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.

No comments:

Post a Comment