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.