Thursday, October 19, 2017

Plan Now: Global Migration Sunday

Migration is one of the most significant social forces shaping the world, and The United Methodist Church seeks to be in ministry with migrants around the world. To highlight these efforts, the UMC is calling on its congregations and members around the world to celebration December 3, 2017, as Global Migration Sunday. United Methodists are asked to be in prayer for migrants and to contribute to a special offering which will be used for ministries with migrants.

The UMC has set up a special website with resources to help United Methodists celebrate this Sunday: https://umcmigration.org/

In addition, the following UMNS news articles give a history of plans for the special Sunday:
An initial request by the bishops
Affirmation of the idea by the Connectional Table
Current plans for Global Migration Sunday

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Unity without sameness

This is the sixth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

In my past several blog posts, I’ve been examining various possible sources of unity for The United Methodist Church. One assumption behind these posts so far has been that it may be possible to find something(s) that ties together all United Methodists and that unity in the denomination depends upon finding such thing(s). I’ve certainly suggested that there may be more than one thing which unites everybody (e.g., polity, worship, and mission), but the quest so far has been for something that everybody can agree upon.

That makes sense. United almost always has the connotation of sameness is some way. My next suggestion for source of denominational unity, however, calls that idea of united by sameness into question. It’s a major departure, so I’m going to spend two or three posts exploring it. It’s also an idea I think can have much wider application than The United Methodist Church, so there will be a lot fewer Methodist-specific references.

The idea of unity I would like to explore can be thought of not as unity through sameness, but unity through relationships and networks. This model of unity actually presupposes that there is nothing that’s going to apply to everyone, but instead looks for overlapping things that, when added together, include everyone.

To make myself clearer, let’s look at a couple of diagrams. The first diagram is a diagram of the unity through sameness model. It’s pretty simple:


It’s just a circle. The outline of those who are united and the outline of those who share a certain characteristic coincide. The diagram for the unity through relationship or network is a bit more complicated, though. It looks something like this:


Here the heavy black line is the group of people who are united in a certain organization. The thinner black lines are groups of people who share certain characteristics. None of these circles coincide with the heavy black circle. None cover the entirety of that circle. All of the thin circles overlap with some other circle(s), but there are pairs of circles which don’t overlap with each other. Nevertheless, by adding all of the thin circles together, all of the area inside the heavy circle is covered. Note, though, that the thin circles include not just area in the heavy black circle, but area outside of it as well.

I think this is a truer-to-life model of how unity works. There is some functional way in which the heavy black circle is drawn (polity, perhaps), but most of the uniting factors that hold us together are like the thin circles – they’re things we have in common with a subset of the group as a whole as well as some others outside of the group.

There’s nothing that we have in common with the group as a whole (except the polity which defines the heavy black circle). Only by adding up a series of uniting factors are we able to include the group as a whole.

Yet the unity we as the group experiences comes not from the boundaries of the heavy black circle, but from the series of relationships that connect the thin circles. We are united by a network of relationships built upon a series of shared characteristics.

Thus, this model depends crucially upon relationships and networks, and it’s to that aspect of the model I will turn next week.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Understading the status of theology at Africa University

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The African College of United Methodist Bishops, meeting at Africa University Sept. 3-9, has asked Africa University to reconsider a 2016 restructure that merged the Faculty of Theology with Faculties in education, humanities, and the social sciences to create a new College of Humanities. The faculties of theology and education were two of the three founding faculties, or schools, within the university, along with agriculture.

This request by the bishops continues a controversy about this restructuring plan and what it says about the status and role of theology at Africa University (AU), The United Methodist Church's premier church-affiliated school in Africa. The reorganization has been criticized since it was announced. Graduates of the program, faculty, and students have expressed concern that the reorganization de-emphasizes theology, which they see as a critically important subject area for a church-related institution. The reorganization has coincided with a drop in theology enrollment and a significant decline in the number of theology faculty at AU.

Africa University was created by action of General Conference in 1992. Thus, it recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a celebration that drew United Methodists from around the world. The university was conceived to help education United Methodists (and others) throughout the continent, and United Methodists have indeed been a key part of the university's student and faculty bodies.

Moreover, United Methodists have been critical financial supporters throughout the university's history. AU is supported by one of seven church-wide service funds underwritten by apportionment dollars. Additional church support continues today with the Campaign for Africa University, a four-year initiative launched in 2016 to raise $50 million for the institution's endowment. Yet the church is not the university's only financial source, and non-church support has been on the rise.

With that context in mind, there are at least three different ways of reading this reorganization and the resulting conflict at Africa University.

First, there is the view of the bishops and the critics of the reorganization, who see it as a church-birthed and church-sponsored institution backing down on a key commitment to the church - to provide theological education. Such a perspective could even detect in this reorganization the beginning of the secularization of AU, a path many Methodist-founded colleges in the United States went down historically.

Second, there is the view of the AU administration, which has presented the reorganization as a financial and logistical necessity. AU is the size of a small liberal arts college in the US. Prior to the reorganization, it had seven academic deans, one for each college, which is a top-heavy structure for that size of school. Enrollment in the theology faculty had declined; hence, according to the administration, the move was economically justified.

There is, however, a third way of reading these events not put forward by either side, which is to see it as a reflection of the changing dynamics of United Methodist higher education in Africa. While there are important distinctions between baccalaureate and master's level degrees provided, the number of United Methodist schools other than AU offering theological education in Africa has grown substantially since AU was founded. General Conference has recognized this development and approved money since 2008 to support the growth of such schools. The question, though, is whether these schools' success comes at the expense of AU, or whether a growing number of United Methodists on the continent and growing demand for theological education can increase the pool of resources and students such that all can prosper. Accordingly, the fates of AU and the other schools raise important questions about contextualization, centralization, and the nature of collaboration.

Whichever of these three interpretations one takes, this story line will be one to continue to watch, since it is directly tied to how both Africans and Americans see United Methodism in Africa.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mission as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the fifth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

One of John Wesley’s famous lines is “I look on all the world as my parish.” A lot of Methodists like this phrase, but does it contain a potential source of United Methodist unity? I’d like to argue that it does. I think a attitude of mission has the potential to conceptually unite a lot of currently disparate United Methodist energies. Such an approach is not without its dangers and depends importantly on a robust commitment to holism, but has, I think, potential.

Having a focus on mission denotes a certain understanding of the church and its relationship to the world that I think is characteristic of Methodism (and many other denominations as well). It denotes an understanding that the purpose of the church is not just to care for its own members but also to reach out beyond itself to engage with the world, to be in mission to the world.

Currently in American Christendom, there are two understandings of how the church reaches out to be in mission to the world. One is a conversionary understanding in which the church’s job is to try to convert individuals out of the world and into the church. The other is a social justice understanding in which the church’s job is to try to combat the unjust structures of the world.

All too often, there is a bifurcation of the two, and they are seen as mutually exclusive and competing understandings of how to minister to the world. Such a view is often present within United Methodism itself and reflects yet another dimension of the conflict between conservative and religious voices in the denomination.

Yet such a breach between these two forms of ministry to the world has not always existed. Indeed, it’s really only a product of the last 100-125 years. Before that, Methodism had a long history of trying to reform both individuals and society. John Wesley was certainly no slouch in preaching individual conversion, but also tackled systematic injustices like poverty and the slave trade. He wasn’t Marx in his analysis, but he did have an awareness of and concern for systemic problems with human society. Such a combination of a drive for individual and societal reform continued through Methodist history until the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the turn of the 20th century began to drive these two options apart.

Nevertheless, I think it is possible to reclaim such a unity in the concept of mission to the world which is our parish, and thus to reclaim some unity in our denomination. To do so, however, depends upon a robust understanding of the holism of the church’s mission.

What is holism? It’s thinking about things as wholes, not as a collection of divisible parts. If we seek to undertake holistic ministry to the world our parish, we will seek to present a whole gospel to whole people in the whole creation.

This means that seeking religious and moral transformation is important. To say it’s not and that economic and political injustice is all that matters is to practice a materialist reduction that goes against the spirit of religion, which emphasizes that matters of the spirit matter.

Yet we can’t stop at seeking individual religious and moral transformation, for that would also ignore the wholeness of people, who are also economic, political, sexual, and physical beings with associated needs and concerns in these areas. Our ministry to the world must therefore address these areas as well.

Furthermore, because whole people are part of a whole world, our efforts in these areas must not be solely individual but also systemic in nature. Moreover, because the whole world is not just human, but natural as well, our ministry to the world must also include ministry to the created, natural world, the essential context of all human life.

My guess is that right now there are a lot of people doing street evangelism who wouldn’t want to see their work as flowing from the same impetus as people protesting the School of Americas, and vice versa. Yet in order to stay together as a denomination, we must find ways in which we can think of these two aspects of the church’s mission in the world as part of the same understanding that the world is our parish. Since mission in and to the world is one of the central reasons for the church’s existence, we need something to unite the denomination in its mission, just as singing can unite us in our worship. I hope that agreeing that the world (in a wholistic sense) is our parish can be an important part of that uniting bond.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Recommended Viewing: Endow F-TECC Conversations

About a year ago, UMC Giving put out a series of video interviews with United Methodists from the central conferences about the value they have experienced in theological education. The eleven videos are about a minute long each. While the videos are part of a fundraising campaign for an endowment for the Fund for Theological Education in the Central Conferences, they are also worth viewing as glimpses into what United Methodism, pastoral training, and theological education look like around the world.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Worship as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the fourth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

This week’s possibility for source of unity of United Methodism is worship, especially singing in worship. Whereas I’ve pointed out problems with the three previous sources of unity I’ve examined (theology, history, and polity), I would like to suggest that worship is a potentially promising source of United Methodist unity (though not without its own problems as well).

Singing in worship is also more distinctively United Methodist than the other three areas I’ve looked at. Of course, I’m not saying that only United Methodists sing. Obviously, other denominations have fine traditions of singing, especially the Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ/Christian Churches, with their well-developed tradition of unaccompanied part singing. Nevertheless, while not uniquely Methodist, I would like to suggest that singing is distinctively Methodist.

Methodists have long been known as “a singing people”, and I believe that designation remains apt today. Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was also one of the most prolific hymn writers ever. His brother John also composed and translated hymns. In America, hymn-singing was an important part of the tradition of camp meetings, religious worship and revival services common in the nineteenth century. The current United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) is the most successful hymnal ever published. While certainly not all Methodists can sing or like singing, the denomination was and is a tuneful one as a whole.

Of course, worship is not an entirely uncomplicated source of unity. Even if everyone agrees that Methodists should be singing together, there remains the question of what to sing, and here there have been and are some significant disagreements.

There are, of course, the famous worship wars of the past couple of decades between those who like the old, traditional hymns and those who prefer contemporary worship songs. There’s the question of the adequate inclusion of black gospel and spiritual songs in denominational hymnals, not to mention the issue of Spanish-language songs and songs from other ethnic groups and other countries around the world.

It’s also often the case, as the supervisory committee for the UMH found, that the list of best-loved hymns and the list of most-hated hymns have some overlap. People take issue with hymns for a variety of theological, musical, and personal-preference reasons. In addition, there’s the question of revisions to the words of hymns. Thus, while United Methodism may be united in agreement over the importance of singing our faith, there is disagreement over what exactly to sing.

The question then becomes whether we are able to overcome some of that disagreement on how to worship and what to sing and still sing together for the sake of having our voices in harmony. Can we still lift every voice and sing together, even when the owners of some of those voices dislike what’s being sung? Are we willing to sing a few songs we don’t like (or don’t know) along with some that we love, so that everyone can sing together and everyone can find something they like? Or will every song that’s not on our own personal list sound discordant to us? These are important questions for us to consider as a denomination.

I would like to believe that despite the potential for disagreement over particular songs, singing does still have to potential to unite us as a denomination. Not only is singing a shared value, but the act of singing embodies that unity toward which we should strive as a denomination.

Furthermore, singing together is a fundamental component of worship, which is one of the primary functions of the church. Thus, if we can sing together, we’ve gone a long way towards being able to worship together in unity and thus toward being the church. While none of us individually may have a thousand tongues, collectively we as a denomination have several million tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise. Let us strive to use them in chorus.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Recommended Reading: David Field on Wesley's Passion and the Renewal of Methodism

Regular UM & Global contributor Dr. David N. Field has recently published a piece on Ministry Matters entitled "Wesley's Passion and the Renewal of Methodism." In it, Field calls for a United Methodist renewal that follows John Wesley's passion in being missional, counter-cultural, sacramental, marginal, transnational, communal and connectional, and catholic. The piece is worth reading in its own right, and pairs well with Peter Bellini's piece in last week's recommended reading.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Polity as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the third in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

This week’s contender for possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church is polity. Polity means the rules and structures that define the formal organization of the church. It includes things like membership vows, definitions of ordained ministry (and the rules for becoming and remaining an ordained minister), General Conference, the general boards and agencies and their relations to other parts of the church, annual conferences, ministerial pension funds, property ownership and oversight, staff-parish relations committee, and a whole host of other organizational apparatuses.

On a first glance, polity is certainly part of what constitutes the unity of The United Methodist Church. Historian Richard Heitzenrater (and others) argues that what it truly meant to be Methodist in the early days was to be in connection (or connexion, as the British would spell it) with John Wesley. Similarly, to be United Methodist nowadays means to be a member, minister, or ministry of The United Methodist Church, a formal organization with its own set of laws and regulations governing how the church functions.

People can play with the boundaries of those laws or disobey those laws at times, but one isn’t United Methodist unless one buys into the organization to a certain extent. If a church completely disregards the Book of Discipline, never sends delegates to an Annual Conference, doesn’t pay apportionments, and is in no way linked to the church hierarchy, it’s not United Methodist; it’s an independent, non-denominational church.

Hence, polity is definitely part of what unites United Methodists. In fact, polity is such an important uniting force that it also highlights the forces for disunity. Methodists can argue with Presbyterians and feel that, as fellow Christians or even fellow Protestants, they have a stake in keeping those arguments going and not just walking out. But, at the end of the day, there’s always the option that, if the argument gets too much to deal with, Methodists (or Presbyterians) can take their ball (or, rather, their pension fund) and go home. Yes, that might be a defeat of Christian unity, but it’s not going to cause massive administrative problems in local churches.

United Methodists cannot, however, when arguing with each other, just take their pension fund and go home because it’s the same pension fund! Because polity governs things like money and power but is also something that unites denominations in a fairly robust way, disagreements over other issues quickly get translated into disagreements over polity, and these disagreements matter because they affect things like who gets to be a minister, which ministries get money, and who can become a member of a church. It affects the day-to-day operations of churches in real, tangible ways. Sometimes polity is strong enough to survive these types of conflicts, and churches work through their differences; sometimes it’s not, and churches split.

This tendency for conflicts from other areas of the church to become conflicts about polity means, however, that polity cannot be the sole source of denominational unity. If all we have in common is common pools of money and common structures of power, then all we will do is fight about money and power. There’s already a good deal of that going on in the church (see the comment from a couple of posts ago about people fighting like weasels at General Conference), and we don’t need more of it. Fighting about things like money and power means that the church is focused internally on itself and not focused externally, and that it is focused on earthly things and not heavenly things.

When the church is not focused externally, then it can’t be in mission and ministry to the world, which is a good portion of the church’s reason for existence. When the church is stuck thinking solely about earthly and not heavenly things, then it can’t be an effective worshiping community, which is most of the rest of the church’s reason for existence. And if the church isn’t in mission and isn’t a worshiping community, then it has effectively stopped to be the church, no matter what the name on the incorporation papers say.

Therefore, to do ministry together and to worship communally, which are the reasons for the church’s existence, there must be something more holding the church together than just polity. In the next two weeks, I’ll look at some ideas as to what else might provide that basis of unity.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Peter Bellini - Methodism on Fire

Rev. Dr. Peter J. Bellini is Assistant Professor in the Practice of Global Christianity and Intercultural Studies in the Vera Blinn Chair at United Theological Seminary. Dr. Bellini is a member of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, sponsors of this blog. He has written a recent piece for the Wesleyan Accent blog of World Methodist Evangelism.

The piece is entitled "Methodism on Fire." Dr. Bellini's piece expresses his convictions about the Holy Spirit's role in renewing Methodism, especially in the midst of present uncertainties about its future. In his piece, Dr. Bellini also touches on the Spirit's role in mission and on the global nature of Methodism.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

History as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the second in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

Last week, I began looking at the question of what constitutes the basis of unity for The United Methodist Church. I examined whether theology could serve as a useful basis for unity and concluded it couldn’t. This week, I’d like to examine another answer which serves better than theology but ends up coming up a little short itself; that answer is history.

As a church historian, let me be the first to affirm that denominations arise out of particular historical contexts and that their present shapes are the result of historical processes that have operated on them since their formation. The United Methodist Church has a historical past that includes John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Philip Otterbein, Jacob Albrecht, the circuit riders, various schisms over race and holiness, James Thoburn, the Central Jurisdiction, commitment to temperance, and a whole host of other characters and movements.

We may be prouder of some of the pieces of our past (John Wesley’s opposition to slavery, perhaps), and we may be less proud of some of them (the racism of creating a segregated Central Jurisdiction). Some of them may resonate with us better (Charles Wesley’s hymns), and some of them may resonate with us less well (who is James Thoburn, anyway?). But to be a United Methodist is to share, in some way, this past or heritage.

There’s a difference, though, between saying denominations are historical creatures and saying history is a sufficient basis for denominational unity. To see why, imagine two high school reunions. At the first, the alum goes and has a great time. She or he enjoys seeing old friends, catching up, and reliving the glory days of their time together. The party goes long into the night.

At the second high school reunion, the alum goes, but doesn’t have a good time. He or she talks to friends from high school, but realizes after exchanging a few stories about the past that he or she no longer has anything in common with these people other than those stories about the past. She or he feels uncomfortable and leaves soon.

That’s the same way history works for denominations. In some cases, it can really make you happy with and proud of your identity as a member of a group. In other cases, it just emphasizes the differences between you and your supposed group-mates, and you leave anyway.

What makes the difference between the two cases? First, you need to identify enough with that past for it to mean something to you. If you didn’t like your high school experience, then you won’t even go to the reunion. If the past doesn’t mean anything to the people in the pews or they don’t know it, then it’s not going to further denominational unity.

The key, though, to both having the past mean something to people and to having it be a source of unity (like in the good high school reunion) is that the past can’t just be the past. It must be connected to the present. Unless we recognize who we were in high school as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find we have nothing in common with people at a reunion. Unless we recognize who we were as a denomination in the past as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find our history to be just boring stories about dead people who lived long ago.

Thus, history in and of itself is insufficient grounds for denominational unity. It doesn’t work to say, “We’re a denomination because we were a denomination in the past.” Inertia is a great force in church life, and so the answer of “we’ve always done it that way in the past” will carry you a certain distance, but it doesn’t ultimately make for vitality or the ability to move forward.

History can, however, be used as a tool to aid in the creation of denominational identity in two ways. First, examining our past can be a good source of ideas when we’re casting around to figure out what exactly it is that constitutes denominational identity. Second, telling ourselves stories about our shared past can reinforce that sense of common identity once we’ve identified what it is.

Yet we must choose that identity in the here and now. It isn’t automatically given to us by history, and the effective telling of history to create denominational unity requires a preexisting notion of common identity.

Thus, history may end up being an effective vehicle for conveying unity. Nevertheless, history must be used intentionally to create unity. Relying on unreflective notions of “how it’s always been” just isn’t good enough.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Creation Care Updates

Christians are once again in the midst of the Season of Creation, a month-long focus by Christians from many traditions around the world on the Church's role in caring for God's creation. In light of this month's focus, here is a rundown of some creation care news from The United Methodist Church in the past several months.

A UMNS story, bishops' statement, and UMW response on/to US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords at the beginning of June

Wespath's announcement of its recognition by Responsible Investor for its sustainable investment reporting in June

Global Ministries' announcement of its hiring of Jenny Phillips as its new creation care staff, starting in July

A UMW story on their advocacy related to methane emission regulations in July

A UMNS story from early July about UMC responses to global climate issues

A United Methodist commentary on desert encroachment in Nigeria from early July

An UMCOR report of United Methodist Earthkeepers training in August

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Theology as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the first in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

Starting this week, and for the next several weeks, I’d like to look at the question of the basis of unity in The United Methodist Church.

I think a lot of Christians, especially those from creedal traditions, assume that the basis for unity should be theology or belief. I don’t think this works for United Methodism, though, and I’m not sure how well it works for any non-creedal tradition (or creedal tradition, for that matter).

Before I explain, let me make a disclaimer: I’m not saying in this post that theology doesn’t matter or that people should be able to believe anything they want and still call themselves a Christian or a United Methodist. I think theology does matter. I personally believe a number of things quite fervently and hope others do, too. I even think belief is something that’s worth arguing about at times. So, I’m not saying in this post that belief is unimportant. I’m saying that theology can’t serve as a good basis for unity in The United Methodist Church.

The first reason why theology is an insufficient basis for unity is that, if we look at the church today, it is not a current source of unity. In fact, it’s often a source of division within the church. Liberals and conservatives fight like weasels (a phrase I once heard a United Methodist layperson use to describe General Conference) over theological issues. In order to go from where we are now to a place where theology is the basis for United Methodist unity, either someone would have to persuade a whole lot of people or kick a whole lot of people out of the church. The first seems unrealistic, the latter unacceptable.

Second, it’s not really clear what theological pieces we would set up as the basis for United Methodist unity, were we to try to go that route. Most of what either evangelical or liberal United Methodists would like to get everyone to believe isn’t distinctively United Methodist but is tied into larger theological currents in the U.S. that cut across denominations, so in many cases, neither side is really presenting a distinctively Methodist vision of theological unity.

We could, then, turn to the Book of Discipline to see what it has to say about the doctrinal basis for Methodist unity. But it turns out the Book of Discipline is not very helpful in this regard. It states that the 25 Articles (John Wesley’s condensation/reduction of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Faith) and John Wesley’s sermons shall be the standards of Methodist theology. Added to that are the EUB Confession of Faith.

But that’s such a large body of works that it’s not really useful in defining standards of United Methodist theology to serve as a basis for unity. It’s certainly no five point creed. There are many strands within the Sermons, Articles, and Confession on which to draw. Plus, how many people are you going to get to read even the 25 Articles and Confession, let alone all of Wesley’s sermons (which even most Methodist seminarians don’t read in their entirety)?

If we can’t use these textual resources for unity, perhaps we could identify a couple of historically distinctive doctrines as the theological basis for United Methodist unity. Here, two of the most distinctive Methodist doctrines have been an Arminian approach to salvation and the doctrine of sanctification. Arminianism states that God offers God’s grace freely to all, enabling humans to respond by accepting that grace. The doctrine of sanctification states that God is capable of making humans perfect in love while we are yet alive, and we should all be striving for that.

The problem with Arminianism, though, is that it’s been so widely successful as a theology in the United States that it’s no longer distinctively Methodist. The emphasis within a lot of Arminianism has shifted from free grace to free will, and almost everyone wants to believe in free will in this country. Even a lot of Calvinists or people from Calvinist traditions have become Arminians. Hence, saying that United Methodists are going to be known as the people who believe in free grace and free will Arminianism is like saying Burger King is going to be known as the fast food place that serves burgers. It’s true, but it’s not like there aren’t others making burgers, so it’s not really something that would set them apart.

Which leaves us with sanctification. The problem with trying to make sanctification the theological basis for United Methodist unity is that so few United Methodist actually know what the doctrine is and know that it’s a traditional Methodist doctrine. Of those who do, probably even a smaller number actually believe in the possibility of entire sanctification in this life. I think it’s sad, but nonetheless true, that Methodists have lost touch with the doctrine of sanctification. Given that that’s true, though, it seems like it would be a lot of work to try to reclaim sanctification as the basis of theological unity in the church.

Therefore, I don’t think theology works as the basis for unity in The United Methodist Church. That may make some upset or uneasy, but I don’t think that means there aren’t other possible bases for unity. Agreement on a set list of beliefs is not the basis of unity for families, the Army, knitting groups, or Phish fans, yet there is something which holds each of these groups together. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue to look at some of these other possible grounds for Methodist unity.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Plan now: Methodist Mission Bicentennial

Readers of this blog will be interested to learn of a series of projects and events over the next couple of years celebrating the bicentennial of Methodist mission. The text for an announcement from Global Ministries about that bicentennial follows. More information about the bicentennial can be found at www.methodistmission200.org.

"Over the next two years a series of celebrations will recognize Methodism’s bicentennial of mission, which will occur in 2019 in accord with the 1819 founding of the Missionary Society by the Methodist Episcopal Church, a forerunner to The United Methodist Church. It is exciting that the year 2019 will also recognize the 150th anniversary of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, also of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

"This will be a celebratory time not only for honoring mission in the life of the church, but also for drawing the church further into God’s mission. It will be a time to reflect on the practice of mission, within local churches, annual conferences, and throughout the Methodist family. What have Methodists learned from our past in mission? How is God moving among Methodists today? Where is God calling Methodists to go in mission in the future?

"From its beginning, inspired by lay persons, teachers, church leaders, and clergy in annual conferences, mission has grown to include evangelizing; starting new churches; alleviating suffering; building peace; empowering women; working for justice; training leaders in society; conducting medical missions; starting new schools, hospitals, clinics, and printing presses; and witnessing to the kingdom of God!

"For the celebrations over the next two years, there will be two key components.

"One component will be the collection of stories of Methodists in mission, especially from annual conferences and autonomous Methodist churches. Methodist around the world have stories about their historic participation and current work in mission. Methodist scholars and students, annual conference and autonomous church leaders, and clergy and laity engaged in mission are invited to submit their stories. Collecting and celebrating these stories will be an important means of understanding the many faces of Methodist mission. A website, www.methodistmission200.org, will gather and share these stories.

"The bicentennial will also include a world conference of mission leaders and scholars. Sponsored by Global Ministries, in collaboration with Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, GA, USA, the conference will be called “Answering the Call: Hearing God's Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present, and Future.” It will be held in Atlanta, GA, USA, at the Emory University Conference Center Hotel, April 8-10, 2019. The conference will celebrate Methodism’s mission heritage and look to the future of mission. A call for papers is available at http://bit.ly/2rAMEQw

"The dates for the conference were chosen to coincide closely with the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Society on April 5, 1819, formed to support the work of John Stewart, a free African-American, among the Wyandotte Native American people of Ohio.

"Questions about the bicentennial may be sent to Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology, Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, [and blogmaster for this site] at dscott (at) umcmission.org."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Recommended Reading: Lloyd Narota on How We Can Build a United 'Way Forward'

Lloyd Narota, a United Methodist pastor originally from Zimbabwe but serving a Zimbabwean immigrant congregation in Canada, has recently published an opinion piece on UM Insight on how The United Methodist Church should proceed in its global restructuring efforts associated with the Commission on A Way Forward. This piece will be of interest to readers for two reasons. First, Narota provides a perspective from outside the US on this pressing set of questions in the UMC, and one that is direct in its analysis of the United States' role in the denomination. Second, Narota uses the concept of "unhu," a concept from the Maungwe community of Zimbabwe, in his analysis. Thus, his piece provides a good example of theological reflection informed by non-Western concepts.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Whither the central conferences in a "loosened" connection? Part 2

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Commission on a Way Forward has been worked to develop plans for a new way of structuring The United Methodist Church to preserve some degree of connection and shared ministry while accommodating different and at times fundamentally opposed views of homosexuality. The commission has indicated that their plan will likely entail a “loosening” of the current UMC connection. If the connection will change, it’s worthwhile to carefully examine the question of what the various central conferences might do in such a loosening of the connection. A previous piece looked at how these issues might play out in Europe and the Philippines. This piece looks at the three African central conferences.

Congo Central Conference
The Congo Central Conference is the largest, fastest-growing, and most cohesive of the central conferences in Africa. It contains the largest annual conference in the denomination (North Katanga). The Congo Central Conference has more members than the Southeast Jurisdiction and thus potentially has significant clout at General Conference. As with the Philippines, national boundaries and ecclesiastical boundaries largely overlap (though Zambia and Tanzania are also part of the Congo Central Conference), thus reinforcing a sense of shared identity, despite at times violent differences between ethnic and linguistic groups.

In general, Africans have one of the most conservative sets of views about homosexuality of any group globally. That does not, however, mean they are monolithically opposed to homosexuality, nor does it mean that this issue is the most important in the African context. Often, overwhelming opposition actually means that the issue is not important in the day-to-day life of the church in Africa, since such opposition can just be assumed without reinforcement. This is largely true in the Congo.

Often in recent years, the Congolese have voted at General Conference with conservative leaders from the Southeast Jurisdiction. This connection, however, goes back before recent debates about sexuality and other American culture war issues. Half of the Congolese church stems from mission work of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and thus there has been a close connection between Congolese and Southern US-Americans since the start of Methodism in the Congo. That relationship continues today. For example, newly elected bishop Kasap Owan is close friends with conservative North Georgia leader Joe Kilpatrick. Whatever their connections to the SEJ, though, the Congolese are their own people with their own interests and agendas, and it is an unhelpful stereotype to simply assume that they will support a plan simply because the SEJ wants them to.

One of the agendas for the Congolese UMC is continued financial support from the US. The Democratic Republic of Congo is an extremely poor country (perhaps the poorest in the world), and US money pays for churches, schools, hospitals, and even pastors’ salaries. The Congolese UMC is capable of raising their own money at times – they built a $2 million cathedral in Lubumbashi with their own money – and attitudes about dependency are beginning to change. Nevertheless, the Congolese church as a whole would be hurt if they lost funding from the US.

Moreover, the SEJ is not the only region to have close relations with Congolese United Methodists. The West Ohio Annual Conference, for instance, also has a close relationship, especially with North Katanga. West Ohio has, for instance, sponsored the critically important Wings of the Morning aviation ministry in North Katanga, along with Greater New Jersey.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect the Congo to continue as a unit, with the possible exception of its English-speaking annual conferences in Zambia and Tanzania. It is unlikely that the Congolese would support a plan to change standards on homosexuality for the denomination as a whole. Nevertheless, the Congolese might support some sort of plan that would change the denomination if it allowed them to continue to collaborate in mission with a variety of annual conferences across the US. Thus, the Congolese might be receptive to a multiple US denominations approach if it left their relations with the rest of the denomination relatively intact.

Retired Congolese bishop David Yemba’s role as a moderator of the Commission on a Way Forward and Congolese bishop Mande Muyombo’s and Wings of Caring pilot Jacques Umembudi’s role as members of the Commission on a Way Forward will carry significant weight in promoting the plan to their fellow Congolese United Methodists. In the Congo, as in much of Africa, United Methodists generally follow their bishop’s leadership. Hence, Congolese (and other African) support will depend on whether their bishops see such a plan as beneficial to them and their regions.

West Africa Central Conference
The West Africa Central Conference contains United Methodists in four main countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire – along with smaller mission work in Senegal and the Gambia. Three of the countries in West Africa are English-speaking, while Cote d’Ivoire is primarily French-speaking and was not part of the denomination prior to 2008.

While relations between United Methodists in Liberia and Sierra Leone are often tight, connections among Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and the other two countries are less robust. The West Africa Central Conference does not collaborate much beyond its quadrennial meetings. National branches have a degree of leeway in selecting their own bishops, reinforcing a national-level sense of identity. There have, however, been instances in which the WACC has disregarded national-level opinions in episcopal elections, which has only served to create tensions amongst the national branches.

Civil wars and unrest in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have left churches there reliant on international economic assistance to rebuild damaged infrastructure, though the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences in particular have shown an interest in achieving greater self-sufficiency, meaning they are perhaps less threatened by the economic ramifications of a loosening of the connection than the Congolese might.

In general, views on homosexuality are conservative, as in the rest of Africa. Jerry Kulah, one of leaders of the Africa Initiative and an outspoken voice for maintaining strong opposition to homosexuality in the UMC, is from Liberia. Nevertheless, views are not monolithic. Reconciling Ministries has had productive visits to Liberia.

Still, it is unlikely that West Africans would vote to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. West Africans, however, might be willing to go along with a plan for several denominations under an umbrella of the UMC. There are no Liberians or Sierra Leoneans on the Commission on a Way Forward, which could hurt the plan’s chances in West Africa, especially if Jerry Kulah comes out in opposition to it. Bishop John Wesley Johanna’s membership on the Commission will help the plan’s fate in Nigeria.

What will also be interesting to see is whether the West Africa Central Conference would continue to exist in its present formation in a new UMC. The Central Conference is not plagued by the same tensions as the Africa Central Conference (see below), so inertia might be enough to carry it forward. Yet if things are changing in the UMC, it may be a chance for national branches of the UMC in West Africa to reassess the value to them of collaborating through a common central conference. Such reassessment is more likely if they are asked to write a common Book of Discipline. National differences may yield little interest in such a common Book of Discipline.

Africa Central Conference
The Africa Central Conference is the least cohesive of all the central conferences. It contains three lingua francas, five episcopal areas, ten or more different countries, and dozens of ethnic groups and local languages. All this diversity yields a central conference that, quite frankly, has little in common amongst itself. The quadrennial meetings of the central conference are often marked with difficulties regarding language, meeting location, and procedural questions, and the central conference as such has no existence beyond these meetings in the form of joint ministry.

As with most of the rest of Africa, views on homosexuality tend to be conservative, though South Africa, which has relatively liberal views on homosexuality is in this region, too. Forbes Matonga from the Africa Initiative is from Zimbabwe, though the issue of sexuality is not a top priority for most in the region.

Annual conferences here are less likely to be in close relationship with the Southeast Jurisdiction. ACC annual conferences partner with a variety of American annual conferences. For example, the Mozambique Episcopal Area has a close relationship with Missouri. Moreover, for Portuguese-speaking annual conferences, connections to the autonomous Methodist Church in Brazil are important along with UMC connections.

The episcopal areas are also varying degrees of economically self-sufficient. All countries still have economic struggles and benefit from US support, especially for medical infrastructure, but the basic operations of the annual conferences (pastors’ salaries and theological education) are not as heavily subsidized by the US as elsewhere in Africa. The East Africa Episcopal Area has been operating without much US funds for the last several years because of financial disputes between Global Ministries and US annual conferences on the one hand and Bishop Daniel Wandabula on the other.

Thus, the Africa Central Conference might be quite open to a loosening of the connection, not only with United Methodists elsewhere, but amongst itself, especially if that yields more autonomy for national or regional level groups. Even before the Commission on a Way Forward, there were proposals to split the Africa Central Conference into four. If the Commission proposes an approach that allows sub-units of the UMC to craft their own Books of Discipline, there is no reason to expect that the Africa Central Conference would try to do that together. Instead, look for up to four separate Books of Discipline for this region – Angola, Zimbabwe, Southeast Africa, and East Africa.

Conclusion
As stated in the introduction, the debate over homosexuality might be primarily American, but if the church is revamping its structures, that process can play out in different ways around the globe. It would be wrong to think that changes in the structure of the church in the US will not lead to any changes in the structure of the church elsewhere.

In summary, look for Europeans to strengthen their connections to each other while connections loosen elsewhere, perhaps implementing a local option to accommodate differences over homosexuality among themselves. Look for the Philippines to continue as is in terms of structure and stance on homosexuality or possibly to seek full autonomy from the denomination. Look for the map of African Central Conferences to be reshaped, especially in the south and east, while all branches uphold current teachings on sexuality.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Whither the central conferences in a "loosened" connection? Part 1

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Commission on a Way Forward has been worked to develop plans for a new way of structuring The United Methodist Church to preserve some degree of connection and shared ministry while accommodating different and at times fundamentally opposed views of homosexuality. The commission has indicated that their plan will likely entail a “loosening” of the current UMC connection.

Generally, this “loosening” of the connection has been assumed to imply separate groups (mini-denominations? semi-denominations?) in the United States under some sort of common umbrella. Chris Ritter has provided an analysis of what such a scenario could look like in the United States. Part of the debate currently seems to be over whether there will be two (conservative and progressive) or three (conservative, moderate, and progressive) such denominations.

All discussions that I have seen so far either ignore the question of what will happen to the Central Conferences under such a scenario or assume that the Central Conferences will continue as they currently exist while the US church splits apart (Chris’s piece, for instance, makes this assumption). Nevertheless, if the connection will change, it’s worthwhile to carefully examine the question of what the various central conferences might do in such a loosening of the connection.

This question of the impact of the Commission's work on the central conferences includes not just the question of where various parts of the UMC stand on issues of sexuality, but also what sorts of changes in structure might be prompted globally by a period in which United Methodists are rethinking the nature of their connections to one another. The debate over homosexuality might be primarily American, but if the church is revamping its structures, that process can play out in different ways around the globe. It would be wrong to think that changes in the structure of the church in the US will not lead to any changes in the structure of the church elsewhere.

This post and a following one will give my attempt to analyze the possibilities. This post will examine Europe and the Philippines, while the following one will examine the three African central conferences.

Europe
Many assume that on the issue of sexuality, Europeans are progressive. This is because when Americans think of Europe, they tend to think of Western Europe and assume that the church has the same progressive views on sexuality as the majority of Western Europeans do. Both parts of this assumption, however, are not fully accurate.

It is true that some European Annual Conferences have progressive views on sexuality. The Denmark Annual Conference was one of two challenging the constitutionality of the Book of Disciple language on homosexuality. Yet, I have seen indications that French United Methodists are more conservative on this question than French society as a whole.

Moreover, within Europe, there is a significant divide between Western European and Eastern European views on homosexuality, both within society and within the church. The Estonia Annual Conference passed a resolution affirming marriage as between one man and one woman. Denmark and Estonia are in the same central conference and even the same episcopal area. Hence, significant differences of opinion on sexuality exist within Europe.

Yet to assume that homosexuality is the most pressing issue for the churches in Europe is to misunderstand them on a more fundamental level. The branches of the UMC in Europe are small and exist precariously in the shadow of various state churches. Connections to international United Methodists elsewhere are crucial for European UMs to legitimize their existence in their home contexts.

Because there are three central conferences in Europe, not all European United Methodists need take the same option. Nevertheless, connections amongst European United Methodists tend to be tight, especially between those from the Germany and Central and Southern Europe Central Conferences. Because of the importance of international connection for all European United Methodists, it is reasonable to expect the European Central Conferences to all choose a common path.

That path could, therefore, be the status quo. It could, however, also include the adoption of some sort of local option in Europe that would accommodate the differences of opinion that exist there. It could also include the formation of some sort of regional body that would unite the separate central conferences. Especially if their ties to the US and Africa are loosened, it may be more important for Europeans to strengthen ties with one another. Another version of this possibility would be for European United Methodists to strengthen ties with other European Methodists (British, Irish, Italian, etc.) to compensate for loosened ties with United Methodists elsewhere. Full union with other Methodist churches in Europe would be unlikely because of the amount of work involved, but there might be other forms of possible closer ties.

Philippines
The Philippines are a single Central Conference with a great deal of cohesion as a central conference. The overlap between national and ecclesiastical borders reinforces a sense of Filipino United Methodism. There are several shared institutions and agencies that serve all parts of Filipino United Methodism. While in the US, it can be argued that annual conferences are the basic level of polity, in the Philippines, most of the programmatic activities of the church, which would be annual conference-level programs in the US, are organized at the episcopal area or central conference level. Certainly, there are ethnic and language differences among different groups of Filipino United Methodists, but the sense of solidarity among Filipino United Methodists is fairly high.

The majority of Filipinos are still generally conservative on the issue of homosexuality, but the Philippines has been willing to hold conversations about sexuality at which a range of viewpoints are represent. I don’t expect the Philippines to press for radical change in their own or any other United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality, but neither is homosexuality the presenting issue for debates about orthodoxy in the Philippines. United Methodism in the Philippines largely preserves an older strain of Methodism in which traditional theology with a revivalist twist goes hand in hand with a progressive stance on social issues such as poverty, indigenous rights, and the climate. Filipino United Methodism doesn’t experience the same sort of culture wars and theological wars that the US does.

Thus, the Philippines could likely be willing to continue on in their current arrangement as a central conference with the current BOD restrictions on sexuality. Another possibility, however, would be that a loosening of UMC connections might prompt the Philippines to become autonomous. The Philippines were the only branch of Asian Methodism that did not elect to become autonomous between 1964 and 1972. There have occasionally been pushes for autonomy since then, though they have never resulted in a vote in favor of autonomy. Nevertheless, if the UMC is rethinking its structure, that may present an occasion for Filipino Methodists to rethink their relation to the UMC.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity - Concluding Thoughts, Part II

This is the sixth 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. Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

This series of blogs has looked at four denominations and compared them to The United Methodist Church and each other: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene. The previous post in the series shared some concluding thoughts about what it means to be a global Methodist/Wesleyan denomination. This post will share additional concluding thoughts. These thoughts, however, will not be about being a global church; instead, they will examine church size.

The previous post noted that both in the early twentieth century and in the 1960s and 70s, United Methodists and their predecessors focused on merger rather than crafting international polities. These decisions to pursue merger have had implications not only for the global nature of the church but also organizational consequences that have affected the church regardless of location.

This post is not meant to be a critique of the ecumenical spirit that was a part of previous Methodist mergers. Ecumenism is both authentically Methodist and an important part of the Christian witness to the catholicity of the church.

Nevertheless, other scholars have suggested that ecumenical motives were not the only ones at play in past Methodist mergers. There was also a desire to build a bigger and hence more influential church. This desire for influence was a desire for cultural and political power in the United States and thus US-focused. The consequences of such a desire for size and influence have affected the UMC, and not entirely in positive was.

In fact, comparisons with other Methodist/Wesleyan bodies show two negative aspects to United Methodist’s historic choices for size and influence:

1. The UMC is not only bigger than other denominations; it has more loci of power.

The UMC is relatively top-heavy in its leadership. The number of bishops or general superintendents in other denominations varied, but it ranged from 6 to 20. In comparison, the UMC has 66 bishops. Most of these people are faithful, Spirit-filled people; that’s not the point. The point is just that there are more of them.

This plethora of bishops is a consequence not only of denominational size but also of choices made. First, it is a consequence of the system of missionary bishops that the MEC created but then never fully thought through, in part because of the impending 1939 merger. It is also a consequence of the 1939 merger and the desire of both the Southern and Northern churches to not be led by each other’s bishops.

As a consequence of both choices, the UMC has moved toward a de facto diocesan system of bishops instead of some sort of itinerant general superintendency. This shift has meant more bishops and more administrative functions associated with bishops in each episcopal area.

The United Methodist Church also has more boards and agencies than its sibling denominations, and the boards and agencies have greater autonomy than in other denominations, many of which have a single board model. This is not a criticism of our bishops or our boards and agencies; they all do good and faithful work. Again, the point is that there are more of them.

Here again, size is a factor, but so are historical choices. The UMC has more boards and agencies with greater independence because it often pioneered their creation. Especially the Methodist Episcopal Church had the size and resources to invent a lot of the components of what became the standard template for modern church bureaucracy. That is an accomplishment.

I do not think that The United Methodist Church should undo the accomplishments of its predecessors by eliminating boards and agencies in some sort of purge fueled by anti-bureaucracy ideology. All of our sibling denominations have boards and agencies to help them carry out their ministries. Boards and agencies are an important part of how denominations work together.

What is important, however, is the ways in which boards and agencies communicate and coordinate with each other. There have been significant efforts over the last decade here, and more efforts are on-going. The boards and agencies are significantly less siloed than they once were.

Neither bishops nor boards are bad in and of themselves. Having so many of them, though, means that there are multiple and sometimes conflicting sources of power in the denomination. While this arrangement can ensure a level of democratization, it also relates to my second point:

2. Smaller denominations are more focused in their mission.

Reading through the books of discipline for all four comparative denominations, I got a sense for what ethos united them as a denomination beyond their bureaucratic structures. I’m not sure the same can be said for the UMC.

In part, that’s because the UMC has always been a diverse tradition. In part, that’s because of the large number of leaders and agencies we have. But more than anything, I think it’s a function of size. The UMC and its predecessors have repeatedly favored numeric growth over focused mission, whether that was through pursuit of church mergers or relaxing standards on class meeting attendance. Thus, we’ve had a lot of members with a lot of different ideas about how to be Methodist.

There have been positive aspects to choosing size (ecumenicity, inclusivity, etc.), but there have also been costs. Indeed, the costs have become especially evident as United Methodism has found itself wondering what it means to be United Methodist, where the church should focus, and how (or whether) the church can move in the same direction, questions highlighted by long-running American membership decline and long-running debates about homosexuality.

I am not arguing here that the UMC should break up into smaller denominations for the sake of mission. While that is a possibility, and there would be some benefits, there are certainly costs involved in that choice, too, and I do not suggest that those costs are better.

Instead, I think that the present moment represents an opportunity for the UMC to ask how to (re-)structure itself in a way that will not emphasize preserving the most cultural power and largest group of members possible but instead emphasize enabling its members to pursue the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in ways that are contextually relevant and recognizes the equality of different units of the church to determine for themselves what those ways are. This is a tall order, but if the UMC wants to continue to be a global denomination, a sense of shared mission is essential.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity - Concluding Thoughts, Part I

This is the fifth 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. Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

This series of blog posts comparing the various approaches to being a global Wesleyan/Methodist denomination has thus far looked at four denominations and compared them to The United Methodist Church and each other: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene. While it might be possible to continue the series by looking at other churches (the AME Zion, the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, etc.), these four and the UMC cover significant and distinct examples of how a Methodist/Wesleyan church might approach being a global denomination.

After surveying these various examples, what are the overall takeaways from this exercise in comparative polity? There are two main ones related to being a global church:

1. There are several ways to be a global Methodist/Wesleyan body, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

The AME, the Wesleyans and Free Methodists, and the Nazarenes have each taken distinct approaches to trying to craft a global denomination that is not just dominated by Americans but fully supports and recognizes the gifts, ministries, and voices of members around the world.

The AME pursues that goal through denominational bodies (the Global Development Council and Committee on Global Development) with significant power to make changes in the denomination to better accommodate non-US members.

Both The Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church pursue that goal by allowing the creation of separate General Conferences with separate Books of Discipline, united into one International Conference with a common kernel of shared doctrine and polity.

The Church of the Nazarene pursues that goal through emphasizing three-self theory and the creation of Phase 3 districts around the world which are self-supporting, self-led, and self-propagating.

The United Methodist Church has elements of the AME approach (in the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters) and the Wesleyan/Free Methodist approach (in the provision for central conference adaptation of the Book of Discipline) but has not gone as far as any of these denominations.

Yet the takeaway should be that there are many possible models for The United Methodist Church to adopt as well as the possibility of crafting a unique model of its own.

2. There are windows of opportunities for denominations to make changes to structurally reflect the global/international nature of their membership more fully.

Surveying the other four denominations as well as United Methodist history, it seems there have been three eras in which questions of how to be a global denomination have been particularly pressing.

The first is an era of early missionary expansion. Especially for the Church of the Nazarene, but also for the Free Methodist Church, mission was integral to the beginning of the denomination, and questions of global polity were already being worked out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner of the UMC, was also experimenting with its global polity at the same time, creating central conferences and missionary bishops, but the MEC stepped back from fully thinking through the implications of these new structures because it wanted to focus on the upcoming merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church.

The second is an era of decolonialization, staring in the early 1960s and running through the early 1970s. For the Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes, this period was an important time for beginning to shift structures to reflect a more international membership.

The Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren has such conversations at the same time, especially through the Committee on the Status of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), but real changes were sidelined because the major focus of the time was on working out the merger between the two denominations.

The third is an era of world Christianity starting in the 1980s or 1990s and running through the present. All four other denominations have made significant changes in their polity in response to shifting trends in membership, with overseas membership increasing significantly and American membership declining or growing slowly.

The UMC has changed the mandates of some of its general boards and agencies and adjusted formulas for membership on boards of directors but thus far has not made the same sort of significant changes the other denominations have. While such changes (including creating a US central conference) have been proposed and even passed by General Conference, major changes have been sideline by ongoing conflicts about human sexuality (which has been much less a debate in the other traditions).

We are not yet done with the era of world Christianity, though. There is still a chance for The United Methodist Church to join with its Methodist and Wesleyan sibling denominations to try to more fully live into the goal of being a global church that unites members from around the world while recognizing and enabling the variety of vital ministries each engage in. Focus on mergers prevented Methodists from taking such opportunities in the past. The question for us today is whether focus on separation will do the same thing.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part IV

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 the fourth of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

Institution
Another area in which we at Global Ministries appreciated what WLP said but wished it would go further was in talking about the human dimension of the church. As WLP states, “The truth—the theological truth, even—is that the church is indeed also a very human community, an association of often all too like-minded individuals, and that it does also serve human purposes quite distinct from, and sometimes counter to, the purposes of God.” (lines 406-408). The document also makes frequent reference to the “human uses” of the church and draws on the language of the “visible” and “invisible” church to talk about the distinction between the church as God intends it and the church as humans have made it for their own purposes. We found the recognition of the failings of the church contained in these discussions useful.

Yet we also felt that it was possible to go beyond what was already included in the text. While the text explores “human uses” of the church and “human abuses” of the church, these discussions are not grounded in a theological anthropology or a theology of sin, both of which would give greater insight into what it means to be human and when humans depart from the will of God. As we noted in our discussion, merely being human is not itself problematic. Indeed, in light of the Incarnation, God highly values the human. Wesley affirmed the imago Dei in humanity. Humanity is not inherently deficient or broken, but sin is a rejection of our “humanness” as God created and intended it to be. Thus, the problem is not the church being at times human but the church being at times sinful in its actions and attitudes. WLP does not contradict these theological affirmations, but could benefit by stating them more clearly.

This discussion of the human aspect of the church would also be strengthened by a thorough theology of institutions. At the same time as the church is a movement and a community, neither of which are institutions, it is also an institution. A solid understanding of institutions could also help us better understand Methodism as a movement by allowing us to draw clear distinctions between the two categories. Moreover, many of the conflicts within The United Methodist Church revolve around the institutional structures of the church. A theology of institutions would complement a theological anthropology to help us understand our church institutions in more than a solely functional or merely political way but also help to make sense of the political and functional dimensions of the church.

Admittedly, there are fewer resources to draw on here, as modern institutions are in general under-theologized. Nevertheless, some conclusions are possible. Such a theology of institutions would have to balance the natural human tendency toward organization with the sinful human tendency to use institutions as a means to pursue power, control others, and indulge our base and selfish motives. Thus, a proper theology of institutions should be confessional, prophetic, aspirational, and humble.

There are moments at which WLP does strike confessional notes on the ways in which Methodists and their institutions have failed to live up to the calling of God. It makes brief nods to the racism and colonialism that characterize the history of the church. Yet there is more for United Methodists to confess. We have also sinned in our treatment of women, the poor, immigrants, foreigners, and God’s creation. Moreover, our sins are not entirely behind us. We as a denomination continue to be Americentric in our structures and thinking. We let money distort relationships and the mission of the church. We exclude, denigrate, and discriminate against people based on a whole host of characteristics. We choose our own comfort over God’s calling. We continue to reflect rather than challenge the world around us in too many ways.

Thus, we thought it important for WLP to not only confess the sins of the church but to affirm and model the church’s prophetic calling. WLP chooses to use Christ’s threefold offices as priest, prophet, and king to frame its discussion of ordained ministry. However, this framework seems at times forced to encompass the ways in which United Methodism has structured its ordained ministry. While a prophetic dimension is theoretically part of ordained ministry in the UMC, our theological documents and structural practices frequently discourage the exercise of such an office. For example, we might note here how the 1968 Book of Discipline, quoted and discussed in lines 724-746 of WLP, defines ordination primarily as being entrusted with special authority over Word, Sacrament, and Order. Priestly and kingly functions (as well as administrative responsibilities) are clearly contained within this understanding of ordination, but prophecy is conspicuously absent.

Too often we expect our members and our ordained leaders to keep the system going rather than to challenge it with a prophetic vision of God’s calling for our institutions. Since this document is intended as a teaching document, it should not only reflect the church as it is, but also project a vision of the church as it should be.

Thus, a good theology of institutions must also be aspirational. The prophetic voice should not only condemn the injustices that are but paint a picture of the church and the world as God intends them to be. It should show how our deepest theological convictions are expressed in the church currently but also what a fuller expression of those beliefs would look like – in structures, in practices, in attitudes. At several points, WLP does recognize the aspirational nature of the church as the document describes it, and we appreciated these moments. For instance, WLP recognizes that the Methodist distinctives we proclaim are often aspirational. Such an affirmation seems a very Methodist statement – proclaiming that we are individually and collectively going on toward perfection but are not there yet.

Thus, the final necessary element for a good theology of institutions is humility. In present day American if not global culture, there can seem to be a tension between being prophetic and being humble. Yet this tension resolves when both are properly understood. Prophecy is not shouting loudly about how one is right and others wrong. Prophecy begins with the ability to be self-critical, a deeply humble and humbling activity. Pride binds us to institutions as they are, but humility frees us to imagine them another way, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to grant a prophetic vision for change. Humility allows us to recognize, to borrow an ecumenical term from Karl Barth, that ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church must always be reformed. Finally, recognizing the common root of humble and human, an ecclesiology with humility allows us to embrace an ecclesiology with humanity, even as we reach toward the divine.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Middle and the Margins in Methodism

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

American United Methodists seem to have generally come to accept that the proposal of the Commission on a Way Forward will include some sort of “loosening” of the connection that involves separate structures for different groups of American United Methodists under a common umbrella. This being seen as fait accompli, the debate among American United Methodists has shifted to one between conservative incompatibilists (i.e., those opposed to gay marriage and ordination and are unwilling to live in the same structure as those in favor) and compatibilists (i.e., those of whatever opinion on homosexuality who are willing to live in the same structure with those of different opinions).

This debate has progressed along two main lines – one structural and one rhetorical.

The structural question is whether the US should be split into two or three sub-denominations. Many conservative incompatibilists would like the denomination to split into two – a “progressive” denomination for those unwilling to live with the current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to be small, and an “orthodox” denomination that continues current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to contain the majority of the current US church. Conservative compatibilists assume that they would be positioned to control this orthodox-majority church.

Many compatibilists, however, would like the US church to split into three – an “orthodox” denomination for those seeking hardline prohibitions against homosexuality, a “progressive” denomination for those seeking immediate full inclusion of gays and lesbians, and the rest of the denomination, presumed to be the majority, which would tolerate a diversity of opinions, perhaps through some sort of local option. Compatibilists assume both orthodox and progressive churches would be small and they would be positioned to control the tolerant majority church. Thus, the fight between conservative incompatibilists and moderate compatibilists is over who will have control over the majority of the US church.

Along with this basic fight for control through structural arrangements has been a rhetorical fight over which group is the “middle” in United Methodism. American moderate compatibilists claim that, by willing to engage people of all opinions, they are in the middle of American Methodist views on sexuality. American conservative incompatibilists claim that they actually are a majority of American Methodists and, if not, they are certainly in the middle of United Methodist views on homosexuality globally.

Thus, this debate is, at heart, a debate about being in the center and therefore having the power to determine the rules for those on the periphery. Moreover, it is clear that for both sides of the debate, United Methodists in the central conferences and progressive American United Methodists are not at the center and therefore should not have the power to determine the rules for the rest of the denomination or even, in some cases, themselves.* Thus, center/periphery functions as both a geographic and a theological distinction.

There are, however, two good, theological reasons to question both sides’ framing of this debate and their objectives within it.

First, one may take issue with the central objective of being at the center and wielding power. Jesus cautions, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is not an invitation to seek the center. Paul adds, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” because we follow “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Seeking the center is not seeking to be like the crucified Christ.

This rush to the center and avoidance of the margins also goes against the best in contemporary theological reflection on mission. The margins are often where we best encounter God and where God does some of God’s best work. As Together Towards Life states, “We affirm that marginalized people are agents of mission and exercise a prophetic role which emphasizes that fullness of life is for all. The marginalized in society are the main partners in God’s mission.” Seeking the center can take us away from participating in God’s mission.

Second, one may take issue with how the wielding of power is conceived. In Mark 10, Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” For Jesus, being a ruler, being great, being at the center, is not about “lording it over” those at the margins; it’s about serving them.

Cast in secular political terms, several commentators have expressed sentiments to the effect that the true moral test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities. The United Methodist Church is a democracy and moreover one that is not set up well to impose the will of the majority upon a substantial minority; hence the large amount of local disregard for General Conference directives.

This is not to say a church can’t set boundaries to its teaching or membership, but does mean that those who would see themselves at the center, whether conservative or moderate on issues of sexuality, should ask themselves what they are willing to do to support the mission, ministry, and spiritual development of those at the margins, whether that’s Filipinos, racial minorities in the US, Africans, American progressives, or Europeans. Last weekend's events in Charlottesville dramatically demonstrate how threatened those at the margins can be from systems of sin and oppression. How can those in the Methodist middle, as John Wesley would say, first do no harm to minority groups and second do good to minority groups’ ministries so that all may stay (and grow) in love with God?

Both sides in the current UMC debate accuse each other of accommodating to the world while proudly proclaiming the counter-cultural witness of their own side. More than anything, the world seeks power and privilege. True Christian witness that goes against the ways of the world seeks humility and gives power away.

*Conservative American incompatibilists say that Africans should be allowed to determine the rules on the issue of homosexuality, where they agree with conservative Americans, but by and large conservative American United Methodists do not argue that we should follow Africans’ lead in other regards, expect perhaps an emphasis on revivalism, which is already a value for conservative Americans and thus not something that they support because they were led to it by Africans. American compatibilists largely do not talk about non-American United Methodists.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part III

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 the third of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

Community
Community is an important term for WLP. One of the three core theological convictions that shape the document is, “The saving love of God creates community.” Global Ministries appreciates and affirms this focus on the church as a community. Nevertheless, we also felt there were important ways in which this focus on community could be extended and given additional Wesleyan theological grounding.

Such additional grounding could be achieved by noting the connections between the three theological emphases of WLP: that the saving love of God is for all, that the saving love of God is transformative, and that the saving love of God creates community. Put another way, WLP could enrich its discussion of community by focusing on community as not merely a static state, part of the unchangeable essence of the church, but by focusing on community as an active entity, the body that carries out the works of the church. Such an active understanding of community would highlight the connection between community and mission (related to the first emphasis) and between community and discipleship (related to the second emphasis).

We have already noted the need for a greater mission-orientation in the ecclesiology presented in WLP. In addition to the already given reasons for doing so, such an orientation could help uncover important insights into the nature and activities of the church as a community. The church as a community is always invitational. It is perpetually reaching beyond itself, seeking to bring new members into itself. Even in the face of rejection, the church continues to extend the invitation of Christ to the world, thereby participating in God’s mission of redemption.

Yet to say that the church is (or should be) such an invitational community is to make a claim that sets the church apart from many other communities. Community of any type presumes some level of similarity. All too often, however, similarity implies group boundaries, and those boundaries make it difficult for those outside of a group to join it. In our world today, we see the tragic consequences of such an approach to community formation in nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, tribalism, and sexism. These chauvinistic forms of community wound the world and the church. The church is called to bind these wounds inflicted by false understandings of community and to seek reconciliation in such conflicts.

The church can most effectively do so when it remembers its missional, invitational nature as a community. For the church, unlike almost any other community, the commonality that brings us together also impels us to reach beyond ourselves, rather than focus within or on precisely drawing the boundaries. The saving love of God in Jesus Christ is the commonality upon which Christian community is built (as WLP recognizes). Yet our experience of that saving love must, according to Wesleyan theology, lead us to respond by seeking to share that love with others. Thus, any community that is not actively engaged in God’s mission to share the saving love of God in Christ cannot claim to be a fully Wesleyan expression of the church. We recognize that we as a United Methodist community are still, as WLP puts is, “in pursuit of God’s gift of community,” and thus imperfect in living out this task, but the task should be named.

Just as Christian community cannot be separated from active participation in God’s mission, so it also cannot be separated from the process of forming individual believers as disciples. As WLP notes, “the saving love of God is transformative,” and as it further notes, “growth in love and in the other fruits of the Spirit is possible only in community.” Yet given the emphasis that Wesley and other Methodists have placed on this practice of social holiness – growth in discipleship in community – it is disappointing that WLP does not spend more time discussing this aspect of the church as a community. Classes, bands, and other small fellowships have been central Methodist means to make disciples in community, and it would be nice to see such groups lifted up in the document.

Moreover, a discussion of the relationship between community and disciple-making would be an opportunity for WLP to bring additional Wesleyan theological insights into the conversation. In particular, WLP could talk about the communal practices involved in Wesley’s means of grace. Methodism as an expression of church originated in just such a setting – believers joining together in class meetings and bands to hold one another accountable in their process of growing as disciples. By acknowledging the importance of community as a context for experiencing the transformative love of God, WLP would have an opportunity to exposit key Wesleyan ecclesiological concepts such as discipline. Such a discussion could help laity better understand such historically important practices of Methodism, commend them to Methodists today, and emphasize the practical nature of Methodist ecclesiology.

Furthermore, a discussion of the communal means of grace could further enrich WLP’s exploration of the relationship between koinonia and ekklesia. The two Articles WLP cites from United Methodism’s theological affirmations both mention the sacraments and the word of God. Wesley mentions the importance of both communion and Bible study as communal works of grace. While sermons are certainly not the only means for studying the Bible, they are a means. Affirming communion and group engagement with the Bible as elements of both koinonia and ekklesia would make an important connection between the two, one that highlights our Wesleyan theological heritage.