Thursday, April 27, 2017

David Field: Response to Wonder, Love & Praise, Part 2

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 second of three written by Dr. David N. Field, the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

Contextuality and the nature of Koinonia
Wonder, Love and Praise (WLP) places the reflections on the nature of the church within the context of the UMC’s mission today and its particular history. There are two striking aspects of these contextual reflections. The first is that, while the context is described, it plays little if any role in the theological reflection. The result is that the main theological reflection is an a-contextual and universalised presentation. The second feature is the overwhelming focus on the US context and history; this will be the subject of my final blog.

In my first blog I argued that one of the gifts that the UMC brings to the ecumenical table is the particularities of its own history. I also argued that an ecclesial body is a manifestation of the universal church to the extent that it embodies the divine love or, to use another term from WLP, manifests koinonia. Embodiments of the divine love are always historical and contextual. That is, they are always actualized in relation to particular socio-historical and religio-cultural dynamics which enhance, enable or hinder the embodiment of God’s love.

There is thus an important sense in which we only discover what the shape and implications of koinonia and thus the nature of the church as it takes form or does not take form in particular contexts. As the church engages new and different contexts the nature of the koinonia unfolds. Hence, the particular contextual history of a given church is significant as it offers an actualisation of koinonia that is a gift to the church ecumenical that enables a fuller understanding of the nature of the church. There is also a negative dimension in that the failures of a particular church are also instructive. To take a biblical example, the struggle recorded in the New Testament about the conditions for the inclusion of gentiles within the church gave rise to a dramatically new understanding of what it meant to be the people of God – as for example worked out in the letters to the Ephesians and the Galatians. Over its history, the church has encountered new challenges requiring new answers, thus developing new dimensions of what it means to be the people of God.

Two such challenges that have faced the predecessor denominations of the UMC, which are referred to in WLP, and which still have an impact on the UMC today are the confrontation with slavery and racism and the struggle for the ordination of women. The long and painful history of Methodism’s compromised relationship with racism and slavery in America is particularly instructive. Without recounting this history in detail, we can see how the embodiment of koinonia, the complex set of reciprocal relationships between people, was deeply compromised for over a hundred years by racial segregation and discrimination within and without the church. African Americans were treated as less than true siblings in Christ by white Methodists. Their presence was not a source of delight nor were they allowed to be part of a community characterised by genuine reciprocity. This was given structural form in the formation of the various historically African American Methodist Churches and the Central Jurisdiction.

The abolition of the Central Jurisdiction, the increasing levels of racial integration within the UMC and then statements in the constitution of the church that emphasise the inclusiveness of the church and racial justice are pointers to a new enlarged and deepened understanding of koinonia. What some leaders and members of the Methodist Churches regarded as legitimate expressions of fellowship amongst Christians within the church a hundred years ago is now recognised to be a fundamental denial of the nature of the church. Even when racism is not perfectly overcome, its presence, at least in theory, stands under condemnation. This history and its theological outworking needs to be an integral aspect of a document that seeks to describe the identity of the church from a UMC perspective.

The second and equally important contextual dimension is the struggle for full clergy rights for women. It is important to see this not merely as an issue related to the offices of the church; it is an issue that affects our understanding of the nature of koinonia and thus of the identity of the church. WLP does argue that the UMC has an “irrevocable commitment to the full participation of women in ministerial leadership.” This irrevocable commitment is the consequence of a long struggle whose significance is not to be underestimated even if it was not fully recognised at the time. The recognition that women may not be excluded from equal ministry is an unfolding of the meaning of koinonia as it is expressed in Paul’s well known declaration that in Christ there is “no male and female”. It is irrevocable, for to go back on it would fundamentally change the understanding of koinonia and thus of the identity of the church.

This of course raises complex issues in relationships with churches that do not ordain women. These issues need to be honestly acknowledged in the recognition that this is about our understanding of the identity of the church and not just about the nature of ministry. It must also be recognised and confessed that despite the official affirmation of the ordination of women there remains within parts of the church resistance to this.

These are of course not the only issues that the UMC and its predecessor denominations have encountered and continue to encounter in their struggle to embody the divine love in the world.  What is important is that these two struggles are not merely issues of church polity, nor are they purely ethical struggles; they are at their core theological struggles about the nature of koinonia and thus of the character and identity of the church.

This raises significant ecumenical questions. While it would be unthinkable for the UMC to engage in ecumenical relationships with a church which enshrined racial qualifications for membership or office bearing, it continues to be in dialogue with churches which have gender qualifications for ordination. Perhaps this is inevitable as the vast majority of churches today reject racism but significant traditions still affirm male-only ordination.

This relationship between our understanding of koinonia and context needs further exploration and theological analysis, not the least in relation to the continuing debate over the nature, conditions and extent of the inclusion of LGBTQ people within the UMC. This debate also raises significant issues about our understanding of koinonia, not only as it relates to LGBTQ people, but also as to what it means to embody God’s love in a community which includes people with contradictory views and practices in relation to LGBTQ inclusion.  The way we deal with theological diversity goes to the core of our understanding of the church.

As ecclesiology is the critical examination of what it means to concretely embody God’s love in the world, it is inherently contextual. Given our historical and present struggles to embody the divine love, the critical ecclesiological question and the invaluable contribution that we as the UMC can make to the ecumenical church is a critical theological reflection on what we have experienced and learnt.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Creation Care Recommended Readings

Last Saturday was Earth Day, and in honor of that annual occasion, a variety of stories have been appearing in United Methodist news sources about United Methodists around the world engaged in the work of creation care. Here's a rundown:

An article from Interpreter Magazine about the role of nature in Christian spirituality

An interview by UMNS with Rev. Rebecca Rutter about the spiritual dimensions of building a tiny house in Green Bay, WI, USA

An announcement from Global Ministries about LEED Platinum certification for its new mission headquarters building in Atlanta, GA, USA

An article from Interpreter Magazine about the goal of Mountain View UMC, Boulder, CO, to become carbon neutral

An article from the Florida Annual Conference about church gardening and other creation care projects

A video from UMNS about a one-time Earth Day project in Mexico that has led to a worldwide mission initiative to provide solar-powered lights

An article from UMW about a clean water access project being undertaken by four young United Methodist women.

An upcoming event, the 2017 United Methodist Caretakers of God's Creation Conference, to be held this Friday, Apr. 28, in Arlington, VA, USA

Thursday, April 20, 2017

David Field: Response to Wonder, Love & Praise, Part 1

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 first of three written by Dr. David N. Field, the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

The publication of the initial version of a document on UMC Ecclesiology is to be welcomed, as is the call for responses to it. This is particularly given the present stress that the UMC is undergoing. If the church is to find a way forward as a substantially united body this must be undergirded by well thought out self understanding of its identity as an manifestation of the one body of Christ. The document contains much that is to be affirmed; while I will mention some of this in what I write, I will focus my discussion on areas that appear to me to require critical engagement or are deficient.

A significant feature of Wonder, Love, and Praise (WLP) is that it locates itself within the context of the ecumenical discussion on the identity of the Church by engaging in a dialogue with the WCC document The Church: Towards a Common Vision. This ecumenical engagement is to be affirmed, but a more fruitful approach would have been to adopt Pope John Paul II’s concept of ecumenicism as an exchange gifts. The diverse churches bring their heritages to the ecumenical table to be shared with others. Such an approach recognizes that through the particularities of a church’s history it has come to actualize distinctive facets of what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. These particularities are crucial not only for the self identity of the church but also for the ecumenical church.

Hence, I would propose that a document on UMC ecclesiology needs to locate its discussion in the particularities of its heritage and then to bring these into a dialogue with the ecumenical community. So then the question becomes what are the defining characteristics of a UMC understanding of the church that it can bring to the ecumenical table. From my perspective, there are three distinctives that should shape a UMC understanding of the church. They are its Wesleyan theological heritage, its particular history and its international connectional character. All three of these are present to some degree in WLP but do not shape the document in such a way as to articulate the particular gift that the UMC offers to other churches.

In this first blog I will focus on the Wesleyan heritage. WLP clearly does not ignore the Wesleyan heritage. The three “distinctive convictions” – “the saving love of God is meant for all people,” the saving love of God is transformative,” and the saving love of God creates community” are deeply rooted in the Wesleyan tradition. It includes a number of lengthy quotes from Wesley with regard to prevenient grace and disagreements in the church. However, what is missing is the location of these convictions and quotations in the context of Wesley’s understanding of the church and of God’s mission in the world. There is no interaction with Wesley’s sermons “On the Church” and “On Schism,” with his Notes upon the New Testament, nor with his various discussions of the Church of England Article on the Church. The latter is particularly problematic given the discussion of this article in WLP in its UMC form. In what follows I will briefly outline aspects of Wesley’s ecclesiology and note how they are a corrective and enrichment of WLP.

The roots of Wesley’s ecclesiology lie in his understanding of God “whose nature and name is love.” God loves all human beings, who were created to image God’s character by loving God and loving their fellow human beings. Despite human sin, God continues to love all human beings and desires to transform them by love, renewing the divine image within them so that their characters are dominated by love for God and our fellow human beings. God is now active in the world to overcome sin and evil and to transform human beings and human societies so that love reigns throughout the earth. The center of God’s mission work is the transformation of human persons, who then transform the societies in which they live. God unites these transformed persons into the church which is to be the embodiment of the divine love, both in its own life and in its mission in the world. The universal church manifests itself as concrete communities of love in the real world. This participation in, embodiment of and reflection of the divine love distinguishes the church from the broader society, constituting it as a counter cultural community and as a sign and anticipation of God’s final redemption of all things. To participate in this embodiment of God’s love is to “anticipate heaven below.” The three “distinctive convictions” fit within this broader understanding of God’s mission in the world.

That the saving love of God is transformative lies at the center of Wesley’s ecclesiology. The goal of this transformation is creation of a people characterized by a love for God and neighbor. This love for one’s neighbor is expressed in a radical, self-sacrificial commitment to the well-being of friends, strangers, enemies and even those one considers to be the enemies of God. In a particular way, Christians are to delight in their siblings in Christ. The emphasis that God’s love is transformative is only genuinely Wesleyan when it is complemented by the emphasis that this transformation enables and requires a human response. This response is expressed in participating in the full range of the means of grace, a concept which is not to be reduced to the sacraments and is strikingly absent in WLP. Important aspects of the means of grace are “works of piety” and “works of mercy”.

WLP, in explaining the effect of grace, describes how this transformation involves “holiness of heart” and “holiness of conversation” and argues that, while there is a close relationship between the two, in different contexts Methodist have emphasized one or the other. While this is no doubt an adequate description of Methodist praxis, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Wesley’s theology. Wesley’s emphasis in his well-known discussions of social holiness and social religion is that these are not just closely related to each other but that they are inseparably integrated with each other – this is the revolutionary genius of Wesley’s theology. The transformation of the heart is primary but a transformed heart will manifest itself in a life of love for others expressed in diverse concrete actions that promote their comprehensive well-being. If there is no “holiness of conversation,” there is no “holiness of heart.” In turn, the life of love for others is a means of grace that leads to the growing transformation of the heart. New contexts and new struggles provide new opportunities for us to grow in holiness of heart and life. Hence, in Wesleyan perspective the mission of the church is always the integrated and holistic embodiment of love.

The emphasis on the transformative love of God has as its consequence that for Wesley the visibility of the church is not constituted by its outward structures but by its embodiment of love in the world. An ecclesial structure that does not embody love is not a visible manifestation of the church regardless of its doctrinal affirmations, sacramental celebrations or orders of ministry. (This emphasis is lacking in WLP.) Hence, Wesley down played the significance of the traditional Protestant marks of the church. It was for this reason that Wesley emphasized discipline in the early Methodist societies – they were open to all who desired salvation but continued membership depended upon lives that demonstrated a commitment to loving God and neighbors described in the General Rules. Wesley was quick to exclude from membership those who failed this standard. His poem “Primitive Christianity” expresses it thus:

Ye different sects, who all declare
‘Lo! Here is Christ!’ or ‘Christ is there!’
Your stronger proofs divinely give,
And show me where the Christians live.

Your claim, alas! Ye cannot prove;
Ye want the genuine mark of love:
Thou only, Lord, thine own canst show,
For sure thou hast a church below

That the “saving love of God creates community” is a consequence of the emphasis on love. People transformed by the love of God love each other with a reciprocal love characterized in delight in each other and a mutual concern for the comprehensive well being of each other. WLP rightly roots this community in our common union with God in Christ by the Spirit. This emphasis is not prominent in John Wesley’s writings but is more present in Charles Wesley’s hymns. John Wesley’s practice is a better expression of the community created by God than his theology which has deeply individualistic aspects. WLP points us in an important direction where we need to go beyond Wesley. The network of early Methodist societies with their various small groups gave structural form to a community that embodied the love of God through mutual responsibility and oversight designed to facilitate growth in love.

One of Wesley’s significant contributions was his insistence that the community created by God’s love embodied in mutual reciprocal relationships between Christians is of greater significance than theological differences – it is this which he describes as a catholic love. The challenge then is how churches embody this love in the context of contradictory theological positions within the church and between churches? This is dealt with in WLP but what is important is to insist that the embodiment of a catholic love within a church and the imperative of seeking greater unity between Christians are essential dimensions of a Wesleyan understanding of the church and thus an essential dimension of Methodist identity.

The affirmation that the saving love of God is meant for all people does not do full justice to the universal dynamic of Wesley’s theology. Wesley not only affirmed that God loved all humanity but also emphasized that God in grace is present and at work in all human beings, drawing them to Godself – hence, it would be better to rephrase this as God’s saving love is present in all people. WLP does refer to this in its discussion of God’s work in people outside of the visible church. However, this is a more fundamental affirmation that is the basis both for the mission of the church and its relationship with people of other faiths and no faith. Wesley’s views here are carefully nuanced, recognizing a diversity of situations in which people find themselves, and the affirmation of God’s gracious work in all does not become universalism. It remains the basis for evangelism and mission in the knowledge that this is a participation in God’s mission in the world.

More could be said, but in conclusion let me affirm the core of a Wesleyan ecclesiology is that the church is to be the visible embodiment of God’s love in the world – when it fails to do this it ceases to be a church.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Comparative Wesleyan Global Polity - The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church

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

What would The United Methodist Church look like if it did not have central conferences or jurisdictions and had taken questions about its global nature more seriously in the 1980s and 90s? The answer is probably, “It would look like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.”

First, some background on the global extent of the AME Church: The AME was founded in 1816 in Philadelphia, primarily by black members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Within eight years, it started societies in Haiti. Work in Canada was added in 1840. Additional work in the Caribbean and South America started in the mid-nineteenth century. The AME expanded to Africa in the 1890s, where the church has grown substantially. Work in India and Europe started in the 1960s. Today, there are 20 episcopal districts, seven of which are entirely outside the United States (six in Africa, one in the Caribbean). Additional work in the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, and India is part of predominantly-US episcopal districts. All total, the AME Church has members in 39 countries on five continents.

As noted, one of the primary differences between the UMC and the AME Church is that the AME does not have the UMC’s structure of central conferences and jurisdictions. Instead, the AME is organized into episcopal districts, which are similar to but more important than episcopal areas in the UMC. Representation in church-wide committees and other organizations (other than General Conference) is primarily based on districts. Each episcopal district contains approximately a half dozen annual conferences, which tend to be smaller in geographic scope and membership than UMC annual conferences, since several annual conferences share a bishop.

Bishops are all elected and assigned by the AME General Conference. Bishops must rotate between episcopal districts at least once every eight years, and there are no restrictions on where a bishop can be moved. Thus, the AME preserves the notion of general superintendency better than the UMC does, which has moved much more toward a diocesan model of episcopacy, or at very least a regional model of superintendency, organized around jurisdictions and central conferences.

The downside of episcopal election by General Conference is that Americans, constituting a majority of the delegates at General Conference, stand a better chance of being elected bishop. Historically, most of the bishops serving outside of the US were nonetheless Americans. Currently, bishops from outside the US lead only three out of the 20 districts. Americans lead four districts outside the US. In contrast, central conferences have served to ensure indigenous episcopal leadership in the UMC outside the US.

Whereas the UMC has a system of independent boards and agencies, the AME Church has one General Board with various departments that function like UMC boards and agencies. Thus, the AME Church system is more akin to Plan UMC. The AME departments are headquartered in the US (as are the UMC agencies), and the General Secretary/Chief Information Officer is required to have an office in either Washington, DC, St. Louis, Nashville, or Memphis. The departments and the General Secretary are, however, required by the Discipline to have “voluntary” field representatives in episcopal districts outside the US. UMC program agencies have some sort of presence outside the US, but this is not disciplinarily required, nor is it true of all boards and agencies. The AME Judicial Council is entirely American in membership, whereas the UMC Judicial Council has members from outside the US as well.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the UMC and the AME Church in terms of their global polity, however, is the AME Church’s Global Development Council and Commission on Global Development. As in the UMC, African members of the AME began to agitate in the early 1980s for greater inclusion in what they perceived to be a predominantly US-centric body. The bishops of the denomination took such pressures seriously. While overwhelmingly American, because the AME had retained the principle of general superintendency, the AME bishops were much more aware of what was going on in the church outside the US, since many of them had served episcopal terms in Africa or the Caribbean.

The effort to address African concerns led to some new initiatives in the early 1980s such as partnership-in-mission agreements between American and international branches of the church. These agreements not only facilitated development work outside the US but also sought to develop deeper “mutual understanding” and “more meaningful dialogue and interaction” among AME members from different countries.

Real changes in the global polity of the AME Church, however, awaited the late 1990s and early 200s. Starting in 1996, the church undertook a primarily African-led process of self-study that led to the formation of the Global Development Council. Its duties include to “develop a structure to address the needs, aspirations, beliefs and cultures of the global context,” “promote deeper understanding, collaboration, and cohesion among the AME Churches in Africa, the nations of the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and Canada with those in the United States,” “determine methods to address the unique challenges of the Districts outside of the United States,” and “propose legislation in the General Conference to move the process beyond the Global Development Council.” This is a broad scope of work, much beyond what the UMC’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is commissioned to do. The Global Development Council is a high-powered group, with all bishops, the General Board, and heads of administrative departments involved, as well as representatives from all episcopal districts. Such work is then further supported by the Commission on Global Development, part of the church’s General Board.

This process resulted in substantial changes to the denomination’s Doctrines and Disciplines, its equivalent to the Book of Discipline. These changes included adding a section on “Global Witness and Development in Africa, the Nations of the Caribbean, Europe, South America, and India” that includes a recounting of the history of greater global inclusion in the AME Church. The Doctrines and Disciplines also includes assertions such as “The budgets of the Episcopal Districts 14-20 of the AME Church shall be included in both the responsibilities and benefits of every activity of the church. Districts 14-20 [those outside the US] shall not be treated separately or differently in any way, personal or financial. They shall also participate in the decision-making processes of the church.”

AME Church does lack Central Conferences as a means of adapting polity to local circumstances outside the US. Yet, through the Global Development Council and revisions to the Doctrines and Disciples, it has been much more successful in embracing internationalization and enshrining this value in their polity. Indeed, it is fair to say that while the UMC has emphasized local contextualization, the AME Church has emphasized international inclusion. While there are undoubtedly many factors behind this difference, the retention of a more fully itinerant general superintendency in the AME is likely an important one.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Norma Dollaga: A Write-Back on Wonder, Love and Praise

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Norma Dollaga, a deaconess from the Philippines Annual Conference of the Manila Episcopal Area - Philippines Central Conference. Her episcopal appointment is at Kapatirang Simbahan Para a Bayan (KASIMBAYAN) / Ecumenical Center for Development.

The Lenten season is always an invitation to ponder upon the path that Jesus has taken, the choices he made, and the love he shared. His passion, death, and resurrection have become who we are now as a Church.

I read with great interest an important church document – Wonder, Love, and Praise. As I reflect upon it, I was wondering what does it mean to be a church in the context of poverty, hunger, homelessness, imperialist war, exploitation, oppression, human trafficking, landlessness of the peasantry, climate change, militarism and indigenous people as they defend their land and long for agrarian reform; of workers fighting for their rights, peace and human rights activists; and drug-related killings in the name of war on drugs. The killings happen with impunity. The Church faces the challenges for the prophetic and priestly response. She is always in the kairos moment – or at the crossroads, how it could nurture the grace and the power of resurrection!

I weep inquiring whether it is still true that grace is for all people, as I am reminded of a boy who could not even shed a tear for the death of his father who was a victim of drug-related killing right at the very shanty they considered as home. He could not even afford to mourn and stay at the wake, as he needed to work at the fish port, otherwise, the family would not be able to have their meals. Where is the grace promised in a heart- wrenching situation when even weeping is denied to poor ones?

I seek the Holy Spirit to shepherd me in understanding that the saving love of God is transformative. How do we as a church become a body that participates in the radical LOVE of God that would enable us to stand side by side with the “blessed poor”? Are they not the exploited and the oppressed? They are blessed with the gift of knowing and visioning a transformed world where exploitation exists no more, but rather is replaced with genuine love and justice that become a norm in any relationships. Thus, SALVATION is experienced in a concrete sense through a transformed community manifested when exploitation is eradicated.

Who are we as Church? What defines our being? Are we overcoming our internal contradictions by following the greatest commandment? (Matthew 22:36-40)? Have we become now as she promised to be? Do we belong in the world – as salt of the earth, integrated, immersed in the journey of the people towards the resurrection of humanity – not just a few, but all.

Are we afraid to be irrelevant? Not because we have not responded to the needs of the broken world, but the Church would no longer be needed because the HEAVEN on earth has come, and that GRACE and REDEMPTION are no longer confined in conferencing, in the fellowship of believers, in the edifices and the endless engagements with the principalities that destroy the great destiny and design for humanity: the love and joy.

When the exploitation of one against another, personal and structural shall have ceased, HEAVEN shall replace the salvific work and mission of the church.

Meanwhile, we struggle to become a church, to be a Church. This process leads us to wonder, love and praise!

The teachings and preaching of the Church are much needed today. She needs to fulfill her prophetic role to denounce injustice, to proclaim gospel wisdom and values, and to work for ethical alternatives to poverty, want, the sufferings of the many – alternatives to the increasing structural violence of exploitation and oppression. It is right and just to condemn unjust practices that have been well-institutionalized in the economic, political, and cultural life of society.

We need a Church that will take the side of the poor who have been wronged by the system that benefits only the rich and powerful elites. We need a Church that denounces the powers-that-be, who have entitled themselves to an exclusive right to accumulate properties, profits, and personal benefits at the expense the poor. We need a Church that will align herself with farmers asserting their right to own the land, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and to share these with the people. We need a Church that will not hesitate to cry out loud along with the workers as they demand living family wages and security of jobs. We need a Church that would denounce the evil of contractualization, an invention of capitalism to advance its greedy purpose. We need a Church scandalized by any curtailment of people’s freedom to resist the fetters of oppression and the seduction of corruption. We need a Church that seeks the release of political prisoners put behind bars because they lived out teachings of the prophets to defend the rights of the poor and to struggle for their emancipation.

We need a Church that would stand with the people in claiming the people’s right to self-determination, including the right to resist and engage in liberation movements to unshackle themselves from slavery, exploitation, oppression (Exodus 1:1-10:5). The historic Exodus narrative could be a shining exemplary for those desirous of justice and peace and prosperity for all. It was wrong was for Pharaoh to enslave the Hebrews. It was right for slaves to defy and subvert the oppressive rule and go for a historic exodus. No one dared to say that God was not with them.

There will neither be harmony in this world that we consider our home nor common good in human community probable in a structure and system of society characterized by injustice. Where social justice is absent, love is far away and peace, distant. The Church’s participation in the journey of the people to a better life is always righteous. She is called to immersion in the hope and struggle of the poor for salvation and liberation.

A great priest, Fr. Joe Dizon, a humble priest of Cavite who died a simple man of God once said: “The Church will never go astray if it continues to be with the poor as they work and struggle for their resurrection from the many forms of “deaths” imposed upon them by the evils of injustice.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Sierra Leonean apportionments matter

The Sierra Leone Annual Conference held its annual meeting a month ago. At the meeting, Bishop John Yambasu declared he wants churches in Sierra Leone to pay their apportionments so that the annual conference is less dependent on American (and German) money. You can read three slightly different versions of this story, all from Phileas Jusu, from the West African Writers blog, from UMNS, and from the Annual Conference report.

Annual conferences which are part of the Central Conferences, like Sierra Leone, are being asked to contribute to global apportionments for the first time this quadrennium. Bishop Yambasu mentioned this new factor in the church's finances, but the majority of apportionment dollars will stay in the Sierra Leone Annual Conference and support its work. Yambasu stressed the importance of this money for the annual conference as well as its global obligations.

This story is significant for several reasons:

1. Yambasu explicitly tied his instructions to a possible split in the UMC.

As the first line of the UMNS story reads, "The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone needs to reduce its reliance on overseas support in case the global denomination splits over the issue of homosexuality, Bishop John K. Yambasu told members of the conference at their annual meeting."

First, it's significant to see a bishop being this blunt about the possible future of the denomination in an annual conference meeting.

Second, while it's easy to read the debate over homosexuality as a US-centric issue and identify the ways in which Americans are strategizing for a possible post-split future, it is important to remember that Americans are not the only ones doing so. Planning by those outside the US means that Americans will not control all of the outcomes, should a split occur.

2. Yambasu means business about collecting apportionments.

Current annual conference policy stipulates "only pastors who pay their apportionments in full shall receive salaries at the end of the month. Further, only congregations who pay their apportionments in full will have their pastors and members considered for election as delegates to Central, General and other international conferences ... Bishop’s cabinet has also agreed that district superintendents who fail to pay full apportionments for the year will be moved and replaced" (from the West African Writers piece). Yambasu intends to start enforcing this policy and has already withheld salaries from November and December of last year for pastors who did not collect and turn over apportionments.

While not paying pastors and firing district superintendents might seem severe penalties to United Methodists used to their regular incomes, these consequences are clear signs that Yambasu is very serious about collecting apportionments and will use whatever leverage he has to do so. This shift is not about beginning to think about starting to collect apportionments. This shift is about producing immediate results.

3. Sierra Leone isn't the only annual conference outside the US moving away from dependency.

As this blog has previously noted, the Liberia Annual Conference is also taking steps to achieve financial independence, and that was before General Conference 2016. The savvy leaders of the UMC in West Africa know that greater financial self-sufficiency increases their leverage in negotiations regarding the future of the UMC. Furthermore, whatever comes with regard to the future of the UMC, it will increase their self-determination and further their ministry.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Stefan Zürcher: Comments on Wonder, Love and Praise

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Rev. Stefan Zürcher, District Superintendent of the Zürich District of the Switzerland-France-North Africa Annual Conference.

The United Methodist ecclesiology document Wonder, Love, and Praise (WLP) takes its point of departure from God’s love. I consider this a helpful starting point, emphasizing a central aspect in Methodist theology. Three aspects let the love of God become concrete: First, the universality of God’s love (taking into account non-human creation a bit too little) seeking the voluntary participation of humans; second the transformation by God’s love that transforms humans through the spirit here and now; third, God’s love creating and forming community. Community is a gift and a task at the same time.

I agree with these three aspects. WLP ties a number of ecclesiological reflections to these three aspects. In my commentary, I want to concentrate on two topics. First, I look at the relation between mission, church and its task. This is not emphasized enough to my mind. Second, I emphasize a fourfold relation as a way of describing the nature of the church. It is a relation to God, to other Christians locally, to the world, and to the worldwide church. WLP provides a starting point for describing this fourfold relation. I emphasize these two aspects because I am interested in new contextual forms of being the church. The church, also our church, needs to remain capable or become capable anew to develop new forms of church, forms that allow her to be faithful to her calling also in the future and in a continuously changing world.

The Relation of Mission, Church, and its Task
In the beginning the WCC document The Church: Toward a Common Vision is referred to, and a reason is given why WLP relates to it. It is the shared search for Christian unity, which is nothing else but the search for the reality of the church itself (line 86f). Then we read: “Mission and unity are inextricably connected” (91f). This is an important reflection. But it is surprising that the term mission is introduced here abruptly and that the document does not talk about church here, which one would have expected. A possible explanation may be the quote from another WCC document, Together Towards Life. This document is not about the church, but about God’s mission (93f). In any case, the term mission is justifiably used repeatedly in the document. But what is meant by mission and how it relates to the church and its task is only hinted at, never really explained in a basic and systematic way. Both terms are key to an ecclesiological document, I think. The nature of the church cannot be disconnected from its place within the mission Dei. This should be clarified in a special paragraph.

Often we talk about the “mission of the church” (examples: 371, 382, 427, 519, 526…). Does the church have mission? Isn’t it a part of God’s mission? Without clarifying the relation of the church to the mission Dei, the formulation “mission of the church” remains unclear. Or is it a language problem? Does the formulation simply mean the calling of the church as distinguished from God’s mission (94)? This needs explanation.

In this context, it is surprising that the United Methodist mission statement in par. 120 of the Book of Discipline is not mentioned a single time. When mission is explained and the church’s function in the context of mission, the relation between the contemporary and the eschatological significance of the kingdom of God would need to be reflected upon as well. The kingdom of God is mentioned in WLP exclusively in quotes, and the eschatological dimension is barely noticeable. A reflection on the relation between kingdom of God and church would provide space to remedy this lack. In addition to eschatology to my mind the cosmic dimension of the mission Dei and the calling of the church would deserve more attention. The new creation does not only reflect the transformation of humans and human community, it also embraces the non-human creation. This is hinted at (402f), but it is too weak a hint. That aspect needs elaboration. The Methodist tradition has more to say about it.

Church as Web of Relations in Four Directions
Starting with Article 5 on The Church in the creed of the Evangelical United Brethren, WLP develops an understanding of church that allows one to identify church not only where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are duly administered in a community of the faithful. This is what the equivalent article of faith of the Methodist Church emphasizes, building on article 7 in Confessio Augustana and article 12 of the Church of England.[1] There are two good reasons for criticizing such a definition. First, it emphasizes the visible aspect of the church on behalf of the invisible aspect too much. WLP shows how the invisible aspect of the church can receive its appropriate space (542ff). Second, the definition leads to a one-sided emphasis on programs, events, and implementations such as the Sunday service. This becomes evident in church history. But this does no justice to the visible church in its fullness, and its legitimate diversity (599ff) is circumscribed in this way, as WLP shows.

The mentioned Article 5 that is quoted in WLP shows a different, promising way: “Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world” (504ff). The service of the church ventures in three directions here: toward God, toward other believers, and toward the world. In this way the relations are tied together in three directions, in the relation to God, to other believers, and to the world. Michael Moynagh complements from the perspective of the Fresh-Ex-movement in Great Britain a fourth relation, the relation to the church universal, i.e. to the ecumene and to the Christian tradition to be distinguished from the concrete local fellowship.[2] This fourth relation is presupposed in WLP, which is shown in the reference to the WCC document The Church.

This description of the nature of the church does not define how the four relations of church praxis are lived and realized. It leaves free space to develop forms of church that are adjusted to different contexts and cultures (604ff). The church is constituted by its four basic relations, and not by specific implementations. These relations need to look different in their structure and shape depending on the context.

[1] This is the narrow understanding of church that can be found in the CPCE document Church Communion from 2016. The Working Group for Theology and Ordained Ministry of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe has criticized such a limited understanding in its statement in October 2016.
[2] Moynagh, Michael: Church for every Context. An Introduction to Theology and Practice, London 2012, 106ff.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Recommended Viewing: WCC Evangelism Webinars

As part of their disciplinary mandate to equip United Methodists for evangelism, Discipleship Ministries has made available a series of six, approximately hour-long webinars produced by the World Council of Churches, on the topic of evangelism.

The videos, originally produced in 2015, include panelists from a variety of denominational traditions, including The United Methodist Church. Each is geared toward the contexts of the United States and Canada.

The topics covered by the webinars include:
1. Reclaiming Evangelism
2. Evangelizing Each Other
3. Evangelism in a Multifaith Context
4. Evangelism and Migrant-Immigrant Churches
5. Evangelism and the Context of the Poor and the Marginalized
6. Evangelism and the Context of Small Congregations

Readers should be aware that each webinar requires registration to view, but the webinars are free resources.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part II

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 second of two written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

Christianity and other living faiths
Some physicists say that the universe is simultaneously expanding and contracting, and the same can be said of The United Methodist Church today. In less than half a century, Christians from other parts of the world will replace the departing Christians in the global north. While we rejoice over the exponential church growth in the global south, those of us in the leadership of the church in global north need to take measures to stop the membership hemorrhaging. No matter how large the sum of money and innovative programs we infuse into the structure of the denomination, unless workable solutions are put in place to end the bleeding, the church will continue to lose ground. The purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ is not to survive, any more than the purpose of our own lives is to survive. Survival is a necessity, not a purpose. Prudent precautions and sensible preparations will be for naught unless the United Methodist constituents understand the core conviction of Christian faith and their missional responsibilities.

A clear and concise mission theology motivates and assists the Christian community in reconciling all forms of alienation, while being faithful to its apostolic traditions. The denomination’s mission mandate calls for its constituents to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” What is unclear to those of us coming from the global south is that the proposed document on ecclesiology (the nature of the church) appears to conflate grace and redemption, and offers a single blurry lens rather than sharpened distinct views. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that ALL religions are salvific.

The role of laity and their everyday encounter with the members of the broader society is visibly absent in the document. During that process, the vital aspect of mission and ministry with the adherents of other living faiths has been completely left out. As we are well aware, the church intersects with the beliefs and practices of the adherents of other living faiths, and works for peace, justice, reconciliation, and the integrity of God’s creation.

In addition, massive defections of our baptized and confirmed prevent us from being too sanguine about how many of our children will identify as Christians in coming years. Already hundreds and thousands of our children have left the church in the global north. In such a context, how do we define the nature and role of the church and its mission? How can we keep the light on for them? That light cannot be left on, unless the uniqueness and universality of Jesus is clearly defined in the context of our pluralized, post-Christian, post-modern context.

Regrettably, there is no reference in the document as to how to witness to Christ in our multi-faith world. If the church proclaims Jesus Christ as the Lord to the world around us, it should include both those within and without the fold.

Our denomination wants to gain one million more people in this quadrennium. If so, which pond should the church fish from? And, how? We need to think about where the disciples come from, especially from outside the fold, not how sheep are stolen from inside the fold. If the church has to actively get involved in outreach mission, as the document affirms, the church’s missional mandate needs to be spelled out in a coherent way in the current changed landscape.

Missional shifts
Major shifts have taken place in the church’s mission from the past to the present including shifts
- from ecclesiocentric to theocentric,
- from theocentric to Non-Governmental Organizations-centric,
- from NGO-centric to anthropocentric,
- from anthropocentric to geocentric mission.

Today, mission has migrated from denominational mission to community-oriented, and individual-initiated mission. Making a difference is the goal. Hence the definition of the church’s mission among our constituents has become broader, larger, and comprehensive. We need to make an intentional shift in our understanding of church and mission from Wesley’s time, which was primarily mono-chromatic and mono-cultural, to the worldwide, polyphonic, pluralistic present context, in which Christianity has hybridized and is well-situated as a non-Western religious community.

A definition of the church which we call ecclesiology is not a mere doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. It is a spiritual stroll through “sinners’” mazy minds about faith, tradition, and reason, with an invitation to follow Jesus. Hence, sin has to be defined both in individual and structural contexts. For the wages of sin include the loss of community, trust, equality, and social justice.

A giant reset is looming for the church’s mission during our time because we live in a space between the way things were and the way things might be. Solutions are fleeting as new challenges keep popping up. We don’t want to get locked into just a single mode of operation. We need to clarify why the church exists and does what it does worldwide, which missional values are fundamental, what specific message it conveys in today’s pluralistic world, and how its message and ministries of mercy differ from other humanitarian and social agencies.

What is urgently needed today, I submit, is a hybrid ecclesiology; a distinct United Methodist voice; a voice that emerges from informed theological intelligence and historic connectional commitment; a theology that distinguishes the church from the larger world and other faiths and all that denies the values of Christ. To construct a truly worldwide ecclesiology, the current reality of Western Christianity sitting at the table with non-Western Christianity has to be seriously taken into account. We must accept the responsibility of planting seeds of diversity and equity; of empathy and unity, while we share our fragility, as this work is an attempt to understand a behemoth theological and missiological concept by describing it from multiple angles. With our ever-enlarging global access to the visions and voices and influences of others, let us untangle the knot of what makes up the church and whom we serve and witness to as disciples and as fellow human beings.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Recommended Reading: 500 Years of Protestantism

2017 is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, generally seen as starting when Martin Luther's 95 Theses were issued  in 1517. This anniversary is being marked in myriad ways around the world. One relevant resource related to global Christianity is a recent infographic released by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The two-page infographic provides a variety of statistics related to the historical rise and global distribution of Protestant Christianity.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part I

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 first of two written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

Half a century ago Flannery O’Connor outlined the struggle to “make belief believable” as a struggle for the attention of the indifferent reader. Hence, she insisted that the religious aspect in her work of fiction is “a dimension added,” not one taken away. Then she went on to explain how she did it: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

In an almost similar vein, The United Methodist Church is updating its worn out doctrinal cursives and outmoded linguistic scripts to compile a new and relevant theological understanding of the church and its missional imperatives. The recently proposed document, Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church, is to serve as a theological mirror as well as a window that swings open to the worldwide body of Christ in our time. More importantly, it is intended to enable the United Methodist constituents to see outside themselves and know what it is to be a worldwide connectional church. After conferring with several Asian-American United Methodist laity and clergy, I submit the following comments for further consideration and action.

Settled church versus a pilgrim church
The well-researched and elegantly written current document, unfortunately, is heavily dependent upon WCC documents with an over emphasis on Eucharist, grace, and community, with only ancillary references to baptism, evangelism, mission and the role of the laity. The “paschal mystery” behind the Eucharist (crucifixion, death and resurrection, and Parousia), mission and ministry with people of other faiths, and Christianity on the move through global diaspora has no room in the document, although they are a vital part of Church’s belief and corner stone for Christian mission.

While the document meanders through pages of past Euro-centric Methodist history, it falls short on the interpretation of that history for our changed landscape. If we derive our church and mission theology based on our missional history from just one part of the world, we will be standing on a shaky ground. Contemporary ecclesiology is fiercely divided over how to address the world’s challenges and what those challenges really are in the larger historic context.

Many today are thinking post-religion. Through the pull of cultural and religious pluralism and the allure of openly secular and liberal values, traditional modes of Christian witness and mission engagements have nose-dived in recent decades. Many have left the church in disillusionment. The church needs to offer a new map for them to return. Christian history has repeatedly proven that they will come roaring back, if and when the church’s signs, symbols and message become meaningful to them.

The proposed document is deeply based on the theological understanding of church, mission and ministry of “settled Christianity” of the Christendom era of the global north. It does not have a broader understanding of the church in the global south, including its diasporic and pilgrim nature. A known method can only achieve known results. The method being adopted here is purely “Western.” We need to apply new hermeneutics. New categories. Not just refining but re-defining our ecclesiology, theology and missiology in the worldwide context. A theology-free approach will not transform. Theology moves the church to engage in mission, and mission rightly engaged enables the church to develop theology.

The worldwide church is a church on the move due to its minority status, extreme poverty, and intense persecution. Persecution is a real threat, and not a mere slogan. The church in the global south witnesses, grows, and multiplies in countless methods and among numerous groups, even in the midst of limited material resources. This proposed document elevates the diversity of spiritual gifts, which Apostle Paul talks about in I Corinthians 12, but has failed to comprehend the diversity within the Body of Christ which the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7:9-10, beautifully portrays as the ultimate triumph of the Church: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Church in the world
We certainly wish that this document, which emphasizes proclamation as the responsibility of the community, had explained more about the content of the proclamation and its targeted recipients. Sometimes, the readers find it hard to distinguish between the references made to the community which makes up the church, the Body of Christ, and the larger community that makes up the society. Community is defined in this document in broad neutral terms as the grace of God enveloping all. Yet, no distinction has been made between the Body of Christ and the larger Kingdom of God, in which the Body of Christ is firmly situated. A biblical and theological definition of the role of the Body of Christ in the larger society would certainly enrich the document. In addition, many theological words that are employed in the document have multiple layers of meanings and vary in context. Consequently, the role of the church in the larger society is simply assumed and buried under presumed vocabulary, as the document appears to have in mind only the United Methodist constituents in the global north.

Lastly, this proposed document talks a lot about the First and Third Person of the Trinity but seldom about the Second Person, on whose paschal mystery Christianity hinges, and how it differs from other living faiths. The importance of the Eucharist is preeminent throughout the document, but an equal emphasis of the doctrine of baptism, even as a requirement for the United Methodist church’s membership, would have been extremely helpful. A mere reference to both of them as “Sacraments” would throw many of our constituents off balance during this post-denomination era.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Lloyd Narota on reconciliation in the UMC

Much has been written online about the Commission on a Way Forward and its work. Yet because of the Methodist blogosphere's tendency to amplify mostly white, American, male voices, much of what has been written has reflected a certain social location, despite displaying widely varying theological standpoints. That is why I am happy to recommend Rev. Lloyd Narota's recent UMNS commentary, "Can our 'way forward' be reconciliation?" Rev. Narota is an ordained elder from Zimbabwe serving in Canada. His views certainly do not reflect all African United Methodists, but they do add something important to the discussion.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Papers not presented at the GBHEM/AUMTS Colloquy

Last weekend, I attended the theological colloquy entitled “The Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness," sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS). The goal of the colloquy is to bring the best thinking of United Methodist academics from around the world on questions related to debates over homosexuality and discussions of the future of The United Methodist Church as a united institution.

While I was impressed with the faithfulness and the academic insights of the participants, I was nonetheless disappointed that there were not more participants from outside the US (there was one from Mozambique and one from Denmark) and that there were not more papers focusing on elements of United Methodist history from outside the US.

I understand that GBHEM made significant efforts to reach out to schools outside the US, most of whom were not able to participate for a variety of scheduling and economic reasons. Nonetheless, I thought the omission of such elements from the discussion left a significant lacuna in the work of the colloquy.

To get a sense of the sorts of topics that the colloquy could have considered that would have dealt with material from outside the US and have been of relevance to the colloquy, I have come up with ten such possible paper titles below:

"Polygamy and The United Methodist Church in Africa"

"The Impact of Holiness: Controversies and Schisms in Methodist Mission History"

"Disciplinary Flexibility: Lessons from the Central Conferences"

"How Shall We Remain United?: The Legacy of COSMOS for Methodist Models of Structural Unity"

"Schisms Over Who Is Ordained: The Desire for Indigenous Leadership in Methodist Missions"

"The Splits of 1930: Mexico, Brazil, and Korea as Different Models for Continued Unity After Structural Separation"

"Better Together: Theology, Polity, and Practicality in the Eglise Metodiste d' Cote d' Ivoire/UMC Merger"

"John R. Mott's Methodist Vision of Unity"

"Japanese Imperial Rites and Methodism in Korea: Conscience, Expediency, and Polity"

"Uniting and Dividing: Creating the Independent Methodist Church in Mexico by Merging MEC and MECS Missions"

I don't know specifically which scholars could have presented such papers, and it is certainly beyond my scope of expertise to have written each of them. Nor is this list necessarily the best or only list of such topics. Nevertheless, it is important that the UMC consider its whole history as it moves toward whatever its future may be.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

American UMC decline is a white people problem

What if I told you that United Methodist membership in the US was growing?

You'd tell me that I was crazy. The narrative of decline is and has been for years one of the strongest narratives in The United Methodist Church in the US. Many words have been spent on trying to make theological and organizational sense of this trend and/or coming up with ways to reverse it.

Yet the UMC has been growing in members in the US over the past two decades, just not among white people. As the table below shows, since 1996, the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders has doubled, the number of Hispanics has grown by two-thirds, the number of African-Americans has grown by a third, and the number of Native Americans by a quarter.

Black membership:
1996 - 319,165; 2000 - 382,243; 2004 - 423,456; 2008 - 432,354; 2016 - 438,343
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +37%

Hispanic membership:
1996 - 42,797; 2000 - 40,652; 2004 - 55,143; 2008 - 61,573; 2016 - 76,332
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +78%

Asian-American membership:
1996 - 45,271; 2000 - 56,143; 2004 - 73,557; 2008 - 81,382; 2016 - 93,211
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +106%

Pacific Islander membership:
1996 - 7,220; 2000 - 8,245; 2004 - 12,489; 2008 - 11,378; 2016 - 14,520
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +101%

Native American membership:
1996 - 17,457; 2000 - 18,766; 2004 - 21,760; 2008 - 22,665; 2016 - 21,440
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +23%

White membership:
1996 - 8,611,902; 2000 - 7,902,305; 2004 - 7,667,201; 2008 - 7,386,067; 2016 - 6,460,538
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: -21%

The UMC has experienced significant overall membership declines over the past two decades, but these have come entirely from the net loss of white members. Thus, it is fair to say that the UMC in the US does not have a problem with numeric decline. It has a problem with white numeric decline.

Of course, since the UMC is one of the whitest denominations in America, this loss of white membership has meant that overall American United Methodist numbers have gone down. While the UMC has added non-white members, it has not been at a sufficient rate to make up for the loss of white members. This is perhaps not surprising, given the UMC's difficulties as a predominantly white institution in reaching out to people of color (as described here, here, and here).

While this finding does not perhaps change where the denomination is at in terms of membership, money, or trend lines, it should significantly alter how we think about and respond to membership loss in the UMC in the US. Many on both sides of the theological spectrum often cast numeric decline as a sign that the UMC has lost its way and no longer resonates with its context. This finding, however, shows that the UMC does have a message that resonates with at least some segments of its context. This finding should encourage United Methodists to ask questions such as the following:

How can we support, encourage, and expand the United Methodist growth that is already happening among people of color? What changes to the United Methodist system can empower leaders of color to even more effectively spread the gospel? This process will require white United Methodists to listen to and be led by their sisters and brothers of color.

What lessons can minority United Methodists teach their white brothers and sisters about United Methodism and how to be effective evangelists? How can people of color serve as examples for white United Methodists? This process will require white United Methodists to be willing to learn from their sisters and brothers of color.

How do white anxieties about the decline of white, American United Methodism serve to cloud and confuse denominational thinking about its future in the US? Robert P. Jones' recent book, The End of White Christian America, is certain to be relevant here as a resource for thinking about how white, Christian Americans in general have responded to their loss of cultural privilege. This process will require white United Methodists to acknowledge their whiteness and repent of the ways in which their thinking has been shaped by race and not the gospel.

If white American United Methodists are willing to do the difficult and humble work described above, perhaps they, too, could experience some of the growth their brothers and sisters of colors have been experiencing for decades.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Recommended readings: Wespath and Climate Change

This recent UMNS article outlines ways in which Wespath, The United Methodist Church's pension and benefits organization, in making efforts to encourage and invest in initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is seen by scientists as an important contributor to the process of climate change.

These recent developments are likely to be of interest, not only because of their connection to creation care as a facet of mission, but because of their connection to larger denominational debates about the denomination's environmental responsibilities and its investment policies. As this, this, and this story relate, whether or not Wespath should divest from all fossil fuel companies was an item of debate at 2016 General Conference. This more recent debate follows earlier policy changes from 2015 to screen out some forms of fossil fuels from the fund's investment portfolios.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Robert Hunt on "Wonder, Love and Praise"

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology.

There are two ways of approaching identity, not least the identity of the Christian Church. One is ontological. What is its essence? How is it rooted in the essential characteristics of the God who called it into being? This is the approach taken by the document of the Faith and Order Committee of the United Methodist Church entitled Wonder, Love and Praise.

I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, which is genealogical: seeking out the identity of the church by inquiry into the process by which it was brought into being.

Such an approach might appear to begin with the calling of Jesus' disciples to their task of continuing his ministry and going into the world to declare the gospel of his death and resurrection. Yet in truth we must begin further back. Jesus, in describing his mission, continually references the prophets of Israel and even Moses. Paul sees the origins of Christian faith in Abraham. And the Jerusalem council looks to God’s covenant with Noah as the way in which to understand a Gentile Church. And of course, there is Hebrews 12. In short, a genealogy of the Christian church should begin with God’s creation of the world through the calling of Israel into being.

Beginning with the Old Testament, and there is no space for a fuller discussion here, has been and will continue to be extraordinarily fruitful for the self-understanding of the Church as it faces the challenge of unity and diversity. This is because among other things we will find in that story two themes: first the demand the Israel be pure, and second the demand that Israel accept and include those beyond its borders who bring with them precisely the danger of impurity. It isn’t a matter of ambiguity. Israel must accomplish two things that in human terms appear contradictory: to remain utterly faithful to God and free of anything that violates God’s law, and to be utterly faithful to God and be continually engaged with the nations who are both the realm of impurity, and the realm of God’s saving action even for Israel. And it is a story in which the demands for purity and inclusion play out quite literally through genealogies, leading up to the mixed genealogy of David and ultimately Jesus.

It is moreover a story that continues through the ministry of Jesus as he and his followers continually address their own insider/outsider status in relation to what was in his time an international Jewish community emerging out of ancient Israel. What it means to be in continuity with Israel yet different from Israel was a question of identity both communities wrestled with as they came to understand themselves in relation to one another.

Yet as important as the story of Israel becoming Judaism is to Christian identity, the self-understanding of the Church as the means by which the ministry of Jesus continues in the world is more encompassing.

To understand the church as the Body of Christ continuing the ministry of Jesus the Christ we must begin with that ministry. This includes not only his preaching and teaching, but his self-declarations (The Son of Man passages for example) his miracles, and his death, resurrection, and ascension. These lay the groundwork for understanding the ministry that Jesus commands the apostles to fulfill, and thus represent both its purpose and the conditions under which the church will evolve as it realizes that purpose. Again, a full exploration of the relevant passages exceeds the bounds of this short essay, but can be reasonably summarized by saying that the mission of Jesus was to both proclaim and enact the nearness of the Reign of God wherever and whenever he was present. Indeed, he can be recognized as the Lord of God’s Reign, the Christ because in his words and deeds he manifests that specific form of Lordship associated with God’s Reign and no other.

Passages in which Jesus then sends his disciple to continue his work (Luke 10) help clarify how the mission of the church is both the same and different from that of the Christ. The disciples are not lords, they are servants, or perhaps better in English stewards, since as servants they have authority from their Lord. (Luke 7:1-9, Luke 9:1, 10:19) We recognize the collective identity of the disciples through the ways in which they imperfectly enact their stewardship of God’s ruling authority. The story is the basis for understanding their imperfect identity with Jesus Christ.

Those passages in which Jesus commands the re-enactment of his death and resurrection, and thus creates the ritual that constitutes the inner life of the fellowship of apostles (Mark 14:12-21) clarify that picture further. While it belongs to Jesus alone to offer his life on the cross, it belongs to the church to remember and re-enact the passion. This reminds us, along with the Pauline accounts of what he received and passed on, that presence of the living Christ within the Body of Christ arises out of faithful obedience to his command, which precedes theological reflection on the relationship of presence to ritual. (I Corinthians 11:23-26)

The post-resurrection commissioning through which Jesus explicitly sends his apostles out into the world gives us a deeper understanding of how the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will become central to enacting the Reign of God. (Matthew 28:16 - 20, Acts 1:8) Their obedience, and failures of obedience, as they live a life in mission then give a distinctive shape to the identity of the apostolic church that emerges both from the apostolic stewardship of the growing body of disciples and their witness to the death and resurrection until his return. (John 21:15-25, Acts 2:15 - 36, I Corinthians 11:26, Romans 8:15-027)

Eventually, if we trace the genealogy of the Church through the various churches as they appear in the New Testament, and the emerging theological expressions of their self-understanding (I John 3 for example, but in some sense the entire New Testament corpus taken as a whole), we begin to get a full sense of what it means to be church. It is rooted in the command of Christ, the enacted fidelity of the apostolic founders of the apostolic church, and the experience in the life of a church of the presence of the resurrected Christ as it engages in faithfully continuing that mission.

Each of these the two approaches I have mentioned, ontological and genealogical, has its merits. Each has its place in the ongoing self-discovery by the Church of its identity. But I would argue that in our time, with the more general cultural ways of understanding identity focusing on narrative, a genealogical approach will be more fruitful than an ontological approach. It will be more accessible as well to those who possess only, or primarily the scripture read inductively as a resource.

Put more simply, if we are learning what it means to faithfully follow the command of Jesus Christ together it may become easier for us to go to church together.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Recommended readings: Glen Messer on ecclesiology

As this blog has been focusing recently on ecclesiology, especially reviews of the UMC's draft ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise," I thought it appropriate to link to some other online theological reflections on United Methodist ecclesiology.

Dr. Glen A. Messer, II, has published two electronic resources related to this topic. One is two draft chapters of a book entitled, Concepts of Connection, which takes a connectional approach to exploring United Methodist ecclesiology. The second is an e-book entitled Perfecting Unity and published by the UMC Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. This book is intended as an "aid to discernment" and prompt to discussion of issues related to church unity in a broad sense. It puts conversations about ecclesiology in an ecumenical perspective.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Daniel Shin: Thoughts on “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 first of a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

In this series of blog posts on “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document. Nonetheless, in this post, I will mostly focus on the church’s ministry and the issue of legitimate diversity. I also follow the Statement’s structure of affirmations that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities.

The third section “Faith, Hope, and Love” addresses the conviction “The saving love of God is transformative” (WLP, p. 32ff).  It claims that the triadic character of the life in community through faith, hope, and love is Trinitarian and, therefore, there is a Trinitarian character to the way the church expresses God’s love in the world.  As stated earlier, there may be a Trinitarian dimension to the triadic manifestation in the community, but it needs to describe how this is so and, more importantly, what is at stake in the claim.

Its assertion about the Trinitarian nature of the church seems to taper off gradually, but continues the theme of triadic structure of the life and mission of the church in its discussion of the doctrine of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.  The importance of the Committee’s appeal to the threefold office of Christ cannot be stressed enough in understanding the conviction that God’s love is transformative.  This section is indeed of great value in warding off temptations to a reductionist, one-office accounts of salvation.

Then what is somewhat disconcerting is its attempt to apply the notion of the threefold office of Christ narrowly on ordained ministry, especially the Order of the Elders, instead of helping the General Church to grapple with munus triplex (WLP, p. 36ff).  After its recognition of the work of the whole church, it rushes immediately to theological reflection and ordained ministry.  While this section certainly offers a helpful historical and theological account of the ordained ministry, its silence on the mission of the whole church needs to be filled with a clarion call to witness the threefold office of Christ in all spheres of life and ministry.  This is especially pertinent given the Statement’s own recognition of lacunae on the subject of ministry in the General Church (WLP, p. 16).  Furthermore, a distinction between the Order of Elders and Deacons is well laid out, but this needs to be supplemented by how the ministry of Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion by the Order of Deacons may just as well be informed by Christ’s prophetic proclamations and teachings, priestly sacrifice of love, and reign of basin and towel.  

In the section titled “United Methodism and the Church Universal,” the Committee deliberates on the markers of the United Methodist identity we profess and aspire to: the universal scope of transformative grace; connectionalism the aim of which is mutual support and accountability; and commitment to theological reflection (WLP, p. 41ff).  It would be advantageous for the church to heed the Committee’s reminder about these markers.

As promised earlier, the Statement does return to the issue of legitimate diversity and underscores some important matters under the heading “Diversity and Conflict” (WLP, p. 47ff).  It recognizes that conflicts are real and they arise from complex factors.  In a radical affirmation of differences in the church, it goes on to recognize the different human uses of the church and says that we are in communion not because we share the same views and practices, but in fact due to the true gift of koinonia in the Spirit. The Statement also affirms diversity for practical reasons.  Diversity in the church need not be seen as a liability in the church’s mission but instead a strength as it faces an increasingly diverse world, which an earlier study by two political scientists have demonstrated. On a more sober note, it recognizes that at times the conflict may be irreparable and beyond our capability through discussion and negotiation.  It is a real possibility that the church may not yet be in a position to offer a responsible judgment. But the Committee advises that if we happen to find ourselves at an impasse, we are to deal with conflicts in a redemptive manner through prayer and action with the goal of communion with God and others in mind.

A few observations are in order here.  First of all, it assumes a working knowledge of what it means by legitimate or illegitimate diversity, and it does not make explicit the current issue(s) it seeks to address.  Unless the reader had a previous knowledge of the document “The Church,” he or she would have a difficult time following the discussion. Indeed, ecumenical conversations are absolutely essential to the church universal but one wonders if it is appropriate to transplant an expression that immediately triggers the notion of “illegitimate diversity,” an expression it actually employs. Though the word diversity suggests openness, the volatile words “legitimate” and “illegitimate” immediately summon a whole host of feelings and reactions.  They are charged with binary oppositional logic and add fuel to the fire.  We should not sidestep the significance of the issue, but words do matter as they can heal or hurt, so we need the genius and sensibility of all in the church, not only those with juridical minds who write policies and legislate what counts as legitimate versus illegitimate, but scientists, artists, mediators, theologians, pastors, and others who can deepen our understanding. And lastly, I will not psychologize to determine whether the ambiguity on the issue of legitimate diversity was intentional or not, but what still awaits us is the criteria for legitimate diversity that the Committee had promised.  At the least, having something in place like George Lindbeck’s taxonomy of doctrines would be of help in moving forward.

In closing, the Faith and Order Committee has done a superb job in helping the church think through some of bewildering realities the church faces.  It has pointed to invaluable resources in thinking about the church’s identity and its mission in the world drawing from the historic Christian faith, ecumenical heritage, and distinctive Wesleyan heritage.  If there is one remaining task, it is showing the relevance of the title “Wonder, Love and Praise” for its Statement. It is apropos that the Statement ends with Apostle Paul’s words about the treasure in earthen vessels, and the church would do well to not lose its sense of wonder and praise while proving faithful in its quotidian responsibility of love in the world in communion with God and neighbors.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Climate Refugees

This blog has shared numerous stories about how United Methodists are interacting with the issue of refugees and the issue of climate change. As this story from United Methodist missionary and journalist Paul Jeffrey makes clear, these two issues are not entirely separate. Jeffrey's short but interesting article shares several stories from around the world of people displaced by climate change.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Daniel Shin: Thoughts on “Wonder, Love and Praise,” Part II

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 first of a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

In this series of blog posts on “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document. Nonetheless, in this post, I will mostly focus on the invisible church and the question of people of other faiths and the issue of legitimate diversity. I also follow the Statement’s structure of affirmations that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities.

The second conviction “The saving love of God is meant for all people” is addressed under the title “Community of Salvation and Community as Sign” (WLP, pp. 22ff).  The Committee notes that while there are no normative models for understanding the church, the notion of ekklesia may hold promise in maintaining a wide range of meanings of the church.  Ekklesia is a Greek word commonly used to mean an assembly or gathering, and Christians in the past have used it to refer to a particular community of Christians, the sum of such local communities, or the whole people of God in all times and places. Beyond etymological considerations, the Committee makes a theological judgment that ekklesia in all its connotation is a fitting expression of the church because communion is embodied in the form of community. The Statement goes on to add that ekklesia is not the only mark of the church as there are additional marks of the church, namely, the pure Word of God preached and the Sacraments duly administered, displaying faithfulness in worship, edification and redemption of the world (WLP, p. 25ff).

The Committee then makes a strategic move using the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church as a segue into a discussion about the larger communion (WLP, p. 26ff).  Traditionally the notion of the invisible church has recognized the possibility that there are persons who are saved or on their way to salvation though they may not be part of the visible church. The Committee agrees and says that persons who are not explicit members of the visible church may be participants in the one ekklesia of God and share in the communion.  It clarifies that this position does not impose the category Christian and affirms the possibility that God’s koinonia may occur in different forms and places.  In an attempt to expand the notion of the church, it asserts that the church understood as God’s one ekklesia, the community of salvation, is not coextensive with the churches we are familiar with.

Church’s discussion about the visible and invisible churches is a good reminder that the church has long been cognizant of at least two things: one, not all who are part of the visible church belong to Christ; and two, the possibility of God’s relations with people outside the visible church. The language of the visible and the invisible church can be helpful and sufficiently complicates one’s ecclesiology.  Its built in eschatological reserve points us to the need for humility and openness, ongoing repentance and growth, and God’s love for all people.  One might add here not only to be mindful of the traditional notion of “the invisible church” but also those who are visible but invisible in our midst, those who are seen but unseen.

While the language of the visible and the invisible church is generative, it immediately brings to mind the move Karl Rahner made in coining the concept of “anonymous Christian,” in this case the invisible church.  Rahner’s intention was well-taken as he sought to expand the scope of “Christian” to include those who are outside the realm of explicit Christian faith and practice through no fault of their own but live in the grace of God and somehow attain salvation. However, this was taken as another way of extending Christian imperialism upon other religions and cultures.

Similarly, whereas the language of the invisible church may be well intentioned, it again seeks to assimilate others as a double of itself.  Notwithstanding the Statement’s qualifications, there is a striking similarity between anonymous Christian and invisible church. While for Christians the notion of koinonia, ekklesia, or community of salvation may accurately and inclusively describe our relationship with God and others, it may not be so for people of other faiths and cultures. No matter how altruistic one’s intention may be in adopting a larger expansive concept “the one ekklesia of God,” one cannot overlook that the church has a history of effects and can be another unfortunate attempt to colonize the other and the different.

If the church must choose the expression “one ekkelsia of God” to refer to God’s relation with others in the world, then it must be mindful that it may be only one analogue to understand another analogue in its evolving intramural conversation, privileging one tradition over the other.  Perhaps the first movement toward interreligious dialogue is not a handshake or a hug that enfolds the other in our straightjacket of the invisible church, but a nod of profound respect and acknowledgment that can hopefully lead to better understanding through their self-description.  In doing so, the church may come to a place where its previous understanding of communion may have to be modified, stretched to its limits, discarded, or transformed into a new creation.

Moving on to the role of the visible churches, the Statement suggests that they participate in the larger ekklesia and are to be the explicit sign and servant of God’s self-giving to the world (WLP, p. 30ff).  In a rather realistic and humble assessment, the Statement reveals that the church fulfills its tasks “more or less well.”  The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic not on account of its performance that falls short, but because of God.  This is an important insight and a beautiful promise to maintain in thinking about the visible church, especially on the issue of legitimate diversity.  However, as alluded to earlier, it is not clear how our fallibility and God’s work are coordinated so that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, the difference that makes to the kind of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity the church manifests.  Maybe the church’s identity is not so much a possession but an ongoing process of coordinating our prayerful labor with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Then, what appears to be a commentary on “The Church,” the Statement raises the issue about “legitimate diversity” in the church (WLP, p. 31ff). It first acknowledges that because the Triune God is the very source of communion, the unity in the church is dynamic and relational, not monolithic uniformity.  The gifts of the Spirit differ and human beings and cultures differ.  Thus, it radically affirms the importance of diversity; however, it emphasizes that diversity must be legitimate, as opposed to illegitimate diversity.  It rightly points out that this process of discernment is lacking common criteria of discernment and mutually recognized structures.  The section ends with promise to return to this topic at a later point.