The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order was established at the 2008 General Conference. Shortly thereafter the Committee was asked to craft a study document on United Methodist ecclesiology. The document Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church (henceforth, WLP) was the result. My blog post here is intended to promote reflection on this document in preparation for a revised version being brought before General Conference in 2020.
From the start WLP strikes a strongly ecumenical tone in its theological reflection on the mission and nature of the church. It does so in a much more explicit way than the parallel studies on the Lord’s Supper and Baptism that the UMC has undertaken in recent years. This embrace of ecumenism finds its strongest expression in WLP in its use of the World Council of Churches document, The Church: Towards a Common Vision, (henceforth, Towards a Common Vision) as a key point of reference throughout.
I think, however, that the Committee on Faith and Order’s decision to work so closely with Towards a Common Vision was a mistake. This is not easy for me to say. I participate in two national ecumenical consultations, and am currently working with others on a response paper to another WCC document for the National Council of Churches. I am committed to this work. And yet, I see two problems with WLP’s use of Towards a Common Vision.
First, by working so closely with Towards a Common Vision I believe that the Committee has unwittingly hurt the chances that this document, in its current form, will be received by the United Methodist Church in as deep and pervasive way as By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery. To be clear, I think that any study of ecclesiology would probably have a hard time being as well received as those documents on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those studies focus on discrete Christian practices; a study on the mission and nature of the church is more abstract.
By using a WCC document as a primary reference point throughout the text it also causes its ecclesiological insights to be less accessible for United Methodist readers. That is not to say that WLP is not Wesleyan in many of the good things it has to say. I think, for example, that the three convictions of a UM ecclesiology outlined in the first section of the document, “Our Approach to an Understanding of the Church,” are excellent. I also think that “communion ecclesiology” as it has taken shape over the past few decades in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist theological circles – and now in WLP – can be fruitful for United Methodist theological reflection.
My second reason for disagreeing with the Committee’s decision to work closely with Towards a Common Vision is because, in doing so, they actually engaged in too limited of an ecumenical conversation. The WCC document Towards a Common Vision too frequently frames theological issues to be in line with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. A quick scan of the footnotes in Towards a Common Vision reveals this pretty clearly as does its attention to the issues of “apostolic succession” and a “ministry of primacy.” These ecclesial communities are important, to be sure, but their vision of what Christian unity might be is different from my own and that of many other Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and United Methodists. We are not in an “ecumenical winter” as the WLP and other commentators on “official ecumenism” have stated. Conversations across Christian traditions around the world are as robust now as they ever have been; the shape and goals of ecumenism, however, are surely changing.
I believe that at this point in our history as United Methodists it is better to pay more close attention to other Wesleyan denominations rather than those church traditions whose perspectives were most strongly represented in Towards a Common Vision. This belief, at least in part, stems from a sense that for too many years we have too often downplayed (if not completely avoided) ecumenical conversations with our closest ecclesial relatives. This should not come as much of a surprise. As in personal relationships, we sometimes avoid having deep conversations with folks to whom we are most closely related.
For the past four years I have been sent by the Council of Bishops to an annual meeting of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection Steering Committee. It is comprised – in addition to the UMC – of fifteen, mostly U.S.-based, Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations, almost all of which are not formally a part of the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches. I wonder how those fifteen Wesleyan denominations (Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, Free Methodists, etc.) would respond to WLP. Surely they would desire that WLP be more explicit in thinking through the ways a Wesleyan vision of holiness is germane to our missional and ecclesiological self-understanding. To be clear, attention to this theme of holiness is present in WLP, but it could be a lot stronger.
The authors of WLP rightly praised the insight of a teacher of mine, Professor Andrew F. Walls, who noted that the major challenge of the 21st century will be an ecumenical challenge – an ecumenism that is not so focused on denominational diversity but on the tremendous cultural diversity inherent in a Christian movement that has shifted dramatically to the global South over the past several decades. What do United Methodists from outside the United States have to contribute to our understanding of the mission and nature of the church?The Committee on Faith and Order doubtless worked hard to include these perspectives, but it is difficult to see in the document as it currently stands. One way this might be expanded is by further exploring United Methodist images of the church noted in line 454 and following. Some of those images might just surprise us!
Finally, and at the risk of drawing undue attention to my own work, I would encourage the Committee on Faith and Order to consider the work of Roman Catholic biblical scholar John N. Collins. Over the past couple decades, I have tried – without much success – to promote his pioneering research on the biblical term diakonia as a resource for United Methodist ecclesiological reflection. His research was surprisingly overlooked in Towards a Common Vision as well. In brief, Collins argues for a view of ministry where accountability and relational connection are highlighted far more than the “servant leadership” rhetoric of an earlier era.
I agree with WLP that the United Methodist Church needs a new vision for what it means to be church – to love as Jesus loved, to live as Jesus lived, and to walk as Jesus walked. I feel this need deep in my bones. We have a story of “love divine all loves excelling,” and we need our imaginations about the church to be as bold as that story of love. I believe the Committee on Faith and Order agrees with me on this. It is not by accident that they entitled their study “Wonder, Love and Praise.” Let’s keep working on WLP to make it better.
 For a contrary view on the alleged “ecumenical winter” see, for example, the work of Dale T. Irvin including, most recently, his chapter in World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights: Essays in Honor of Peter C. Phan edited by Jonathan Y. Tan and Anh Q. Tran. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016.
 See, for example, John N. Collins, "Ordained and Other Ministries: Making a Difference," Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006); Paula Gooder, "Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins," Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006).