Thursday, January 26, 2017

Knut Refsdal: Response to "Wonder, Love and Praise"

This blog post is the second 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. Today's post is by Rev. Knut Refsdal. Rev. Refsdal is the General Secretary of the Christian Council of Norway (Norges Kristne Rad) and a pastor in the Norway Annual Conference of the UMC.

Thanks for inviting me to comment on “Wonder, Love, and Praise” and thus have the opportunity to get familiar with the document. I believe this document is much needed in The United Methodist Church today.

The document has numerous strengths that I will just briefly mention:
  • That the document is written in close dialogue with ecumenical documents, especially “The Church: Towards a Common Vision”, is a strength. This fact places The United Methodist Church very clearly under the ecumenical umbrella and gives us important insights from wider dialogues.
  • I also appreciate the reflections that the document gives on our relationship to people of other religions. This is an important topic given the situation in the world today, and from a European perspective, I would like to stress the importance of also including people of no religions in these reflections.
  • The document also aims to present The United Methodist Church as a global church and let this global reality inform the ecclesiological reflections given in the document. I share this aim, but believe this fact could have been even clearer. In this regard, “Together Towards Life” has important lessons to learn when stressing “missions from the margins”.
  • By linking the understanding of the Church to the conviction that grace is “transformative”, I believe we make connections to widespread values in modern society. This is a core conviction of the Church that needs to be communicated better.

I have four main comments to the document:

First, the document rightly stresses the importance of the Annual Conference as the basic unit within The United Methodist Church. At the same time, discussions regarding the relationship between the Annual Conference and the local church within the connectional system are at the forefront in many settings. This needs to be dealt more with in the document. When we say that the local church is the primary base for ministry and mission and the foundation of everything that happens in the church – what does this mean? There are complex and maybe even contradictory formulations in The Book of Discipline when these issues are raised. How do we balance local autonomy and connectional uniformity? In what way do we allow local churches to adapt to the local situation?

This discussion can be linked to the term “mutual accountability” as general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Olav Fykse Tveit, in his doctoral thesis claimed to be the most prominent gift from Methodism to the ecumenical movement. How do we allow one another freedom and at the same time be accountable to one another within the connectional system? These are questions that need to be addressed.

Second, to some Methodists, the lack of eschatological perspectives in the document is challenging. This is also the situation with “The Church: Towards a Common Vision”. The church as a symbol of the future, the kingdom of God, eternal life, with all that is included in that term, is not as present in the document as it should have been. The church as a community of hope could be explored further. The document is written for the present Church and not for the eternal Church, which makes eschatological aspects vague and almost absent.

Methodists have different views on how important this perspective is, but because it is of great importance to some, it should have been included within such a large work on ecclesiology. Some of us emphasize the church as a community of God’s children that awaits an eternity with him. Others emphasize the church as a community in struggle for a better and more just world, and that when the church and God together achieve their aims, the new creation will include a just world for all. In other words, eschatological aspects involve the church as both called out of and into the world. There are other perspectives as well that connect ecclesiology and eschatology, and in the further dialogue these connections should be expressed for further exploration.

Third, under the headline “Marks of Methodism” I miss a clearer underlining of The United Methodist Church as a "missional church". “Mission” is touched upon at various places in the document, but to mark this even clearer would be important both in an historical and an actual perspective.

Fourth, the document states that The United Methodist Church is marked by both diversity and dialogue. I appreciate the reflections on how to deal with the conflicts within the church. Like so many others I am worried for the future of the church.

One of the things I have always liked best about The United Methodist Church has been its ability to embrace so many of us. The United Methodist Church has been a church that has always managed to keep various streams within the church together. Therefore, for a long time conservatives, progressives, pietists and charismatics lived together well, even though the church had standpoints in moral and theological questions that not everyone always agreed with. That this was the situation had many reasons, but one reason is that the church was formed at the height of the ecumenical movement.

In recent years this has changed. The various streams no longer live together so well. This was clearly expressed at the General Conference 2016 when dealing with the Church's attitude towards LGBT people. This created a lot of frustration, and showed, in my opinion, a church that has serious challenges ahead. The first three days passed with endless discussions about procedures. Delegates from both sides used everything imaginable and unimaginable of parliamentary tricks to gain support.
These are symptoms of serious problems the church must address.

The question I ask myself is therefore this: Is this just a postponement of a split that must come or will the church manage to rediscover its DNA as a kind of umbrella that allows many to live well together, despite differences in many areas? I hope the latter is true, but in order to be able to do that, we need to clearly express what kind of church we want to be.

In this regard we need more than the vision of the church. We need formulations and expressions that manage to bind together the different streams. I hope the theological convictions that are fundamental in the document have the ability to play such a role.

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