Thursday, December 28, 2017

Recommended reading: Mission Year in Review

As 2017 draws to a close, this is in the season for year-in-reviews. UM & Global will have our own retrospective of 2017 and look forward to 2018 next week. In the meantime, I recommend you check out Rev. Scott Parrish's "Mission Year in Review." Parrish makes a passionate plea for churches to try new things and engage with their surrounding culture. This plea makes it a very forward-looking year-in-review.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Kyle Tau on Unity, Ecumenism, and Ecclesiology

Rev. Dr. Kyle Tau,  Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Development for the Council of Bishops of The UMC, has recently published an article in Methodist Review that connects well to many of the reflections on ecclesiology and unity UM & Global has been publishing this year.

The abstract for the article reads: "This essay explores the current conditions for church unity derived from the political and organizational culture of modernity and questions whether a new definition and form of unity is needed as modernity itself undergoes a major transformation.  It asks whether the centralizing legal and bureaucratic structures that now animate conversations around church unity ought to be retought in light of postmodern trends.  It proposes a more multi-textured form of unity as koinonia or communion made up of an overlapping network of relationships characterized by the mutual recognition of members, ministries, and sacraments.  Drawing upon the metaphor of a web or ecosystem this essay affirms the ecumenical shift to pursuing bilateral full communion agreements over large multilateral attempts at merger, and proposes that intra-Methodist unity be conceptualized as a communion of distinct connectional structures."

Articles from Methodist Review are available for free, with registration required.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Conferencing, relationships, and denominational unity

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.

Here is an interesting comparison for United Methodists: The Church of the Nazarene had their quadrennial General Assembly this past summer. Opening worship for the event, which brought together Nazarenes from around the world, emphasized “unity in diversity,” a theme participants enthusiastically affirmed, talking about how much they valued relationships across cultural and national differences in the church. Organizers and participants referred to General Assembly as a “global family reunion.” At GA2017, one of the big debates was whether to have future General Assemblies every four years or every five years. Delegates voted to keep future General Assemblies every four years because they so enjoyed meeting together.

Such a description is nigh-unthinkable for a General Conference of The United Methodist Church. If General Conference were to promote a theme of “unity in diversity,” it would be cynical dismissed by many participants as a top-down attempt to paper over divisions and preserve the institution. Participants often speak of the global nature of the church as a challenge rather than a blessing. Nobody thinks of General Conference as a family reunion. And no majority would vote to keep the meeting every four years for the fun of it. GC might be kept every four years, but the reason would be to address all of the important business facing it.

The Church of the Nazarene’s General Assembly and The United Methodist Church’s General Conference are both expressions of the Wesleyan practice of conferencing. But they seemingly could not be more different. How can we account for this difference, and what can it tell us about The United Methodist Church can effectively foster the sorts of familial Christian relationships necessary to undergird denominational unity?

In his book, The Methodist Conference in America: A History, Russ Richey argues that the practice of conferencing in American Methodism, at all levels from charge conferences to General Conferences, originally served three functions: polity, fraternity, and revival. Polity refers to official decision-making, fraternity refers to relationship-building, and revival refers to spirituality-building. One of Richey’s main arguments in the book is that, over time, the polity function has edged out the other two, especially at less local levels of the church. There’s certainly much to bemoan about the loss of the revival function, but for now my focus is on the loss of the fraternity function.

As Richey demonstrates, the reasons for the eclipse of fraternity by polity are many and long-term. The complexity of Methodist polity has increased. The number of Methodists has increased since the 18th century. The diversity of Methodists has increased. The culture around us has changed. And Richey barely touches on the global nature of The United Methodist Church. There is no simple one thing for us to reverse to go back to a better time in the history of United Methodism.

Yet, with the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the called General Conference in February of 2019, we do have the opportunity to fashion new ways of going forward, new ways of being for the future, even if we cannot simply go back to the past.

One thing United Methodists can learn from our ancestors and from our Nazarene cousins is the importance of making time and space for relationships in our conferences. If we want our denomination to foster relationships, then we need to allot sufficient time in our gatherings to create genuine relationships.

Instead, United Methodists, following the logic of American culture and under the pressures of a slowly diminishing American base, have prized efficiency and impact in how we structure our conferences. We have prioritized making as many decisions on as many topics as possible. These priorities have left us with little time for relationship, which has not been a priority.

Creating time and space for relationships is not easy. It requires effort. It is expensive. It often means letting go of other things one could be doing with that time and space. Creating time and space for relationships requires prioritizing relationships over other functions.

The Nazarenes have some insight here in how they structure General Assembly: Minimize the decisions you need to make. Nazarenes have a strong practice of subsidiarity: more local organizations have a lot of the decision-making power, freeing up more time in General Assembly. In addition, while General Assembly does speak to important issues in the church and world, it does not try to be comprehensive in its proclamations, freeing up more time. Less is more: the fewer decisions that General Assembly needs to make, the more time for relationships.

Such principles could apply to United Methodism as well, and not just at General Conference. Where can more decision-making be entrusted to locals? What can we afford not to address at our conferences? How can we then open up more space for relationships?

In my post last week, I suggested denominations can’t get more relationship by doing more of what they’re already doing. Here I am suggesting something even stronger: to foster more relationship, we may even need to do less of what we’re already doing. The surprising insight is that in order to have a more unified denomination, we may need to let go rather than grab tight. In order to get more relationship and thus more unity, we must be willing to give up our own power and accept our limitations.

We may find comfort than in so doing, we will be following the way of 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” (Philippines 2:6-8). Jesus gave up his own power and accepted limitations, even the limitation of death, all for the sake of relationship, for the sake of love. May we have the courage to do likewise.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Kwok Pui Lan: Feminist Theology from the Global South and the Church’s Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Kwok Pui Lan. Dr. Kwok is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a past president of the American Academy of Religion.

Since the 1980s, feminist theology from the Global South has been developed through various women’s networks. In 1988, the Asian Women’s Centre for Culture and Theology was formed and began publishing the journal In God’s Image. In 1989, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians was established as a forum for promoting theological works by African women. Latin American feminist theologians also began to include gender into their theological analyses, and the Con-spirando Collective was formed in Santiago, Chile, in 1991 to promote ecofeminist awareness.

The first intercontinental gathering of feminist theologians from the Global South took place in Oxatepec, Mexico, in 1986. The papers presented at that gathering were published in the book With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology (1988). Since then, I edited a sequel entitled Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology (2010).

Feminist theologians from the Global South have spoken against the negative impact of globalization and the neo-liberal market economy on women. In some cases, women are absorbed into the global labor market, but many of them still work in precarious working conditions. In other cases, women’s subsistence economy and livelihood are threatened by transnational companies. In Southeast Asia, women’s sexual labor has been exploited in order to bolster the economy. Feminist theologians have pointed out that the free-market economy is gendered and biased against women. They remind us of the Biblical mandate to care for the poor and the marginalized among us.

Cultural criticism is another concern for these feminist theologians. Some African and Asian male theologians have argued for the indigenization or inculturation of theology in their specific cultural contexts, but African and Asian feminist theologians argue that some of the indigenous cultural elements are deeply patriarchal and harmful. Kenyan theologian Musimbi Kanyoro used the term “cultural hermeneutics” to describe the analysis of cultural ideologies regarding gender roles and power, and of cultural violence against women.

Gendered violence and sexual assault are critical issues facing women in the Global South. The kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria in 2014 was a blatant example. War, violence, and religious and ethnic conflicts often lead to rape, sexual abuse, and gender-specific violence. Feminist theologians in Africa and elsewhere have challenged the Church to speak out against gendered violence and to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which affects many African countries.

But women in the Third World are not just victims. They have provided food for the family, cared for the sick, taught the young, and resisted violence and oppression. Indigenous women have protected the environment and fought against the exploitation of their lands and waters. Indigenous feminist theologians speak of a spirituality of resilience and resistance. Many Christian women in the Global South have looked to women in the Bible for inspiration, and have created songs and liturgies to sustain their work for justice.

If the Church’s mission is to proclaim God’s kingdom and to work for justice and peace, the Church must stand in solidarity with women in the Global South. In the past, Christian mission has been criticized for its assumptions of cultural superiority and participation in colonization. Today, Christian mission must be understood as partnership and accompaniment. Properly understood, mission is a two-way process, and each partner will learn in, and be enriched by, the collaboration. Christian women in the Global South and indigenous women have much to teach the Church about resilience, hospitality, and care for God’s creation.

The mission of the Church must include the denunciation of an unjust economic system that benefits a transnational capitalist class at the expense of the poor—the majority of whom are women and children. Through its global networks, the Church can facilitate the sharing of information and resources and build relationships. By working with grassroots groups, the Church can help train women leaders and provide support in their fight for justice.

As a reaction to the forces of globalization, religious fundamentalism and extremism of all kinds have emerged and intensified. Religious fundamentalisms tend to treat women as subordinate to men, and often prescribe strict female codes of conduct. The Church needs to challenge these fundamentalist claims and to promote interreligious dialogue and learning in order to foster mutual respect and understanding. Religious leaders can—and must—work together to address gendered violence in their communities and protect the vulnerable in society.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How can denominations foster relationships?

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.

I have made the argument on this blog that Christian unity is best understood as a relational quality, like the relations of a family, and that in the United Methodist tradition, connectionalism speaks to the importance of relationships as the basis of the church.

I have also indicated that the four main official functions of a modern denomination are to set theological affirmations, to establish lines of authority and decision-making, to credential ministers and pair them with congregations, and to engage in collaborative ministry. Note that “establish relationships” is not on this list.

Of course, relationships may still be connected to some of these four points. Authority is always a relational attribute. At its best, itinerancy means United Methodists know pastors or parishioners in places other than their current congregations. And certainly, engaging in shared ministry can produce relationships as well.

Yet none of these official functions is geared directly toward producing relationships. Moreover, each of these functions may be affected by or even cause relational stress. If relationships are poor, authority becomes contested, and impositions of authority often hurt relationships. If pastors or congregations don’t trust the conference, they are not likely to trust the appointive process, either. That distrust can be created through previous bad experiences with appointments. People are naturally more interested in collaborating in ministry with those with whom they have pre-existing relationships. When ministry is indirect, it fails to produce relationship. Two people both sending in checks to relief work does not create relationship, as important as it may be.

The opposite is also true, though. When relationships are strong, they can facilitate easier and better decision-making, more effective recruitment, credentialing, and assignment of pastors, more collaborative ministry, and greater depth of theological discussion and insight. Just as Peter Senge wrote about systems thinking as a “fifth discipline” that unites and magnifies the other four functions of a learning organization, Christian relationships serve as a “fifth function” that unites and magnifies the other four functions of a denomination.

Thus, if relationships are important to unity and unity is important to denominations, then fostering relationships should be important to denominations. However, the official functions of denominations are poorly set up to foster relationships. Herein lies a problem.

Fortunately, organizations can and do fulfill functions other than their explicit functions all the time. This insight applies to churches as well. Churches serve to help people find spouse, increase voting participation, establish business networks, and increase people’s longevity. None of these are directly related to theology, authority, ministers, or ministry.

Of course, nurturing the relationships of a Christian family is directly related to the purpose of a church than are any of the personal or civic byproducts of churches mentioned above. Therefore, this goal is more important, so churches should be more intentional about nurturing Christian relationships.

Yet churches should be careful about how they go about this goal of nurturing Christian relationships for two reasons.

First, as stated above, relationship is not a direct by-product of any of the official functions of a denomination. Therefore, denominations can’t produce more relationship by simply doing more of what they’re already doing. They can’t produce more relationship by calling for greater deference to authority, by calling for more shared ministry, by pushing for a particular theological position to be made official, or by advocating higher standards for ordination. Yet, because these are the things a denomination is set up to do, these are often the first impulses.

Second, there is a tricky relationship between structure and relationship, whether that is relationship among people or between people and God. Structures are important and can facilitate relationship. Yet, relationship is a fluid quality that cannot be reduced to structures. Moreover, the structures that facilitate relationship in one place and time will not be the structures that facilitate relationship in other places and/or times.

Structures can easily become rigid such that they fail to support relationship in the same way and, at worst, harm the relationships they were created to support. Relationship must always take priority to particular structural supports, but because of the dynamics of institutions, there is a tendency for structures to take on a life of their own and then to fight for their continued existence, even if they are disconnected from or antagonistic toward their original purpose.

Thus, I have no specific structural recommendations for how The United Methodist Church can improve its function of building Christian relationships. Nevertheless, I think there is a structural practice in the United Methodist tradition that can play an important role in fostering relationships: conferencing. I will explore more about conferencing as a means to relationships in my next piece.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Recommended Reading: African higher education meetings

In September, the African Association of United Methodist Theological Institutions (AAUMTI) and African Association of Methodist Institutes of Higher Education (AAMIHE) held their annual meetings, including a joint meeting in Cote d'Ivoire. There are both a UMNS story and a GBHEM story about these meetings.

The major decision coming out of these meetings was to proceed with plans to create a Methodist University Senate for Africa, modelled on the United Methodist University Senate for the United States. Such an undertaking would be a significant development for Methodist higher education in Africa.

First, it would be a significant step as regards higher education. Such a body capable of developing standards and reviewing individual schools to determine how they are living up to those standards would be a major step forward in terms of higher education quality control, accountability, and inter-school networking.

Second, it would be a significant step as regards Methodism. As this blog has pointed out, the unity of African United Methodism is not given. Nevertheless, higher education and specifically the work of AAUMTI and AAMIHE is one of the most important forces bringing together United Methodists from across the continent.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Unity as friends or family?

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.

Last week, I posted that because denominations serve different functions, people will understand denominational unity in different ways. This week, I'd like to make a similar point about Christian relationships. There are different ways of understanding such relationships, and those different understandings lead to different understandings of Christian unity.

To demonstrate, let me ask a question: Are relationships with your fellow Christians more like your relationships with your friends or your relationships with your family?

Both metaphors have been used to describe relationships between fellow Christians, but there are important distinctions in the implications of these metaphors.

Friendships are based primarily on shared qualities, whether those are interests, aspects of personality, common experiences, or common pursuits. They are freely chosen and may be ended for a variety of reasons (hurt, diminishment of shared qualities, change in life circumstances, inconvenience, etc.). Certainly, there are various types of friendships (best friends, Facebook friends, friends of convenience, work friends, etc.), but these three qualities apply to all type of friends. The degree of closeness and the level of mutual obligation may vary or be understood differently in different cultures, but at the heart, friendship is a choice.

If we think of fellow Christians, or more to the point, fellow United Methodists, as spiritual friends, then these three characteristics will carry over: We will understand United Methodists as people with whom we have freely chosen to affiliate. We will expect them to have certain shared qualities with us (whatever that list may be). We will reserve the right to end our relationships with our fellow United Methodists for a variety of reasons, including hurt, diminishment of shared qualities, inconvenience, etc., since we will see our relations with fellow United Methodists as a choice.

Family relationships, at least with families of origin, are different. We do not choose them. They do not necessarily imply shared qualities, though often some shared history and shared genetic material are part of that. Thus, family relationships may make a clearer distinction between "like" and "love" than friendships. You may love your family members even when you don't like them. Moreover, we can choose to stop nurturing or participating in our family relationships, but we cannot end them. You cannot stop being a sister or brother to someone, even if you never see them. The degree of closeness and the level of mutual obligation may vary or be understood differently in different cultures, but at the heart, family is not a choice.

If we think of fellow United Methodists as sisters and brothers in Christ, we will expect these three qualities to carry over: We will understand our fellow United Methodists not as people with whom we have freely chosen to associate, but as people that God, descent, and/or chance have conspired to link to us. We may presume some shared history and some genetic similarities, but we will not necessarily expect our fellow United Methodists to share an extensive list of qualities with us. We may not always like our fellow United Methodists, but we will love them. We may choose to stop engaging in our relationships with fellow United Methodists or those relationships may become strained, but we will recognize that a connection will always exist, whether or not we act on it.

American culture tends to emphasize choice. Indeed, in the US, there is a whole discourse about choosing your family. This is a particularly contemporary, consumerist, and American approach to family that would be incomprehensible in much of the rest of the world.

Given the emphasis by Americans on choice, I think there is a tendency for Americans to think about church relationships as friendships, which as I said, are about choice. Unity then, is the unity of friends, which presumes similarity and which the parties may choose to end for a variety of reasons. It is important to note, though, that denominational unity as chosen friendships is not necessarily what makes most sense for non-Americans.

Interestingly, the more common metaphor for Christian relationships throughout history has been the family one. Paul writes to the "brothers" (and "sisters") in the early churches, and this language has stuck. Many denominations (including some of the UMC's predecessors) put the term "brethren" or "brotherhood" or "family" right in the name of the denomination. "Brother" and "sister" were common terms among early Methodists. This metaphor may also be the more important one for many United Methodists outside of the US.

How might it shift American United Methodists' thinking about the current state of the denomination to draw more extensively on the metaphor of family instead of the metaphor of friendship? How does contrasting these two understandings of what it means to be in relationship as United Methodists help all United Methodists more fully understanding the nature and quality of unity?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Jerome Sahabandhu: A missional reflection for Advent

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

God has called us to partake in another Advent and to prepare our communities for a New Year.

The season of Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming” or “visit," begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year for Christians. In fact, theologically speaking, this special “coming of God” is the basis of evangelization, mission and witness.

During Advent, we prepare for, and anticipate, the coming of Christ. We remember the longing for a Messiah and our own longing for, and need of, forgiveness, salvation and a new beginning. In other words, we reflect on God’s visit to God’s people through Christ.

Celebrating God’s visit as a mission to the universe has a significant impact on mission implications of the church. Let me offer four insights:

1. Pre-Evangelization
Recalling the message of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the gospel will help us to take the right turn and change. This was a pre-evangelization. Pre-evangelization is essential for transformation.

“The voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all humankind will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3: 4-6)

“Repent, for the Reign of God is near.” (Matthew 3:2).

John’s preparations were essential for the mission of God. It was a mission to the mission; mission for the mission.

Is the church ready to take on John the Baptist’s mission as the ‘prophetic forerunner’ of the Gospel and apply that in today’s context?

Is the church prepared to take risks for the sake of the Gospel?

Are Christians discerning what areas of life are still in need of pre-evangelization?

This discerning required reading the “signs of the time” and good hermeneutics of the same to respond meaningfully and critically; how do we do that while ourselves, our own church being transformed? This is a contemporary challenge.

In the simplest sense, the power and the demand of the message is clear – if we are to receive the coming Lord, we need to repent through Advent as individuals, as families, as church communities and as a society.

2. Mystery of Incarnation: The Word became Flesh
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1: 14). The Word is Jesus. He was born in a humble stable in Bethlehem. He grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, he died in Golgotha and he has risen from the dead.

God became a human person by messing in the mess of the people and chaos of the world. God made his tent/slum among us, among God’s own creation. A mission of incarnation means sharing the real sweat and struggles, pains and agonies, hopes and dreams of the whole creation.

The Word – Dabar/Logos – is the “burden” of the heart of God, and that ‘living burden’ became matter and energy by indwelling in life. This is the ‘mystery of Incarnation’.

If the church is the ‘continuation of Christ’ in the world, it should have an incarnational presence, incarnational spirituality, incarnational mission and incarnational witness.

This will challenge our pseudo-Christian lifestyles, triumphalist and feel-good mission theologies and mission practices. This will challenge our attitude to power and prestige.

Are the churches ready to assess our missional models and get back to Gospel-centered incarnational mission models? Are we ready to evaluate what is contrary to and hinders the church in taking an incarnational approach to mission?

Are we ready to be challenged by incarnational insights from the margins of the society?

We are living in a busy world of commercialization, greed for power and mammon and severe environmental crisis. Incarnation is a much more relevant topic as I see it today in our theological reshaping for missional praxis.

3. The Light challenges us to “Be the Light”
John sees the mystery as the Light who is Jesus and who became most vulnerable while yet enlightening the whole cosmos. “The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. The true light that gives light to every person was coming into the world” (John 1: 5, 9).

John developed his thoughts based on creation story in Genesis. The Hebrew word for light, or, is similar to the Hebrew word for awake, orr. Light calls all matter to awaken and unfold. The incarnate Word is in a mission of awakening all matter and energy.

Our call is also clear here – those who receive Jesus and believe in his name will become the children of Light and children of God and thereby continue to partake in God’s transformative mission of awakening, enlightening and sharing the warmth of God’s love.

Are the churches prepared to take the challenge of Jesus Christ who came in a mission to the world as the light of the world? That call came very direct when Jesus said, “You are the Light of the World” (Mathew 5:14).

4. Parousia: “Christ will come Again”
Any advent refection would be incomplete without reference to the Lord’s coming again. This we find in Eucharistic prayer as we proclaim the mystery of faith (Great Thanksgiving)

‘Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again’

Advent is a time of hope. All that we experience will come to pass. Because the Lord will come again to this world to judge the living and the dead, the Lord will judge the people and the whole creation with restorative divine justice. There will be a new creation.

The church is called here to partake in God’s restorative justice mission; the church is called to practice restorative justice in her own life and play an active part in restorative justice in the wider global society where reconciliation and reconstruction is much needed.

Secondly, the church is to reenergize our hope and faith in God’s new creation; meaning that all what we do as a church and as Christians are related to and connected with God’s new creation. “I will make everything new” (Revelation 21:5). Advent is a missional orientation for the new heaven and new earth.

It’s time for the mission of the church to recapture the prayer of the apostolic church – Maranatha! Come Lord!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unity and the Modern Denomination

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.

Unity has been much on the minds of United Methodists lately. There has been extensive discussion (including by me on this blog) of the theological and spiritual grounds of unity. There has not been as much attention paid to what unity looks like in functional, organizational terms.

First, it is important to note that unity need not be taken in a structural sense. It is possible to have spiritual unity with fellow Christians from other denominations, and that is real unity. Nevertheless, since the question at hand is the question of the unity of The United Methodist Church, a particular Christian denomination, it is worth thinking about what structural unity means for a denomination.

The question of what unity means functionally and organizationally for a denomination is actually a complicated one, given the complicated nature of modern denominations.

Many might assume that denominations are primarily about setting doctrinal standards. Here perhaps echoes of the recently observed 500th anniversary of the Reformation ring in people’s ears. The Reformation was about debates over beliefs, so denominations must be about belief, right? Yet while setting doctrine is (at least in many cases) one function of denominations, it is not the only one.

Another function of denominations is establishing systems of authority. The Reformation, especially the English Reformation, was as much about questioning the pope’s authority as it was about doctrine. Denominational structures indicate who has authority to make what decisions in the common life of a group of Christians. Those decisions may or may not be related to doctrine.

While it is easy to see the roots of denominations in the Reformation, the modern denomination as an organizational form was perfected in the United States. Here, denominations have taken on at least two additional functions.

First, denominations serve to credential clergy and connect clergy and congregations. They define a pool of Christians designated as clergy who are commissioned to perform sacraments. Denominations also provide some assistance to congregations in helping identify credentialed clergy to exert congregational leadership and perform sacraments in those congregations (though the extent and form of that assistance vary widely).

Second, denominations provide a means for congregations, clergy, and individual Christians to collaborate in joint ministry. This joint ministry can include everything from evangelistic campaigns to mission organizations to pension systems to publishing efforts to colleges. The list goes on. These joint ministries are in many ways the most visible part of the denomination, since they are the most numerous and link individual congregations on the most regular basis.

Hence, there are at least four components to denominations and thus denominational unity: theology, authority, clergy, and joint ministry.

What makes the question of unity in modern denominations complicated is that unity or disunity in one area does not necessary, but may, imply unity or disunity in another area. This observation holds both within and between denominations. For instance, the UMC’s full communion agreement with the ELCA recognizes unity in clergy and sacraments and some theological unity without implying any unity in authority or joint ministry or complete theological unity.

Thus, it is possible for a denomination to be simultaneously united and in a state of disunity. In the UMC, there has been long-standing disunity on theological understandings of homosexuality and related theological questions. In recent years, these have increasingly been translated into disunity regarding clergy (Can LGBTQ+ persons be ordained?) and authority (What authority do Boards of Ordained Ministry, bishops, and clergy have to make case-by-case decisions in disputes about ministry with and by LGBTQ+ persons?).

The situation in which the UMC currently finds itself is asking to what extent the existing theological, clergy, and authority disunity should be formalized and whether and to what extent these forms of disunity will cause disunity in the joint ministry of United Methodists. The answers to these questions are complicated not just because there are strongly held theological differences, but because it is unclear what this theological disunity should mean for other functions of a denomination and, furthermore, because the answer might be different for different functions.

Among the components of denominational unity, shared authority and clergy are the most basic. Shared authority and mutually recognized clergy are both necessary and sufficient for a group of Christians to function as a denomination. It is possible to do joint ministry through interdenominational (or nondenominational) means. Theological debates always exist within denominations, to some extent and on some issues, though they are often what motivate people to sunder the basic unity of shared authority and mutually recognized clergy.

Another way to ask the questions facing the UMC, then is to what extent theological disagreement necessitates ceasing to share common authority structures and mutually recognition of clergy, and if so, to what extent continued joint ministry in a newly interdenominational sense is possible.

Thus, there is a range of options for the UMC from complete separation (formalized disunity in all four areas) to confederated churches (formalized theological, authority, and clergy disunity, with continued unity in joint ministry and possibly some continued shared authority and clergy) to continued existence as a single denomination (with unity in authority, clergy, and joint ministry despite theological differences). At play here are not just individuals’ theological beliefs about sexuality but their understandings of the nature of unity and the nature of denominations. It makes for a complicated debate, but one that will be interesting to watch.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

55 Futures for the UMC

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 Council of Bishops has released their initial comments on the midterm report of the Commission on a Way Forward. They have indicated that they are considering three options for the future of The United Methodist Church in the face of its long-standing and increasingly divisive debate over homosexuality and the roles of LGBTQ+ people in the church.

Two of the three options seem fairly clear at this point, but the third option could entail a variety of distinct scenarios. This post will present three such scenarios. Taking each of these different scenarios as a distinct proposal, that leads to five possible proposals from the Commission and the Council of Bishops.

As I will then detail, each of these five proposals could then meet with six possible responses from the called General Conference in 2019, all but one of which would presumably need to be voted on by the annual conferences, which could ratify or reject the special General Conference’s action.

That gives at least 55 options still on the table for the future of the denomination (5*5*2 + 5*1). It’s a large number, and the ultimate outcome may not be evident until sometime in 2020.

The first option the Council of Bishops indicated is “a model [that] affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.” Presumably this means harsher penalties for those who disobey existing provisions against ordaining LGBTQ+ persons or performing gay marriages, which would lead to a purging of progressives from the denomination.

The second option mentioned is “a model [that] removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This seems to be the much-discussed “local option,” which would leave decisions about ordination to annual conferences and gay marriages to individual pastors and churches.

The third option is “a model [that] is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” It is not clear what exactly, this option would entail, but I can anticipate at least three possibilities:

1. A split into confederated churches – The United Methodist Church would split into two or more denominations with different stances on homosexuality. The two (or more) denominations would enter into an ecumenical agreement to mutually recognize members and, when they meet requirements, ministers. The two denominations would also continue to support joint ministries through shared boards and agencies and collaborative committees. The degree of collaboration and cooperation is a big question in this option. Another big question is whether the split would apply to any branches of The United Methodist Church outside the US.

2. US geographic central conferences – The five US jurisdictions (or some other configuration of geographic areas) become central conferences. Central conferences have the power to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline. Sexuality is placed in that portion to allow some parts of the church to maintain a traditional stance, others to adopt an affirming stance, and perhaps others to choose a local option. Presumably central conferences outside the US would have this option, too, though other than possibly parts of Europe, it seems unlikely any would.

3. US theological central conferences – The US is divided into central conferences, as above, but rather than rely on geography as a proxy for theology, the central conferences are explicitly based on theological convictions over sexuality.

Of these three, the first seems most likely, but the latter two may still be possibilities.

The bishops also indicated that whichever proposal they put forward will include a “gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.” This pressure-valve release, if you will, allows a strongly dissenting minority to leave the denomination, presumably through relaxation of the trust clause, thus allowing congregations to take their church property with them.

Whichever of these five (two clearly indicated and three possible) proposals the Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops ultimately recommend; General Conference will then need to vote on the recommendation. Again, there are several different possibilities for what the General Conference will do.

1. General Conference approves proposal – This is the most straight-forward scenario, though not necessarily what will happen.

2. General Conference significantly alters proposal – The bishops put forward a proposal, but General Conference delegates are not completely happy with it. They significantly alter the details of the proposal (especially possible if it’s one of the confederated church or US central conference proposals).

3. General Conference rejects proposal, approves alternative model indicated by bishops – Instead of merely changing the bishops’ recommendation, the General Conference may reject it in favor of a completely different proposal, substituting one of the other three models mentioned by the Council of Bishops.

4. General Conference rejects proposal, approves completely different plan – Instead of substituting one of the other three models mentioned by the Council of Bishops, General Conference could approve a completely different option not considered by the bishops, up to and including a full division of the denomination into two or more unconnected successors.

5. General Conference rejects proposal, implements only pressure value release – The General Conference could decide to keep the system as it is, yet seek to rid itself of those most discontented with the current system. Accommodations could be made for those on either side of the debate who wish to leave the denomination to do so.

6. General Conference rejects proposal, takes no alternative action – Varying interest groups, based either on theology or geography could oppose the plan put forward by the bishops. The plan could fail to garner sufficient votes to pass. However, because of the divided nature of the church, no other plan may win sufficient votes to pass, especially if it requires constitutional amendment. The called General Conference would end without any action being taken.

The first five of these possible General Conference actions would presumably involve changes to the UMC’s constitution. If so, such changes would need to be ratified by the annual conferences. Annual conferences, then, would vote on any General Conference-approved plan and could either ratify or reject it. It is certainly possible that even if a plan is approved by General Conference, opposition to it could build afterward, leading annual conferences to reject it. This may be especially likely if General Conference approves something other than what the bishops recommend.

It is unclear whether such annual conference ratification on a plan approved by General Conference in February of 2019 could begin with the American annual conference season in June 2019. Such a time-table would allow all annual conferences around the world to vote before the 2020 regular General Conference. (Some European annual conferences meeting in spring 2020 would be the last to vote.) General Conference 2020 could then take further action to implement the decisions of the prior year, if ratified. It is also possible ratification voting may not begin until fall 2019, with the final votes coming at American annual conferences in June 2020, after the May 2020 regular General Conference, though that seems ill-timed.

The last possible General Conference action, taking no action, would of course not require ratification by the annual conference. If this happened, it is not clear where the denomination would go from there. It is likely that, General Conference having failed to address the denomination’s impasse on sexuality, individual annual conferences and caucus groups like the WCA would implement their own plans for the future of their particular constituencies. Such plans are likely to be conflicting.

While it is unclear which of these 55 roads the church will go down, what is clear is that we are still several years away from knowing the ultimate fate of The United Methodist Church.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Report on GBHEM Colloquy on Missio Dei and the United States

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.

I had the honor of participating earlier this week in the Colloquy event organized by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The colloquy was a meeting of United Methodist seminary professors and bishops (and me). The theme for this event was "Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness." I will provide some reflections on the colloquy as I experienced it. These, of course, will not reflect the experiences of all others at the event.

As the colloquy began, there was confusion about the purpose of the event. The stated goal of the colloquy was "to engage United Methodist scholars and bishops in constructive dialogue that will open new pathways in our understanding and faithful practice of the Missio Dei. During the colloquy, participants will explore the future of the church from a missional perspective, and examine how to reengage our Wesleyan heritage to participate in the Missio Dei."

Because of the phrase "the future of the church" and because the first GBHEM colloquy in the spring was directly tied to the work of the Commission on A Way Forward, many participants and attendees assumed that this colloquy was also intended to be directly tied to the Commission's work and the status of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. GBHEM staff clarified that this colloquy was not designed to feed into the work of the Commission; the bishops had asked for it as a separate resource for the UMC in the US.

In part because of this confusion, there were at least four different conversations happening within the colloquy: a conversation about the status of LGBTQ+ persons, a conversation about decline and pathways to revitalization in the denomination, a conversation about the general theological content of missio Dei as a term, and a conversation about specific practices of mission and ministry or specific applications of the concept of missio Dei. These four conversations frequently intersected but were nonetheless to some extent distinct.

Moreover, within these four conversations, participants spoke with a wide variety of voices based on their social location, theological presuppositions, contexts of ministry, racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and personal scholarly interests. Again, there were intersections, but participants at times seemed to struggle in articulating convergences among the many voices.

What emerged instead were three broad areas of concern, articulated by Dr. Anne Wimberly: polity, especially as it relates to the roles of LGBTQ+ persons in the church; theology; and practices of ministry. While GBHEM will continue to process the insights shared around these three points, there did not seem to be overriding consensus on what the missio Dei meant for the future of The United Methodist Church within these three areas.

Two other points of convergence did, however, emerge, though not around the meaning of missio Dei or a shared vision for the future of the church.

The first point of convergence was an appreciation to GBHEM for having brought together this group of scholars and bishops for conversation, even if those conversations were at times difficult and painful. Many participants affirmed the need for the academy and the church to be in deeper relationship and more frequent conversation with each other.

The second point of convergence was around a spiritual posture implied by missio Dei, one of humility and listening. These two points came up frequently in discussions around all three broad topic areas: polity, theology, and practices of ministry. Humility and listening are not a program in any of these three areas, but they are perhaps an important prerequisite for hearing and responding to the missio Dei.

Relationship, humility, and listening may not seem like much, and for those who were hoping for specific programmatic recommendations or a shared theological framework to come out of the colloquy, it may have seemed like a failure. Yet we should not scorn such elements of deepened spirituality. They may indeed be exactly where God is leading us in God's mission.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Want a more united church? Make some friends.

This is the tenth 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 blog is the latest in a long series of posts discussing the problem of unity in The United Methodist Church. How do we stay together and stay talking to and working with each other when we’re so divided by theology, politics, race, ethnicity, class, culture, and a whole host of other characteristics? I think figuring out how to balance diversity and unity or diversity and cooperation is one of the foremost challenges of the church and the world.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us offers an answer to the problem of disunity. Putnam is worried about social disunity. As a political scientist, he’s worried about Americans becoming divided and atomized in ways that cause the civic arena to suffer.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell set out to answer a question: How are Americans able to be so religiously devout and religiously diverse, while avoiding large-scale religious conflict? Sure, there are tensions around religion, as reflected in many of the culture war issues. But religion is not the source of violence in this country in the way it is in many places around the world. Putnam and Campbell set out to figure out why.

The main answer that they provide is that we’re able to tolerate religious diversity despite being serious about religion because we know people of other religious backgrounds who are part of our friends and our family. Putnam and Campbell talk about “Aunt Sue” and “My Pal Al,” both of whom are hypothetical people of other religious traditions who are nonetheless good people and important parts of our social networks. Because we’re willing to accept Sue and Al, we’re more willing to accept people of other religious convictions in general.

Thus, it turns out that the solution to the problem of balancing diversity and cooperation may be simple: making friends. If you want the church to be more united, make friends with someone who understands the church differently than you do. If you want the world to be a better, more tolerant place, make friends with someone who is not exactly like you.

This finding of Putnam and Campbell’s is entirely consistent with the aggregate model of unity I have been discussing. I noted the importance of bridge-builders in this model. Another way of thinking about bridge-builders might be to see them as those with a diverse set of friends.

Of course, friendships work better when people have something in common, but friends need not have everything in common. Indeed, it may be a good source of personal and spiritual growth to learn from a friend who is different from you, in addition to facilitating unity.

This prescription to make friends also highlights one of the dangers of contemporary American society. As algorithmic newsfeeds, niche marketing, exclusive neighborhoods, and social sorting of all sorts proliferate, it becomes ever more possible for us to be friends only with those who are already like us.

There is a real danger in this, as well as a loss. The loss is a personal one, that we may miss out on knowing wonderful people who nonetheless differ from us in some regards and that we may miss out on learning from them.

The danger is religious, social, and political – that if we do not learn to get along with others who are different from us as friends, it will make it more difficult for us to get along with them as neighbors, co-workers, fellow association members, fellow citizens, and ultimately as fellow Christians.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission of a Wounded Healer

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:7-9)

‘Woundedness’ A reflection on the peace of God may commence with the concept of ‘woundedness’.

I come from a wounded society – Sri Lanka. Over three decades of war and violence in post-colonial Sri Lanka has severely affected our psychology, social fabric and ecology. In 2009 the war came to an end, yet peace has not come to my country. The end of the war has not brought peace or prosperity. We as a nation remain a wounded community. People’s lives need to be re-built, healed and reconciled.

Reconciliation is what is not happening. The state seems to think that the building of the infrastructure would bring normalcy to the community. But people’s lives have not been touched or moved. The woundedness remains as a daily matter. There is no clear approach to truth and reconciliation except for a few isolated yet significant cases initiated by some good and concerned persons. Such reconciliation efforts are very vulnerable and are even misunderstood most of the time.

In the Theological College of Lanka where I served nearly for nearly 15 years, we make an intentional effort to be a reconciled community where Sinhalese and Tamil theological students live together for three to four years in a residential community in Pilimatalawa, Sri Lanka. We try to create a ‘safe space’ to share our stories – stories of pain and agony, stories of hopes and dreams for a better world.

In a certain way, we all are wounded.

Look at the world! We are a broken community: see our own broken selves, wounded families, wounded communities, wounded academies, broken and divided churches, wounded nations, and the wounded international community. There is a global woundedness and most surely, we know that God’s creation is heavily wounded.

Mission of peace and healing
Paul’s exposition to the Philippians expounds what is required for peace and healing. First, we must understand what peace is not: the world says not to worry, there is peace – “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

There was a bogus and false peace at the time when Paul spoke to the Philippians. It was called the ‘Pax Romana’ – the peace of the empire, peace that had been obtained by the victories of war, military power that kept order and made sure that countries gave no trouble, there were no riots, and no uprisings … so they called it peace. In today’s context we can reflect on the ‘Pax of modern empires’ (you name it!)

Over against this Pax Romana Paul suggests another kind of peace – the ‘peace of God’, the only peace that Paul knew. The world did not know this peace.

‘Peace of God’
This peace in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition is called ‘Shalom’. Shalom means wholeness, fullness, and it is life-giving and life-enhancing. Shalom includes the whole person and the community, humanity and creation, little life to all life.

Let me share three important aspects of God’s peace (Shalom).

The first aspect speaks of evenness of heart and mind, an unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by worldly gains and losses, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. It is indifferent only to the demands of the self with its craving for pleasure and position, not the well-being of one's fellow human beings. In Buddhist spirituality this aspect of peace is called upekkha (equanimity) that includes boundless loving-kindness, compassion, and altruistic joy.

Secondly, the peace of God essentially involves justice: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). There is no peace without justice. “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). In other words, the peace of God means nothing but the justice of God. Paul speaks of a different culture based on justice.

The fundamental cause of most of the conflicts and violence that we experienced in the last century and through the beginning of the first two decades of the 21st century is the quest for justice. Without addressing the root causes of injustice and wickedness, there cannot be peace in the society, nor peace in the hearts of the peoples.

The third dimension of God’s peace is reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation go together. Forgiveness is not forgetting everything. Forgiveness means that we remember the past but yet we will have a new life that is forgiven and forgiving. This is a hard task. That is why reconciliation always becomes a costly affair.

Peace in the heart, justice and reconciliation – all at the same time – is called God’s Shalom. God is creating this Shalom, and “blessed are the artisans of peace, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Paul speaks of that peace of God that surpasses all human understanding and keeps our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). This is a prayer. It means that the Shalom of God should guard our hearts and minds. This is related to formation – formation of our character, formation of our communities. And while this is happening, Paul wishes that the God of Peace be with us always.

God of Peace – as we continue this reflection we can think of the characteristics of God. God is self-giving, self-emptying and self-sacrificing. We cannot think of a God who empowers unless we think of a God of Justice. We always think of a God who is ever reconciling.

Wounded Healers
We are wounded but we are also the healers. Our mission is to be wounded healers and broken reconcilers in the world. This is the hope. While recognizing that we are wounded persons and communities, we cannot stop there, but we must go beyond that and become engaged with the woundedness in the world. We are called to be wounded healers for ourselves, for communities and for nations to bring healing, reconciliation and wholeness of life.

The God of Peace empowers all of us to bring the peace of God wherever we are called to serve.

Christian communities and Christin missions certainly can play a leading role in peace, healing and reconciliation.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Connectionalism as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the ninth 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.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been taking a rather long detour from what had been my topic for the past couple of months, the sources of unity in The United Methodist Church, to talk about a related but still somewhat tangential topic: the aggregate model of unity I’ve introduced. Today, I’m finally going to connect that topic thread back into my discussion of The United Methodist Church in specific ways.

I would like to propose one more possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church, one with long historical roots, one which can encompass the other sources of unity I’ve mentioned, and one which I think holds the most hope for the future: connectionalism.

What is connectionalism? It’s a peculiarly Methodist understanding of what it means to be the church. According to connectionalism, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority. It’s defined by connections between people: connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity. When The United Methodist Church claims to be a connectional church, that means that we hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.

At the beginning of Methodism, connectionalism meant connection to John Wesley. After Wesley, though, there was no one person who defined connectionalism. Even Francis Asbury, who had a central role in shaping Methodism in America, saw the connection of Methodism as being between the preachers and each other, not between the preachers and him. Thus, connectionalism has become not a hub and spokes model of relationship, but a network.

For those of you who read last week’s post, this talk of network should sound familiar. I claimed that the aggregate model of unity is a network model of unity. Therefore, connectionalism can be thought of as an instance of the aggregate model of unity. Connectionalism takes a whole bunch of smaller social groups, be they congregations, annual conferences, jurisdictions/central conferences, caucuses, ministry networks, or other groups, and ties them all together into a denomination through a network of relationships.

The test for connectionalism is always two-fold.

First, are these relationships strong enough to hold when tensions come? Can we maintain our relationships with one another, even when we disagree or feel hurt or wronged?
Second, are we willing to extend our sense of connection beyond just those with whom we have a direct, personal relationship into second-, third- or even more degrees of connection? Are we willing to recognize ourselves as in connection with not just those to whom we are directly connected, but also those people to whom our connections are connected (and their connections, too, and so on)?

The first of these challenges is a perpetual one. Since sanctification seems to be a gift given to few, we can expect that church people will remain people, which means that they’ll occasionally disagree or hurt each other or fear each other, and such instances will test their relationships.

The second challenge becomes increasingly difficult, however, as the church grows in membership, expands into new geographical areas, and lives in an individualistic culture. When there are too many people to know personally, even at one or two degrees of remove, and when distance (not to mention many of the other challenges of modern life) make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships, our sense of connection to others in the denomination suffers. When we are content to be individuals independent of community, we care less that our connections to others are not what they could be.

There’s not much we can do about the first beyond praying that God will continue to give us sanctifying grace and then trying to cooperate with what is given.

There may, however, be ways in which we can try to overcome the second and third challenges. Can new theologies re-emphasize community and connection? Can new technologies facilitate those connections? Can structures emphasize relationship rather than business? If United Methodists want to remain united, these are questions worth asking ourselves.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Recommended readings: Filipino UMC and violence in the Philippines

The United Methodist Church in the Philippines has often had a prophetic stance toward social issues, along with an evangelical emphasis on revival.

Perhaps the most significant social/political issue in the Philippines currently is the government's use of "extra-judicial killings" as part of a war on drugs. The phrase indicates the killing of Filipinos by police and military units without a trial. The United Methodist Church, along with other Christian groups in the Philippines, has criticized these killings as a means to target the poor and indigenous groups, whether or not they are involved in drug use or the drug trade.

The issue is also connected to larger issues of the treatment of indigenous people, the implementation of martial law, and violent conflict in the Philippines. A related story is violence against Lumad indigenous people, an issue which United Methodists have also been involved in addressing.

To get a sense of how significant this issue is for the Philippines and the Filipino UMC, here's a rundown of articles about the Filipino UMC protesting government actions in the last six months:

July 11, 2017: Filipino deaconess: 'Resistance is a gift'
July 27, 2017: United Methodists decry Mindanao martial law
August 30, 2017: Filipino United Methodists protest teen's death
September 7, 2017: UM deaconess responds to Philippine extrajudicial killing crisis
September 15, 2017: Filipino United Methodists help refugees fleeing violence
September 22, 2017: Filipinos protest on martial law anniversary
October 12, 2017: Philippines United Methodists decry government killings

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Networks and bridge-builders in the making of unity

This is the eighth 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.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been talking about something I’ve called the aggregate model of unity: a model of unity that depends not upon some characteristic shared by all as the basis of unity, but rather sees unity as being built up through a bunch of overlapping social circles. Today, I want to talk about the role of networks and bridge-builders in this model of unity.

The diagram of this model I’ve presented before is below:


Here, the overlapping smaller circles are social groups (or other relevant, relational groups), and the heavy black circle is the organizational boundary of the overall group.

There’s another diagram which could be drawn, though. It would look something like this:


This diagram looks not like a bunch of circles but rather a network, a series of connected points. Each point is a different social group or relevant, relational group that makes up part of the overall group. Hence, the aggregate model of unity is also a networked model of unity. Not every point in the network is connected to every other point, but to be part of the network, each point must be connected to some other point, and preferably to several other points.

What are these connections? They’re the same thing as the overlaps in the circle diagram: people who are part of more than one group. These individuals, whom we might call go-betweens, cross-cultural agents, or simply bridge-builders, are what hold the various points of the network together. They are what provide the unity in this model.

To be a true bridge-builder, though, a person must do more than just have membership in two different groups. They must work to connect these groups to each other in some way, whether that be by elaborating shared values, projects, language, goals, or just some sense of affinity. Establishing such connections requires a variety of skills and characteristics on the part of the bridge-builder: trust from both groups, an aptitude for understanding each group, the ability to translate between groups, and a knack for building relationships.

Bridge-builders then are crucial to having unity within larger societal groups, be they The United Methodist Church, the United States of America, or some other group.

Unfortunately, they also seem to be in short supply nowadays. We hear more and more about the polarization of the church and American political society. In the church, liberal and evangelical groups have distinct and usually non-overlapping memberships. In American politics, the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican no longer overlap, as they used to do.

Without any overlap, without any bridge-builders, there is no sense of unity. We become a polarized people. We are left to fight about the money and power involved in the formal structures that hold us together, be that denominational structures or governmental structures, without any sense that this money and power could be used in ways which can benefit all.

If we want to be able to hold together and work together as a larger group, we desperately need people who can be bridge-builders, who can act as go-betweens between different groups. We need them in the church, and we need them in the broader society. Let us pray that there will be some who will answer this call.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

How united is African United 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.

UMNS recently published a story indicating that the United Methodist African College of Bishops has recommended increasing the number of African central conferences from three to seven. This recommendation builds on previous recommendations and comes at a time when United Methodists are also increasing the number of bishops on the continent.

In all likelihood, this recommendation is a solid one that will improve the functioning of central conferences. As this blog has indicated before, the Africa Central Conference in particular is not a particularly coherent or functional unit currently. The goal for increasing the number of central conferences is greater contextualization, which is a worthy goal.

The news story, however, resonated with a question that has been brewing in my mind recently: How united is African United Methodism?

Currently, in addition to the African College of Bishops, which brings together all United Methodist bishops across the continent, African United Methodists mainly come together around issues of higher education, whether that's for meetings of the African Association of United Methodist Theological Institutes (AAUMTI) and African Association of Methodist Institutes of Higher Education (AAMIHE), or through networks centering around Africa University. The UMC Africa Initiative has also tried to link Africans across the continent. Central Conferences bring together Africans from portions, but not the entirety, of the continent.

All of the meetings mentioned above, however, are largely underwritten by American United Methodist dollars. Costs for the Africa College of Bishops come from the Episcopal Fund. AAUMTI and AAMIHE are sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The UMC Africa Initiative is funded by American donors. Africa University is also largely supported by American donors.

This financial situation has its pros and cons, but it is worth pointing out because the continued flow of US dollars to support pan-African initiatives is not guaranteed in the future, especially at current levels. The recommendations the Commission on a Way Forward makes and the subsequent actions of called General Conference in 2019 could significantly alter these economic flows.

If there is less American money available for pan-African initiatives post-2019, the question then will become what value such initiatives have in the eyes of Africans themselves. Will Africans still be willing to pay for some or all of these initiatives, especially in the light of limited resources, overwhelming needs, and the high cost of travel among African countries? Or will Sierra Leonean, Congolese, Zimbabwean, Angolan, and other African United Methodist groups go their own ways and dispense with the fiction of pan-African United Methodism?

If individual groups do decide to go their own ways, that will not necessarily be a bad thing. First, it's their decision, and they have the right to make that decision. Second, Africa is not a country. It's a lot of different countries with numerous different contexts between and within those countries. A more local focus could pay dividends with regards to developing successful ministries. Formerly British-affiliated but now separate and autonomous Methodist Churches in Africa do not seek to collaborate in the same ways the UMC does, and they may actually be growing faster.

If different groups go their own way and dispense with the notion of pan-African United Methodism, it will demonstrate one thing, though. It will demonstrate just how colonial The United Methodist Church is. A colonial system is dependent on the imperial center to connect the various parts of the periphery. The only reason there were connections between India and Guyana or Fiji, for instance, is because they were both part of the British Empire. If it turns out that the US was keeping pan-African United Methodism together, we will better understand the US's role as imperial center in our own peculiar religious empire.

And African United Methodists may yet affirm the value they see in connecting with one another. There are some real and significant bonds of fellowship and support between African United Methodists across the continent. I do not mean to disparage these. Ultimately, though, the question will be for Africans to decide for themselves the value they see in such connections.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Relationships and unity

This is the seventh 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, in my on-going exploration of unity in The United Methodist Church, I introduced a model of unity based not on some single shared characteristic that applied to all in a group, but rather a bunch of overlapping characteristics. I called this model unity through relationship and networks, though it might also be called the aggregate model of unity.

This week, I want to say a little bit more about the role of relationships is promoting and sustaining unity. While this role holds true for unity in general, it will set up what I want to talk about next week, which is the role of networks in the aggregate model of unity, a topic which depends on recognizing the relational nature of all unity.

The picture I showed last week for how the aggregate model of unity works looked like this:


As I talked about them last week, the smaller circles represented shared characteristics. Yet it is perhaps more appropriate to think of them as social circles or social groups. Such groups may be (and often are) defined by shared characteristics. Yet merely having a characteristic in common with someone else is not always enough to foster some sense of togetherness or unity. For instance, “innie” and “outie” bellybuttons can be shared characteristics, but do not usually form the basis for social unity (though I realize that somewhere out there, probably on the Internet, there may be an “Innie Bellybutton Club” that is based around just this thing). While this is a somewhat flippant example, the point remains that unity is not merely a function of having some shared characteristic.

That’s because unity is a relational quality. United describes the nature of people’s relationships with each other, and it is ultimately relationships that form the basis of unity, not shared characteristics. People are thrown together by sharing some characteristic (whether it’s rooting for the same sports team, attending the same church or school, working at the same job, living in the same neighborhood, or something else), and that shared aspect of their lives may be enough for them to develop some sort of relationship (classmate, coworker, neighbor, etc.) Nevertheless, one can have a relationship with someone without it being particularly characterized by unity. How many people work at or live in places where they feel little attachment to those around them or, worse, find themselves at odds with those around them?

Hence, shared characteristics can serve as the basis of unity only in so far as they can create substantive similarities that lead people to really relate with one another in a positive way. These relationships then add up to community. Thus, shared characteristics can create communities, but they are (as all communities are) imagined or constructed, not given by the mere fact of sameness. It’s the relationships that ultimately make the community, not the common characteristics.

Fortunately, finding communities or social groups united through relationships by some characteristic they consider salient isn’t hard to do. Such groups are all over in the church and the world. In The United Methodist Church, there are congregations, conferences, and caucuses. In the world, there are clubs and organizations, friend groups, fan clubs, neighborhoods, etc. Not all may give each of these groups the same degree of salience, but usually there are some groups people feel an affinity toward. Yet all of these groups, to the extent that they are salient, are so because those who are members of them have taken a shared characteristic and turned it into the basis for real, positive relationships, which are the context for unity.

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.