belief but to demonstrate our commitment to Jesus Christ through active intervention for the weak and standing in solidarity with the exploited in hours of their greatest susceptibility. By doing so, we indeed join the throngs of biblical advocates like Joseph, Moses, Nathan, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther, Paul, Apollos, and numerous others for humane and compassionate treatment of the strangers and neo-neighbors among us.

Why Advocacy?
Accordingly, as a denomination we work for the healing of the nations, raise awareness, initiate changes, and organize group actions to alleviate human suffering for a long haul starting from the local church. Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscape, a WCC document, affirms, “Advocacy for justice is no longer the sole prerogative of national assemblies and central offices but a form of witness which calls for the engagement of local churches…churches must help in identifying the everyday choices that can abuse and promote human rights, gender justice, climate justice, unity and peace. Local churches’ grounding in everyday life gives them both legitimacy and motivation in the struggle for justice and peace.”

This process would carry Christians from being mere gratified charitable relief workers to ardent agents of advocacy mission to cause societal changes and assist all those who are negatively affected by oppressive institutional systems or exploitative political structures.

Such an advocacy work will not limit us in running a food pantry or providing an after-school program. It will take us to a place where we will be active and engaged and enable us to influence laws, public policy, and resource allocation within political, economic, and social systems and institutions—more importantly, structures that directly and powerfully affect the lives of the people. This advocacy mission process will move the church from “what is” as a community to coming one closer to “what ought to be,” residents of the kingdom of God.

Normalizing charity or advocacy?
There is a fundamental difference between charity and advocacy. The former is the translator of the gospel; the latter is the interpreter of the Gospel. In Sweet Charity, Janet Poppendieck writes that charity acts as “a sort of a ‘moral safety valve.’” It reduces the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it.  It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to [inequity and injustice].” Essentially, charity robs one’s identity and fosters a dependent, paternalistic, donor-donee paradigm.

Charity injures human dignity as it fosters and perpetuates inequality. Most importantly, charity does little to change the unjust social and political systems that breed and foster injustice. Unlike advocacy that stands for justice, charity offends no one, including the perpetrator. William Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in NY City, had aptly said, "Charity must not be allowed to go bail for justice.” Vatican II fittingly depicted, “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.”

Advocacy has been a key ingredient in migrant mission concerns both yesterday and today. It is never more important than in today’s worldwide diasporic context where the victims are impelled by forces within themselves, their families and their communities that feel so furtive, even unspeakable.

An eye on the forest and another on the tree
The ministry of advocacy is less direct. One may not find immediate emotional, spiritual or missional gratification. It is a slow process and laborious mission. It takes time to get results. At times, it may not even lead the workers to have contact with people or communities in need to see the transformative change or end result first hand. Yet it addresses the root causes of the problem and generates a lasting result which embraces all involved.

Advocacy is goal-oriented and calls for a plan and preparation to correct an unfair or harmful situation that negatively affect individuals or a community. Acts of advocacy usually challenge large institutions or unfair power structure or legislation to correct their unfair or harmful behavior. Hence advocacy employs persuasion through political or legal action which some deem and detest as un-Christian or deeply political. The truth is that this is a truly biblical act just as the prophets of old such as Elijah, Samuel, and Nathan have done.

The outcome of advocacy ministry is totally unpredictable and is riddled with trials and challenges. Unlike charity work, advocacy mission is not for novices and the ill-prepared. Not everyone can thrive in this mission and ministry. It needs specialized skills and deep commitment to remain steadfast until after everyone else leaves. Novices need not apply.

Advocacy keeps an eye on the forest while working on the trees one at a time. Hence, one needs to develop a detailed blue-print based on the knowledge of who the opponents and who the alliances are.

Charity mission work can be carried out with a smaller budget, fewer volunteers and limited donation or resources. Over the long run, charity cloys. Advocacy needs multiple partners and warrants specialized skills. The challengers of advocacy mission are well-prepared waiting in the tall grass; there is a great deal of risk involved. Many persist in advocacy work because they believe they can make a difference and together they can bring transformation.

Whether it’s ending homelessness or working to protect global-level human rights, each of us is driven by our commitment to mission and call to take a take a stand. Advocacy, I submit, affirms there is another way as it enables us to stand for what we know to be true and just.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: A place where all my friends are welcome, Part II

Today's piece is written by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It is the second of a two-part series.

In my last post, I laid out the challenges posed by the changes between the context in which Wesley read scripture and the context in which we live. In this post, I will use those insights to address the question, “How can we remain faithful to our Wesleyan heritage and communicate the Gospel in a way that will be heard by the nones and dones?”

In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated grew in America from 16.1 to 22.8 in only seven years, representing approximately 65 million people.[1] In the same year Millennials surpassed Boomers as the largest age group in America.

Rather than the church impacting Millennials on its moral stance, the church is viewed as judgmental and hypocritical, driving people away from organized religion. Millennials want a church that unifies rather than divides and where all their friends are welcome. In a 2016 report entitled “Why the “Nones” Left Religion Behind,” 20% of the respondents reported a dislike for organized religion, meaning that they affirmed statements such as “I see religious groups as more divisive than uniting,” and “I think that more harm has been done in religion than in any other area.”[2] This is one of the main reasons that young people who self-identify with the categories of “nones” and “dones” continues to grow.

Some observers of the decline of church affiliation may argue that this is the purification of the church and that it is scriptural (i.e. the parable of the narrow gate in Matthew 7:13). However, from an evangelistic position the church is charged with proclaiming the gospel, and it is important to acknowledge that something about us is impeding the communication of the message. The nones and dones are completely turned off by the institutional church and have no appetite for organized religion.

Just as John and Charles asked the first Methodist conference in 1744 “what to teach,” we, too, in the Wesleyan tradition are invited to use the same theological resources at our disposal and offer the Good News in a way that Millennials can hear and receive the message. Obviously, what we have been doing isn’t working as Americans, especially young people, are abandoning the institutional church at alarming numbers.

According to GCF&A between 2005 and 2015 attendance at UM churches is declining by an average of 52,383 people per year.[3] In 2015 economist Donald House told a combined group of the Connectional Table and the GCF&A: “By 2030, the denomination in the United States will either have found a way to turn around, meaning it is growing, or its turnaround in the United States is not possible.”[4]

And these numbers were calculated before the election of Karen Oliveto as bishop and the 2017 decision of Judicial Council stating that the election was against church law. Unfortunately, these high-profile cases are what get publicized in the secular press and this hardline stance can be interpreted as being judgmental—further alienating Millennials.

The theological methodology of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is still a common heritage to a divided denomination. In spite of differing interpretations, I hope that all United Methodists can agree that Scripture, tradition, reason and experience are authoritative sources. Perhaps, we might differ on interpretation of Scripture and the order or weight placed on the sources, but I hope we can agree that they all have a place in our theological methodology. This is a common heritage that unites us and can keep us at the table.

I believe that our greatest divide is that certain sectors give more primacy to Scripture and tradition, while other sectors place more authority with experience and reason. These tendencies might be representative of the values of Boomers and Millennials, which generally live within modernist (belief in the Truth) vs. post-modernist (truth is relative) views toward authority.

I believe that these two sectors and values don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We can honor everyone’s experiences and engage in respectful dialogue. Using Paul’s metaphor for the church in 1st Corinthians 12:26 teaches us that “If one part suffers, every part suffers…” We can hold these different perspectives in creative tension and listen to the experience of the other. Similarly a “house divided against itself cannot stand.”[5] A house—just like the Quadrilateral—needs all four sides. The Quadrilateral keeps us whole and allows God to reveal to us through all four theological sources. We need the wisdom of Scripture and tradition, while we also need to listen to the value of experience and reason to interpret Scripture according to new information and the current context.

At the same time, the church needs the perspective of church members who are Boomers, as well as those who are Millennials. The Holy Spirit speaks to our heart through all four sources and can speak to us through the experience of another. When we stop listening we put up walls as barriers that impede God’s revelation to us. All the sources give us check and balance in our theological interpretation. While I can hear God’s voice speaking to me through the wisdom literature, I can also hear God speaking through the testimony of a Central Conference brother or sister and a member of the LGBT community. It is very difficult to maintain this creative tension, but God calls us to be the unified body of Christ.

As a professor of Mission and Evangelism, I attempt to teach seminary students to be culturally competent, work across cultural boundaries and communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that it can be received and understood. A closed-minded stance in our theological method and interpretation may hinder how we communicate that message for future generations of Americans.

I would hate for The United Methodist Church to miss the opportunity to “spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land” to a growing sector of the U.S. population—especially the younger generations of nones and dones. God is alive and continues to work through the Holy Spirit and reveal to us through the four sources of the Quadrilateral and through the experience of others.

John Wesley preached in his sermon on the “Catholic Spirit:” “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” Let us remain open to listen to God through all theological sources and remain open to each other’s experiences—to create a place where we can say “all my friends are welcome.”


[1] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015 accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
[2] Pew Research Center, “Why the “nones” left Religion Behind,” August 24, 2016, accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/
[3] Heather Hahn, “Economist: Church is in Crisis by Hope Remains,” UM News, May 20, 2015, accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis
[4] Ibid.
[5] Matthew 12:25

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Hearing the Scriptures

Today's post is the fourth of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In this series we’ve been exploring the problem taking a contextual theology and placing it into a connectional polity. The purpose of contextual theology is making Scripture relevant to the context of Christian faith, witness, and ministry. We have looked at Wesley’s practice of “searching the Scripture,” which consists of reading, meditating, and hearing. Reading and mediating on Scripture are indeed acts of piety but they are also the initial acts of contextualization. This time we’ll look at hearing as a way of trying to alleviate the tension between contextuality and connectionalism.

Ideally, Wesley wanted Methodists to attend the hearing of Scripture every morning not just with an act of devotion, but with an act of worship. The math is simple. One reader plus one hearer equals two and when they invoke the promised presence of Jesus that equals three. This is basic ecclesial math. But, the move Wesley makes here is much more profound. It is the return of the individual and her devotional reading of Scripture back into the community to hear and be heard. For United Methodists today, this means moving from a contextual reading of Scripture to a connectional understanding of hearing it read to us by other people and in return their hearing us read to them. We may read locally but we must listen globally. So, what facilitates global listening?

First, Scripture is most at home when being heard. For over 1400 years that was the primary way of being exposed to Scripture and was meant to be read aloud to an eager and listening community.  Hearing is a communal act and Christianity is a social religion; social religion is constitutively relational and ultimately a connectional religion.

"Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it. By Christianity I mean that method of worshipping God which is here revealed to [humankind] by Jesus Christ. When I say this is essentially a social religion, I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all without society, without living and conversing with other men. And in showing this I shall confine myself to those considerations which will arise from the very discourse before us. But if this be shown, then doubtless to turn this religion into a solitary one is to destroy it." (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth,” ¶ I.1.)

Wesley has pointed us in the right direction here. Listening to Scripture today means listening not just to the text. It means also listening and conversing with others while paying attention to the reader’s own theological context. In this case, context does not just mean the context of Scripture. It means to also listen to the context of the one reading the Scripture. This act of acknowledging the reader and his/her context is not just hearing. It is listening. We hear God’s word, and we listen to its reader. When we listen, we acknowledge the other’s experience of reading and meditating, or sacred reading.

Secondly, global listening is an important step in what Wesley has called the “catholic spirit.” The catholic spirit of hearing and listening becomes the theological foundation of “conference” as means of grace. When engaging in global listening as an act of conference, it means listening to others reading the Bible to us. It means hearing women read to us; it means hearing people of color read to us; it means hearing members of the LGBTQ read to us; it means hearing Palestinian Christians read to us. I think you get the idea.

Thirdly, the body of Christ needs to engage in the making of disciples who are social agents. Miraslov Volf describes this in detail in Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. The encounter of another through global listening can be accommodated through “social arrangements” by which others may be welcomed to the table. What is more demanding is forming disciples who are capable of being social agents with the desire to give one’s self to others as an act of welcoming and hospitality without judgement. More significantly, it also means readjusting our own identities to welcome them as readers and hearers of Scripture.

Fear is what drives exclusion. Love demands embrace. Our connectional polity with its myriad of contexts severely needs disciples of Jesus Christ who are social agents capable of global listening who can help hold the connection together.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: A place where all my friends are welcome, Part I

Today's piece is written by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It is the first of a two-part series.

The United Methodist Church is engaged in a cultural war over human sexuality. Just below the surface is a struggle of theological sources. The Wesleyan tradition acknowledges Scripture, tradition, experience and reason as authoritative in our theological method.[1] These, of course, were John Wesley’s primary sources from which Albert Outler coined the term “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”[2]

The battle, however, is over the norms that we use to interpret and how we weigh each of these sources. Certainly, even if we are within the Wesleyan tradition and honor these four sources as authoritative, individual members can come out with very different theological positions on controversial social issues. I once heard it said that if you put 10 Methodists in a room you will have 11 opinions.

While the question of ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” or allowing our clergy to conduct same-sex marriages is the current cultural rub, the struggle over theological method has been around since the 1744 annual conference when John and Charles Wesley asked, “What to teach; How to teach and What to do?”[3] Of course, how we answer these questions and how we interpret the four sources is the $10,000 question. The attendees at the first Methodist annual conference had different social issues than a United Methodist in the Philippines or someone in the Great Plains Annual Conference.

While John Wesley didn’t use the phrase Wesleyan Quadrilateral, he did consult the four sources in his theological method of discernment for theological issues in his day. Certainly, Scripture was primary and he called himself “homo unius libri” (man of one book).[4] Wesley, however, was very well read in both Christian and secular literature and cited both widely.

Wesley was also a practical theologian and adjusted his practice based on experience. Wesley wrestled with the matter of women preachers and after considerable prayer and reflection wrote: “We give the right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet, and have no objection to her being a preacher in our connexion, so long as she preaches the Methodist doctrines, and attends to our discipline.”[5] Similarly, Wesley did not cite one Bible verse in his treatise “Thoughts upon Slavery,” perhaps because there are passages that seemingly support slavery.[6] While his stance on slavery and women preachers may apparently contradict certain passages that affirm slavery and disapprove of women speaking in church, they are consistent with the biblical canon that all humans beings are created in the likeness and image of God.[7]

Wesley certainly believed in the primacy of Scripture as stated in the Articles of Religion, “The Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation…” Nevertheless, in the debate between the Puritan and the Catholic interpretation, Wesley adopted the middle way of Anglicans and believed that Scripture wasn’t to be used as a rule for all areas of society.[8] Wesley believed in the oneness of the Bible and read scriptures as a whole: “every part is worthy of God and all together are one body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”[9] He repeated this message 11 times in his writings and would compare individual passages against the whole.[10] He didn’t read the Bible looking for contradictions, but his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek afforded him the ability to read earlier manuscripts, and he noted incongruences. In his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, Wesley often corrected the King James translation and pointed out contradictions in the text.[11]

It would suffice to say that for Wesley, the cannon within a cannon of God’s Word is love.[12] Certainly Wesley underlined the importance of quickening one’s spiritual senses and asking the Holy Spirit to guide our interpretations. Within the Quadrilateral, certainly Scripture retains its primacy; however, it is placed in dialogue with the other sources.

The biggest change between how Wesley interpreted Scripture in his time and how we interpret it today is the context. Paul Taylor writes about the dramatic cultural changes facing the United States as he contrasts the preferences of the Baby Boomers and the Millennials in his book The Next America: “As a society, we’ve become more polarized and more tolerant and no matter what we’re like today, we’re going to be different tomorrow. Change is the constant.”[13] In many ways, the tension that Taylor finds between Boomers and Millennials is the same question that we are asking in the United Methodist Church: “how to honor our commitments to the old without bankrupting the young and starving the future?”[14]

Another one of the cultural shifts going on is related to acceptance of human sexuality. In 2001 Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57 to 35% margin. Ten years later Americans were split on their support and by 2016 the attitude had reversed to 55% approval versus 37% disapproval.[15] And the attitude among Millennials is even more accepting.[16] Human sexuality is only one example of the differences between Millennials and Boomers. For example, Taylor states that “72% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.”[17]

With these cultural shifts as the background, I will turn in a following piece to the question, “How can we remain faithful to our Wesleyan heritage and communicate the Gospel in a way that will be heard by the nones and dones?”



[1] The United Methodist Book of Discipline, Nashville: UM Publishing House, 2016. par.105.
[2] Albert Outler, John Wesley, Oxford University Press, 1980, p.136.
[3] Albert Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley,” Wesley Theological Journal, Vol.20, No.1, Spring 1985.
[4] John Wesley “On God’s Vineyard,” I.1, Works 3:504
[5] The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. John Telford, 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931) 8:15.
[6] John Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery, 3rd edition, A.M. London: Printed by R. Hawes, 1774.
[7] Genesis 1:26-27.
[8] Stephen Gunter, “The Quadrilateral and the Middle Way,” in Wesleyan and the Quadrilateral, Nashville: Abingdon, 1997, 17.
[9] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the NT, p. 9.
[10] Scott Jones, “The Rule of Scripture,” in Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Nashville: Abingdon, 1997, 53.
[11] Randy Maddox, “How John Wesley read the Bible,” Catalyst, 38:1, November 2011, 1-3.
[12] “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
[13] Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), ix.
[14] P. 232
[15] Pew Research Center, “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” May 12, 2016, accessed May 16, 2017 http://www.pewforum.org/2016/05/12/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/>
[16] Thirty-eight percent of Boomers approve of same-sex marriage as opposed to fifty-six percent of Millennials, Ibid.
[17] P. 171

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Meditating on the Scriptures

Today's post is the third of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In my first post, I drew attention to a tension in United Methodism between our contextual theology and our connectional polity. In this post, I will continue to illustrate this tension at play by looking at the first element of the “Quadrilateral”: Scripture, following up on my remarks from my previous post about how approaches to Scripture shifted on the American frontier.

Wesley did not just read the Bible. He “searched the Scripture,” a method consisting of “reading, meditation, and hearing.” In a previous post, it was pointed out that Wesley’s was the first age where technology and politics had succeeded in lowering the price of a Bible so ordinary people could purchase their own copy that could be read devotionally. Piety has benefited from technology. The challenge was when American geography did much to transform the Bible as the church’s book to personal property; from “our” Bible to “my” Bible.

Searching the Scripture also consists of “meditation.” Wesley regularly spoke of “meditation” in his diaries and spent a great deal of time doing it. Prayer, reading, and meditation were listed together so often that they seem like a single act. He encouraged his preachers to meditate on Scripture from 4-5 in the morning and from 5-6 in the evening. Through meditation a thorough knowledge of the sacred meaning of Scripture is gained. In the “Preface” to his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament (1765) Wesley wrote,

"If you desire to read the Scriptures in such a manner as may most effectually answer this end, would it not be advisable,
"(1.) To set apart a little time, if you can, every morning and evening for that purpose?
"(2.) At each time, if you have leisure, to read a chapter out of the Old, and one out of the New, Testament [...]
"(3.) To read this with a single eye, to know the whole will of God, and a fixed resolution to do it? […]
"(4.) Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith, the connexion and harmony there is between those grand, fundamental doctrines, original sin, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness:
"(5.) Serious and earnest prayer should be constantly used before we consult the oracles of God; seeing "Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given." Our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read may be written on our hearts:
"(6.) It might also be of use, if, while we read, we were frequently to pause, and examine ourselves by what we read, both with regard to our hearts and lives. […] And whatever light you then receive should be used to the uttermost, and that immediately. Let there be no delay. Whatever you resolve, begin to execute the first moment you can. So shall you find this word to be indeed the power of God unto present and eternal salvation."

By now some may recognize aspects of Ignatius of Loyola’s method of “lectio divina.” There are indeed similarities. It was Wesley’s belief that through a sacred reading and meditation on the text, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Biblical writers also inspires Biblical readers to read and discern the meaning of Scripture. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no “means of grace,” neither may Scripture be properly understood. So what exactly is grace?

The answer to that is found in the only catechism Wesley ever published, Instructions for Children (1745). The question was asked, “What is grace?” The answer given was, “The Power of the Holy Ghost, enabling us to believe, and love and serve God.” In Wesley’s pneumatology, the Holy Spirit is grace. An experience of the Holy Spirit is an experience of grace, and an experience of grace is an experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. Meditation is placing one’s self in a position of openness to hear and experiencing the Spirit of grace.

There is obviously a great deal of potential for abuse here too, particularly given what happened to Scripture on the American frontier. Whether it’s pietism or mysticism, the result can be exacerbated by an individualism that can easily be directed to a subjective authority that is now spiritually authorized. As Wesley was quick to remind us, to turn Christianity into a solitary religion is to kill it. At worst the radical individualism that has plagued much of Western society potentially leads to subjectivism, ethical relativism, and ironically, nihilism.  When two individuals who are utterly convinced by the convictions of their subjectivism, it often becomes a case of the irresistible force encountering the immovable object.

The only thing capable of dislodging subjectivism is the need to accommodate and welcome the other. Christ has commanded it. Or, put another way in a previous post, the only thing capable of accommodating contextual theology in a connectional polity is the need to accommodate and welcome the other.

Reading and meditating must be balanced by something else, such as hearing and practicing. That is the hardest work of all. Perhaps it is the work and presence of the Holy Spirit alone that enables the one who reads and meditates out of the closet of prayer and solitary devotion to encounter the “other” as the basis of community.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Joon-Sik Park - Response to Wonder, Love & Praise

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Dr. Joon-Sik Park, Professor in the E. Stanley Jones Chair of World Evangelism at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

“Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP), an important and timely statement on ecclesiology, is to be welcomed with appreciation by those who grapple with the question of what it means to be the authentic church. It deserves wide reading and careful study, as it intends to engage United Methodists in inquiring into the nature and purpose of the church. A critical reflection on the church is crucial to aligning our life and ministry as a community of faith and witness with God’s purpose for the world.

WLP rightly seeks to set an ecclesial vision of The United Methodist Church (TUMC) within an ecumenical context, stressing that unity is both a gift and task. It keenly recognizes the massive demographic shift of Christianity toward the global South that brings about “the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries” in the leadership of TUMC and challenges the adequacy of its long-standing U.S.-centric polity. It is good that WLP searches for “a renewed ecclesial vision” with a full awareness of the partial character of TUMC understanding and expression of the church and with a proper desire for mutual affirmation and reciprocal correction through ecumenical dialogue.

Yet, there are some areas in WLP that might need greater attention or further development. First, WLP appears to give rather too much priority to its engagement with the WCC document, “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.” It is important to recognize the significance of an ecumenical statement on ecclesiology, and to engage in sustained conversation with it. However, ecumenical sensitivity and humility, although an indispensable virtue, might have kept WLP from more fully exploring and presenting the distinctive characteristics of TUMC understanding of what it means to be the church. Considering that at the heart of ecumenism is a gift exchange,[1] a greater focus on identifying and sharing the unique gift of TUMC would further enrich the ecumenical dialogue on ecclesiology.

Second, although the missionary nature of the church is acknowledged in WLP, it does not become a central concern of the document. The church’s identity and calling defined in WLP is not intrinsically rooted in the conception of the church as a “sent” community. The three distinctive theological convictions that have shaped and guided the life and witness of TUMC are clearly laid out, but their concrete implications for the mission or structure of the church are not fully examined. It would have been desirable for WLP to ground its ecclesial vision more firmly in the essentially missionary nature of the church, whose calling is to participate in the missionary action of the Triune God.

Third, WLP fails to offer an account of the nature of the relation between church and world. Yet, a perception of the world in relation to the church is an element of great import that cannot be overlooked in an integral ecclesiology. It would be necessary to define the church vis-à-vis the world, as the church’s view of the world significantly affects its vision of mission, and its faithfulness is measured at the point where it encounters the world.

Last, perhaps the most notable omission in WLP is the understanding of the church as an eschatological community. As Lesslie Newbigin argues, “the Church can be rightly understood only in an eschatological perspective. Whenever we seek to define it simply in terms of what it is, we go astray.”[2] When the eschatological nature of the church is not fully appreciated, the tension between the present reality and the expected future of God’s kingdom may get lost, and the church’s missionary responsibility between the times may not be paid careful heed. Furthermore, the presence and work of the Holy Spirit—the first fruits and down payment of what will ultimately come—in guiding and empowering the church to fulfill its mission may not be sufficiently recognized. “The Church: Towards a Common Vision,” a point of reference for WLP, clearly presents the church as “an eschatological reality”: The Church is “already anticipating the kingdom, but not yet its full realization. The Holy Spirit is the principal agent in establishing the kingdom and in guiding the Church so that it can be a servant of God’s work in this process. Only as we view the present in the light of the activity of the Holy Spirit, guiding the whole process of salvation history to its final recapitulation in Christ to the glory of the Father, do we begin to grasp something of the mystery of the Church” (para. 33).

The WCC has produced two separate documents in recent years: one on mission (“Together towards Life” in 2012) and the other on ecclesiology (“The Church: Towards a Common Vision” in 2013). Yet, TUMC would not necessarily have to follow that pattern. Considering that the church is missionary by its very nature, that Methodists became a church for missional reasons, and that every church in the 21st century—whether in the West or in the global South—is in a missionary context, to create one document in which ecclesiology and missiology are integrated might be equally appropriate. And such document that faithfully reflects the Wesleyan understanding of the church and mission could be a unique gift to the Church Universal.


[1] Margaret O’Gara, The Ecumenical Gift Exchange (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).
[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (London: SCM, 1953), 135.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Reading the Scriptures

Today's post is the second of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In my last post, I drew attention to a tension in United Methodism between our contextual theology and our connectional polity. In this post and the next, I will illustrate this tension at play by looking at the first element of the “Quadrilateral”: Scripture.

It should come as no surprise that John Wesley had a method for reading the Bible. He called it “searching the Scripture.” It was simple, insightful, and memorable: read, meditate, and hear. Wesley repeatedly told Methodists that “searching the Scriptures” was a means of preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace. This is too easily forgotten by us today. The method was so important that he included it as a part of the “General Rules” and anyone who took love of God and love of neighbor seriously could not afford to ignore it. More than that, “searching the Scripture” illustrates how to engage in a Wesleyan way to study the Bible and appropriate it into a theological method.

First there is “reading.” We take the devotional reading of Scripture for granted and forget that not all Christians everywhere and in all ages have had either a Biblical text to read or the ability to read it. For 1400 years, texts were kept and maintained in monasteries where they were copied by monks. Access to them was a privilege and copies were rare. Scripture reading itself was an act of elitism.

Bibles were not cheap. In 1450 when Johannes Guttenberg printed the first Bible the price would have been around $200,000; in 1539 the Coverdale Bible would have about $5000; the 1576 Geneva Bible about $1400. In 1611 Bibles were finally being printed small enough to be owned by individuals who could afford them.

By the 18th century technology had increased and governmental interference had decreased enough to bring down prices. In 1710 the Canstein Bible Institute in Germany printed Bibles for around $6, making the Scripture affordable for most people. In 1755 Wesley would publish Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, to be read by Methodists, a doctrinal standard for United Methodism still today. The reading of scripture could now be become a common part of Christian piety. Now that anyone could own a Bible everyone should read the Bible as a means of grace.

This means reading and literacy are generally a means of grace. Teaching others to read is an important ministry and assists others to discover the liberative power of Scripture. For this reason, in 1769 Hannah Ball, a Methodist woman in the north of England, started the idea of having school on Sunday so children could learn to read in order to read the Bible. The liberative power of Scripture was also why slaves were forbidden to read, even by Methodist slave owners. Literacy was empowerment.

After the Civil War, the American Bible Society sought to place Bibles into the hands of westward moving settlers. Bibles were now cheap enough to be given away and placed into every open hand that wanted one. The Bible was slowly but surely being transformed from “our” Bible, into “my” Bible.  It had become personal property in the truest American sense. And this was the frontier. The mythology of America’s “rugged individualism” was being cultivated and coupled with a vast expanse that did little to nurture a sense of sacramental Christian community. On the frontier, the Bible did not just meet technology. It encountered Jeffersonian democracy and its values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In a sense, the Bible fell off the pulpit and into the pew, and from the pew into pious Protestant hands and homes.

And for Methodists, who were struggling with a perennial shortage of ordained clergy who alone were capable of administering the sacraments, this was significant. The American frontier sheered away the sacraments, leaving mainly the Bible in the pew and the conversion experience as the single most important event shaping one’s Christian formation and not the sacraments. The “altar call” was no longer an invitation to the Communion table. It was the place for penitents to be converted. Revivalism, camp meetings, and the conversion experience, placed the pulpit as central, not the communion altar.

Is all this to suggest that reading the Bible is a bad thing? Not at all. But it is to suggest that “searching the Scriptures” in the Wesleyan sense includes more than just reading.

So, just how does Wesley’s method of “searching the Scripture” overcome these American challenges? The short answer is through “meditating and hearing.” In the next post we’ll consider “meditating” on Scripture.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Comparative Wesleyan Global Polity - The Wesleyan Church

This is the second in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies.

What would The United Methodist Church look like if the work of the Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) had gained more traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The answer is probably, “It would look like The Wesleyan Church.”

First, some background on The Wesleyan Church: The Wesleyan Church is present in over 90 countries, the result of mission work in a wide variety of areas around the world, starting in the nineteenth century. Across all these countries, it has more than 5,000 churches with over 370,000 members and 475,000 attendees. (These numbers are from 2012, but they are what’s presented on The Wesleyan Church’s website.)

The Wesleyan Church is the result of a 1968 merger of two bodies, one of them itself formed by a 1946 merger (sound familiar?). In this case, the two denominations coming together in 1968 were the Wesleyan Methodist Church, formed in 1843 by founders who left the Methodist Episcopal Church (a forerunner of the UMC), and the Pilgrim Holiness Church, which traces its roots back to founders who left the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1897. Along the way, both groups absorbed a wide variety of other church bodies and missions (such as the 1946 merger of the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Holiness Church), but The Wesleyan Church’s polity remains distinctively Methodist.

The most basic group of churches in The Wesleyan Church is a district, roughly equivalent to an annual conference in the UMC. Wesleyan Church districts tend to be smaller than UMC annual conferences and are headed by district superintendents instead of bishops, but otherwise serve the same functions. (There is one overall General Superintendent, but no bishops.) Historically, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was governed by a General Conference, similar to the UMC. Missions outside the US and Canada were also organized into districts which related both to General Conference and the denominational mission agency.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church/Pilgrim Holiness Church merger in 1968 raised the question of what the role of churches outside the US should be within the new denomination, as did the Methodist Church/EUB merger in 1968. The Methodists and EUB formed a group called COSMOS to answer this question. Despite COSMOS entertaining a wider range of options, the UMC answer eventually became that annual conferences outside the US could either become completely autonomous or remain part of the UMC as a member of a central conference. Much of the work and recommendations of COSMOS were overshadowed at the 1972 General Conference by domestic concerns with overhauling the Book of Discipline. (See Robert Harman’s previous UM & Global article on this topic here.)

The Wesleyan Church took a different approach, however, one similar to possibilities raised in the COSMOS discussion by Latin American Methodists. The Wesleyan Church developed a system of different degrees of autonomy for groups of churches outside the US with continued relationship between all Wesleyan churches everywhere. This plan was successfully approved at their 1972 General Conference.

Under this plan, The Wesleyan Church created additional types and layers of regional groups of districts that had varying levels of autonomy. It kept the North American General Conference and districts within the US the same. Outside the US, it created several new options for groups of districts: national or regional conferences, Established Regional and National Conferences, and separate General Conferences.

National and regional conferences continue to be governed by their originating General Conference and relate to the associated mission agency, but can build national three-self capacity. As that capacity grows, the North American General Conference can approve the creation of Established Regional and National Conferences and eventually separate General Conferences. With each step, a group of districts outside the US gains more autonomy. Established National or Regional Conferences write their own Books of Discipline, subject to General Conference approval, and still relate to their founding General Conference. There are currently three: South Pacific, Canada, and Ibero-America (i.e., Latin America). Separate General Conferences are fully autonomous, write their own Books of Discipline, and are headed by their own General Superintendent. In addition to the North American General Conference, there are also General Conferences in the Philippines and the Caribbean.

At the same time, the system adopted by The Wesleyan Church includes measures to preserve connection between these increasingly autonomous national and regional branches. The first of these measures is a delegated meeting of all Wesleyan Church bodies throughout the world, initially called the Wesleyan World Fellowship, but since 2004 called the International Conference. The International Conference includes representatives from all General Conferences, Established National and Regional Conferences, and mission units in additional nations, even though this last group is also represented at their associated General Conference. The International Conference’s primary purposes are fellowship and coordination, since it does not directly control any bureaucracy or substantial budget, nor does it approve Books of Discipline. It must, however, approve the creation of new Established National and Regional Conferences and General Conferences.

The second unifying measure is a common set of statements binding on all branches of The Wesleyan Church everywhere, called “The Essentials.” This short, twelve-page writing consists mainly of 21 statements of faith. It can only be modified by a two-thirds vote of constituent General Conferences. The International Conference can sanction regional bodies that it deems are not living out The Essentials, but to my knowledge, that is mostly a theoretical power.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both The Wesleyan Church’s system and The United Methodist Church’s system in terms of honoring the autonomy of Christians outside the US and in terms of preserving ties among Christians of different nations. Overall, I think The Wesleyan Church has emphasized autonomy, whereas the UMC has emphasized connection. Still, while The Wesleyan Church’s system is set up to honor autonomy, it nonetheless privileges in some ways North Americans as the “parent” body of new Wesleyan churches in other countries; and UMC Central Conferences’ ability to adapt the Book of Discipline does allow for a degree of autonomy.

Ultimately, though, the point of this comparison is not to deem either the Wesleyan or United Methodist system “better” than the other. The point is that The Wesleyan Church’s system represents a road that The United Methodist Church could have taken in 1972, but didn’t. Recognizing this alternate polity as a potential road not taken, though, raises questions for United Methodists: Why didn’t we take this road? What have been the advantages and disadvantages of that choice? Would it still be possible to go down this road, or another like it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Methodism’s Chimera

Today's post is the first of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Since 1972 United Methodism has not had a theology as much as it has a theological method consisting of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Methodists have Albert Outler to thank for that. There is one significant difference between Outler and his Anglican predecessors such as Richard Hooker, however. The Quadrilateral adds “experience” to the Anglican theological method consisting of Scripture, reason, and tradition. What the addition of experience has done is to provide a theological method that has facilitated Methodists who do theology that is both contextual and practical. We do not have a Methodist theology as much as Methodists who do theology.

There is another point that is equally argued. Neither does Methodism have an ecclesiology as much as it has an ecclesiological concept, otherwise known as “connectionalism.” As Russ Richey points out the term connectional is generally used as an organizational classification that is employed to distinguish denominations with centralized authority, governance, and structure from a more congregational model where such prerogatives are located in the congregation. Methodists understand connectionalism institutionally. By this definition there are many denominations that are interrelated institutionally and function connectionally. Just as Methodists did not invent the quadrilateral, neither did we really invent connectionalism, and we are connectional at least for now. After being examined by economists, United Methodists have been told that we have about 15 years of an economically sustainable connectionalism left unless things are turned around. What happens then? The movement that became a denomination may one day have to reinvent itself as a movement again.

The problem that has quadrennially plagued United Methodism has been when General Conference attempts to insert contextual theology that has been shaped by square Quadrilateral pegs into round Connectional holes. After watching several episodes of the “Big Bang Theory,” it occurred to me that perhaps we need to change the metaphor from one of Euclidian geometry to one of quantum physics. One of Methodism’s biggest problem is when contextual theology and connectional polity collide like subatomic particles in the Hadron supercollider we call “General Conference.” After that we are frequently left looking for the Higgs boson “God particle,” the theoretical subatomic particle that holds things together in order to create mass. The phenomenon of General Conference demonstrates how contextual theology stretches connectionalism to the point of breaking causing it to lean more toward a congregational polity than not. This is why Methodists frequently fret of schism and why we do so still today.

In fairness, neither did Methodists invent schism, but in the 19th century we worked to perfect it. Between 1784 and 1895 the Methodist Episcopal Church would split no fewer than ten times. We have been schooled on schism.

• 1784- Formation of Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Bishops
• 1787- Richard Allen, split from St. George’s MEC to form the AME 1816
• 1792- James O’Kelly to form Republican Methodists who ended up UCC
• 1795- Peter Williams, Sr. split for John Street MEC to form the AMEZ
• 1828- Methodist Protestant Church
• 1843- Wesleyan Methodist Church
• 1844- Methodist Episcopal Church, South
• 1860- Free Methodist Church
• 1870- Christian Methodist Church
• 1895- Phineas Bresee over a homeless mission in LA to form the Church of the Nazarene (mission)

Methodists have split over race and the episcopacy more than anything else. We come by schism honestly. We are the schismatic child of a schismatic parent. We split from the Church of England and the Church of England was a split from the Roman Catholic Church as the result of a very nasty, bloody, and violent royal divorce.

The “Quadrilateral” is a theological chimera, a hybrid of Anglicanism and Wesleyanism constructed rolled out in 1972 in the hopes that it would result in uniting the newly formed United Methodist Church. At this point unity itself has become a chimera in the other sense of word as something that is hoped or wished for but is often illusory or impossible to achieve. As United Methodists engage in “holy conversation” around the issue of human sexuality there will be implicit and explicit appeals made to the “Quadrilateral.” Regardless of whether one is for it or against it most agree it has cast a long shadow over a great deal of everything else and its relentless use has caused many a Methodist to quip, “I am Methodist because we believe in the Quadrilateral.”

We indeed have a problem when epistemology overshadows Christology. If our aim is to find unity, we don’t need to look at a chimera. We should be looking to the Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit who binds and connects us into the body of Christ.