Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Meditating on the Scriptures

Today's post is the third of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In my first post, I drew attention to a tension in United Methodism between our contextual theology and our connectional polity. In this post, I will continue to illustrate this tension at play by looking at the first element of the “Quadrilateral”: Scripture, following up on my remarks from my previous post about how approaches to Scripture shifted on the American frontier.

Wesley did not just read the Bible. He “searched the Scripture,” a method consisting of “reading, meditation, and hearing.” In a previous post, it was pointed out that Wesley’s was the first age where technology and politics had succeeded in lowering the price of a Bible so ordinary people could purchase their own copy that could be read devotionally. Piety has benefited from technology. The challenge was when American geography did much to transform the Bible as the church’s book to personal property; from “our” Bible to “my” Bible.

Searching the Scripture also consists of “meditation.” Wesley regularly spoke of “meditation” in his diaries and spent a great deal of time doing it. Prayer, reading, and meditation were listed together so often that they seem like a single act. He encouraged his preachers to meditate on Scripture from 4-5 in the morning and from 5-6 in the evening. Through meditation a thorough knowledge of the sacred meaning of Scripture is gained. In the “Preface” to his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament (1765) Wesley wrote,

"If you desire to read the Scriptures in such a manner as may most effectually answer this end, would it not be advisable,
"(1.) To set apart a little time, if you can, every morning and evening for that purpose?
"(2.) At each time, if you have leisure, to read a chapter out of the Old, and one out of the New, Testament [...]
"(3.) To read this with a single eye, to know the whole will of God, and a fixed resolution to do it? […]
"(4.) Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith, the connexion and harmony there is between those grand, fundamental doctrines, original sin, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness:
"(5.) Serious and earnest prayer should be constantly used before we consult the oracles of God; seeing "Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given." Our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read may be written on our hearts:
"(6.) It might also be of use, if, while we read, we were frequently to pause, and examine ourselves by what we read, both with regard to our hearts and lives. […] And whatever light you then receive should be used to the uttermost, and that immediately. Let there be no delay. Whatever you resolve, begin to execute the first moment you can. So shall you find this word to be indeed the power of God unto present and eternal salvation."

By now some may recognize aspects of Ignatius of Loyola’s method of “lectio divina.” There are indeed similarities. It was Wesley’s belief that through a sacred reading and meditation on the text, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Biblical writers also inspires Biblical readers to read and discern the meaning of Scripture. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no “means of grace,” neither may Scripture be properly understood. So what exactly is grace?

The answer to that is found in the only catechism Wesley ever published, Instructions for Children (1745). The question was asked, “What is grace?” The answer given was, “The Power of the Holy Ghost, enabling us to believe, and love and serve God.” In Wesley’s pneumatology, the Holy Spirit is grace. An experience of the Holy Spirit is an experience of grace, and an experience of grace is an experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. Meditation is placing one’s self in a position of openness to hear and experiencing the Spirit of grace.

There is obviously a great deal of potential for abuse here too, particularly given what happened to Scripture on the American frontier. Whether it’s pietism or mysticism, the result can be exacerbated by an individualism that can easily be directed to a subjective authority that is now spiritually authorized. As Wesley was quick to remind us, to turn Christianity into a solitary religion is to kill it. At worst the radical individualism that has plagued much of Western society potentially leads to subjectivism, ethical relativism, and ironically, nihilism.  When two individuals who are utterly convinced by the convictions of their subjectivism, it often becomes a case of the irresistible force encountering the immovable object.

The only thing capable of dislodging subjectivism is the need to accommodate and welcome the other. Christ has commanded it. Or, put another way in a previous post, the only thing capable of accommodating contextual theology in a connectional polity is the need to accommodate and welcome the other.

Reading and meditating must be balanced by something else, such as hearing and practicing. That is the hardest work of all. Perhaps it is the work and presence of the Holy Spirit alone that enables the one who reads and meditates out of the closet of prayer and solitary devotion to encounter the “other” as the basis of community.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Joon-Sik Park - Response to Wonder, Love & 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. Joon-Sik Park, Professor in the E. Stanley Jones Chair of World Evangelism at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

“Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP), an important and timely statement on ecclesiology, is to be welcomed with appreciation by those who grapple with the question of what it means to be the authentic church. It deserves wide reading and careful study, as it intends to engage United Methodists in inquiring into the nature and purpose of the church. A critical reflection on the church is crucial to aligning our life and ministry as a community of faith and witness with God’s purpose for the world.

WLP rightly seeks to set an ecclesial vision of The United Methodist Church (TUMC) within an ecumenical context, stressing that unity is both a gift and task. It keenly recognizes the massive demographic shift of Christianity toward the global South that brings about “the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries” in the leadership of TUMC and challenges the adequacy of its long-standing U.S.-centric polity. It is good that WLP searches for “a renewed ecclesial vision” with a full awareness of the partial character of TUMC understanding and expression of the church and with a proper desire for mutual affirmation and reciprocal correction through ecumenical dialogue.

Yet, there are some areas in WLP that might need greater attention or further development. First, WLP appears to give rather too much priority to its engagement with the WCC document, “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.” It is important to recognize the significance of an ecumenical statement on ecclesiology, and to engage in sustained conversation with it. However, ecumenical sensitivity and humility, although an indispensable virtue, might have kept WLP from more fully exploring and presenting the distinctive characteristics of TUMC understanding of what it means to be the church. Considering that at the heart of ecumenism is a gift exchange,[1] a greater focus on identifying and sharing the unique gift of TUMC would further enrich the ecumenical dialogue on ecclesiology.

Second, although the missionary nature of the church is acknowledged in WLP, it does not become a central concern of the document. The church’s identity and calling defined in WLP is not intrinsically rooted in the conception of the church as a “sent” community. The three distinctive theological convictions that have shaped and guided the life and witness of TUMC are clearly laid out, but their concrete implications for the mission or structure of the church are not fully examined. It would have been desirable for WLP to ground its ecclesial vision more firmly in the essentially missionary nature of the church, whose calling is to participate in the missionary action of the Triune God.

Third, WLP fails to offer an account of the nature of the relation between church and world. Yet, a perception of the world in relation to the church is an element of great import that cannot be overlooked in an integral ecclesiology. It would be necessary to define the church vis-à-vis the world, as the church’s view of the world significantly affects its vision of mission, and its faithfulness is measured at the point where it encounters the world.

Last, perhaps the most notable omission in WLP is the understanding of the church as an eschatological community. As Lesslie Newbigin argues, “the Church can be rightly understood only in an eschatological perspective. Whenever we seek to define it simply in terms of what it is, we go astray.”[2] When the eschatological nature of the church is not fully appreciated, the tension between the present reality and the expected future of God’s kingdom may get lost, and the church’s missionary responsibility between the times may not be paid careful heed. Furthermore, the presence and work of the Holy Spirit—the first fruits and down payment of what will ultimately come—in guiding and empowering the church to fulfill its mission may not be sufficiently recognized. “The Church: Towards a Common Vision,” a point of reference for WLP, clearly presents the church as “an eschatological reality”: The Church is “already anticipating the kingdom, but not yet its full realization. The Holy Spirit is the principal agent in establishing the kingdom and in guiding the Church so that it can be a servant of God’s work in this process. Only as we view the present in the light of the activity of the Holy Spirit, guiding the whole process of salvation history to its final recapitulation in Christ to the glory of the Father, do we begin to grasp something of the mystery of the Church” (para. 33).

The WCC has produced two separate documents in recent years: one on mission (“Together towards Life” in 2012) and the other on ecclesiology (“The Church: Towards a Common Vision” in 2013). Yet, TUMC would not necessarily have to follow that pattern. Considering that the church is missionary by its very nature, that Methodists became a church for missional reasons, and that every church in the 21st century—whether in the West or in the global South—is in a missionary context, to create one document in which ecclesiology and missiology are integrated might be equally appropriate. And such document that faithfully reflects the Wesleyan understanding of the church and mission could be a unique gift to the Church Universal.

[1] Margaret O’Gara, The Ecumenical Gift Exchange (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).
[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (London: SCM, 1953), 135.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Reading the Scriptures

Today's post is the second of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In my last post, I drew attention to a tension in United Methodism between our contextual theology and our connectional polity. In this post and the next, I will illustrate this tension at play by looking at the first element of the “Quadrilateral”: Scripture.

It should come as no surprise that John Wesley had a method for reading the Bible. He called it “searching the Scripture.” It was simple, insightful, and memorable: read, meditate, and hear. Wesley repeatedly told Methodists that “searching the Scriptures” was a means of preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace. This is too easily forgotten by us today. The method was so important that he included it as a part of the “General Rules” and anyone who took love of God and love of neighbor seriously could not afford to ignore it. More than that, “searching the Scripture” illustrates how to engage in a Wesleyan way to study the Bible and appropriate it into a theological method.

First there is “reading.” We take the devotional reading of Scripture for granted and forget that not all Christians everywhere and in all ages have had either a Biblical text to read or the ability to read it. For 1400 years, texts were kept and maintained in monasteries where they were copied by monks. Access to them was a privilege and copies were rare. Scripture reading itself was an act of elitism.

Bibles were not cheap. In 1450 when Johannes Guttenberg printed the first Bible the price would have been around $200,000; in 1539 the Coverdale Bible would have about $5000; the 1576 Geneva Bible about $1400. In 1611 Bibles were finally being printed small enough to be owned by individuals who could afford them.

By the 18th century technology had increased and governmental interference had decreased enough to bring down prices. In 1710 the Canstein Bible Institute in Germany printed Bibles for around $6, making the Scripture affordable for most people. In 1755 Wesley would publish Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, to be read by Methodists, a doctrinal standard for United Methodism still today. The reading of scripture could now be become a common part of Christian piety. Now that anyone could own a Bible everyone should read the Bible as a means of grace.

This means reading and literacy are generally a means of grace. Teaching others to read is an important ministry and assists others to discover the liberative power of Scripture. For this reason, in 1769 Hannah Ball, a Methodist woman in the north of England, started the idea of having school on Sunday so children could learn to read in order to read the Bible. The liberative power of Scripture was also why slaves were forbidden to read, even by Methodist slave owners. Literacy was empowerment.

After the Civil War, the American Bible Society sought to place Bibles into the hands of westward moving settlers. Bibles were now cheap enough to be given away and placed into every open hand that wanted one. The Bible was slowly but surely being transformed from “our” Bible, into “my” Bible.  It had become personal property in the truest American sense. And this was the frontier. The mythology of America’s “rugged individualism” was being cultivated and coupled with a vast expanse that did little to nurture a sense of sacramental Christian community. On the frontier, the Bible did not just meet technology. It encountered Jeffersonian democracy and its values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In a sense, the Bible fell off the pulpit and into the pew, and from the pew into pious Protestant hands and homes.

And for Methodists, who were struggling with a perennial shortage of ordained clergy who alone were capable of administering the sacraments, this was significant. The American frontier sheered away the sacraments, leaving mainly the Bible in the pew and the conversion experience as the single most important event shaping one’s Christian formation and not the sacraments. The “altar call” was no longer an invitation to the Communion table. It was the place for penitents to be converted. Revivalism, camp meetings, and the conversion experience, placed the pulpit as central, not the communion altar.

Is all this to suggest that reading the Bible is a bad thing? Not at all. But it is to suggest that “searching the Scriptures” in the Wesleyan sense includes more than just reading.

So, just how does Wesley’s method of “searching the Scripture” overcome these American challenges? The short answer is through “meditating and hearing.” In the next post we’ll consider “meditating” on Scripture.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Comparative Wesleyan Global Polity - The Wesleyan Church

This is the second 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. Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

What would The United Methodist Church look like if the work of the Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) had gained more traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The answer is probably, “It would look like The Wesleyan Church.”

First, some background on The Wesleyan Church: The Wesleyan Church is present in over 90 countries, the result of mission work in a wide variety of areas around the world, starting in the nineteenth century. Across all these countries, it has more than 5,000 churches with over 370,000 members and 475,000 attendees. (These numbers are from 2012, but they are what’s presented on The Wesleyan Church’s website.)

The Wesleyan Church is the result of a 1968 merger of two bodies, one of them itself formed by a 1946 merger (sound familiar?). In this case, the two denominations coming together in 1968 were the Wesleyan Methodist Church, formed in 1843 by founders who left the Methodist Episcopal Church (a forerunner of the UMC), and the Pilgrim Holiness Church, which traces its roots back to founders who left the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1897. Along the way, both groups absorbed a wide variety of other church bodies and missions (such as the 1946 merger of the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Holiness Church), but The Wesleyan Church’s polity remains distinctively Methodist.

The most basic group of churches in The Wesleyan Church is a district, roughly equivalent to an annual conference in the UMC. Wesleyan Church districts tend to be smaller than UMC annual conferences and are headed by district superintendents instead of bishops, but otherwise serve the same functions. (There is one overall General Superintendent, but no bishops.) Historically, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was governed by a General Conference, similar to the UMC. Missions outside the US and Canada were also organized into districts which related both to General Conference and the denominational mission agency.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church/Pilgrim Holiness Church merger in 1968 raised the question of what the role of churches outside the US should be within the new denomination, as did the Methodist Church/EUB merger in 1968. The Methodists and EUB formed a group called COSMOS to answer this question. Despite COSMOS entertaining a wider range of options, the UMC answer eventually became that annual conferences outside the US could either become completely autonomous or remain part of the UMC as a member of a central conference. Much of the work and recommendations of COSMOS were overshadowed at the 1972 General Conference by domestic concerns with overhauling the Book of Discipline. (See Robert Harman’s previous UM & Global article on this topic here.)

The Wesleyan Church took a different approach, however, one similar to possibilities raised in the COSMOS discussion by Latin American Methodists. The Wesleyan Church developed a system of different degrees of autonomy for groups of churches outside the US with continued relationship between all Wesleyan churches everywhere. This plan was successfully approved at their 1972 General Conference.

Under this plan, The Wesleyan Church created additional types and layers of regional groups of districts that had varying levels of autonomy. It kept the North American General Conference and districts within the US the same. Outside the US, it created several new options for groups of districts: national or regional conferences, Established Regional and National Conferences, and separate General Conferences.

National and regional conferences continue to be governed by their originating General Conference and relate to the associated mission agency, but can build national three-self capacity. As that capacity grows, the North American General Conference can approve the creation of Established Regional and National Conferences and eventually separate General Conferences. With each step, a group of districts outside the US gains more autonomy. Established National or Regional Conferences write their own Books of Discipline, subject to General Conference approval, and still relate to their founding General Conference. There are currently three: South Pacific, Canada, and Ibero-America (i.e., Latin America). Separate General Conferences are fully autonomous, write their own Books of Discipline, and are headed by their own General Superintendent. In addition to the North American General Conference, there are also General Conferences in the Philippines and the Caribbean.

At the same time, the system adopted by The Wesleyan Church includes measures to preserve connection between these increasingly autonomous national and regional branches. The first of these measures is a delegated meeting of all Wesleyan Church bodies throughout the world, initially called the Wesleyan World Fellowship, but since 2004 called the International Conference. The International Conference includes representatives from all General Conferences, Established National and Regional Conferences, and mission units in additional nations, even though this last group is also represented at their associated General Conference. The International Conference’s primary purposes are fellowship and coordination, since it does not directly control any bureaucracy or substantial budget, nor does it approve Books of Discipline. It must, however, approve the creation of new Established National and Regional Conferences and General Conferences.

The second unifying measure is a common set of statements binding on all branches of The Wesleyan Church everywhere, called “The Essentials.” This short, twelve-page writing consists mainly of 21 statements of faith. It can only be modified by a two-thirds vote of constituent General Conferences. The International Conference can sanction regional bodies that it deems are not living out The Essentials, but to my knowledge, that is mostly a theoretical power.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both The Wesleyan Church’s system and The United Methodist Church’s system in terms of honoring the autonomy of Christians outside the US and in terms of preserving ties among Christians of different nations. Overall, I think The Wesleyan Church has emphasized autonomy, whereas the UMC has emphasized connection. Still, while The Wesleyan Church’s system is set up to honor autonomy, it nonetheless privileges in some ways North Americans as the “parent” body of new Wesleyan churches in other countries; and UMC Central Conferences’ ability to adapt the Book of Discipline does allow for a degree of autonomy.

Ultimately, though, the point of this comparison is not to deem either the Wesleyan or United Methodist system “better” than the other. The point is that The Wesleyan Church’s system represents a road that The United Methodist Church could have taken in 1972, but didn’t. Recognizing this alternate polity as a potential road not taken, though, raises questions for United Methodists: Why didn’t we take this road? What have been the advantages and disadvantages of that choice? Would it still be possible to go down this road, or another like it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Methodism’s Chimera

Today's post is the first of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Since 1972 United Methodism has not had a theology as much as it has a theological method consisting of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Methodists have Albert Outler to thank for that. There is one significant difference between Outler and his Anglican predecessors such as Richard Hooker, however. The Quadrilateral adds “experience” to the Anglican theological method consisting of Scripture, reason, and tradition. What the addition of experience has done is to provide a theological method that has facilitated Methodists who do theology that is both contextual and practical. We do not have a Methodist theology as much as Methodists who do theology.

There is another point that is equally argued. Neither does Methodism have an ecclesiology as much as it has an ecclesiological concept, otherwise known as “connectionalism.” As Russ Richey points out the term connectional is generally used as an organizational classification that is employed to distinguish denominations with centralized authority, governance, and structure from a more congregational model where such prerogatives are located in the congregation. Methodists understand connectionalism institutionally. By this definition there are many denominations that are interrelated institutionally and function connectionally. Just as Methodists did not invent the quadrilateral, neither did we really invent connectionalism, and we are connectional at least for now. After being examined by economists, United Methodists have been told that we have about 15 years of an economically sustainable connectionalism left unless things are turned around. What happens then? The movement that became a denomination may one day have to reinvent itself as a movement again.

The problem that has quadrennially plagued United Methodism has been when General Conference attempts to insert contextual theology that has been shaped by square Quadrilateral pegs into round Connectional holes. After watching several episodes of the “Big Bang Theory,” it occurred to me that perhaps we need to change the metaphor from one of Euclidian geometry to one of quantum physics. One of Methodism’s biggest problem is when contextual theology and connectional polity collide like subatomic particles in the Hadron supercollider we call “General Conference.” After that we are frequently left looking for the Higgs boson “God particle,” the theoretical subatomic particle that holds things together in order to create mass. The phenomenon of General Conference demonstrates how contextual theology stretches connectionalism to the point of breaking causing it to lean more toward a congregational polity than not. This is why Methodists frequently fret of schism and why we do so still today.

In fairness, neither did Methodists invent schism, but in the 19th century we worked to perfect it. Between 1784 and 1895 the Methodist Episcopal Church would split no fewer than ten times. We have been schooled on schism.

• 1784- Formation of Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Bishops
• 1787- Richard Allen, split from St. George’s MEC to form the AME 1816
• 1792- James O’Kelly to form Republican Methodists who ended up UCC
• 1795- Peter Williams, Sr. split for John Street MEC to form the AMEZ
• 1828- Methodist Protestant Church
• 1843- Wesleyan Methodist Church
• 1844- Methodist Episcopal Church, South
• 1860- Free Methodist Church
• 1870- Christian Methodist Church
• 1895- Phineas Bresee over a homeless mission in LA to form the Church of the Nazarene (mission)

Methodists have split over race and the episcopacy more than anything else. We come by schism honestly. We are the schismatic child of a schismatic parent. We split from the Church of England and the Church of England was a split from the Roman Catholic Church as the result of a very nasty, bloody, and violent royal divorce.

The “Quadrilateral” is a theological chimera, a hybrid of Anglicanism and Wesleyanism constructed rolled out in 1972 in the hopes that it would result in uniting the newly formed United Methodist Church. At this point unity itself has become a chimera in the other sense of word as something that is hoped or wished for but is often illusory or impossible to achieve. As United Methodists engage in “holy conversation” around the issue of human sexuality there will be implicit and explicit appeals made to the “Quadrilateral.” Regardless of whether one is for it or against it most agree it has cast a long shadow over a great deal of everything else and its relentless use has caused many a Methodist to quip, “I am Methodist because we believe in the Quadrilateral.”

We indeed have a problem when epistemology overshadows Christology. If our aim is to find unity, we don’t need to look at a chimera. We should be looking to the Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit who binds and connects us into the body of Christ.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Recommended Reading: David N. Field on a Wesleyan Theology of Church Unity

United Methodist scholar and regular UM & Global contributor Dr. David N. Field has just released a book on Wesleyan theology and church unity, a topic relevant to this blog. He describes it as follows:

"For the last ten years I have been engaged in an intense study of John Wesley's theology as part of my preparation of course material in Methodist Studies for the Methodist e-Academy. One of my discoveries was Wesley's deep concern for unity amongst Christians; yet it surprised me that this aspect of Wesley's theology had not been explored in greater depth. The more I examined this aspect of Wesley's theology, the more I became convinced that a passionate commitment to the unity of the church is an integral dimension of Wesley's understanding of holiness and thus ought to be an integral aspect of Methodist identity.

"Sadly this has not always been the case. As I watched the unfolding divisions within the United Methodist Church, I was perplexed that people were not mining the rich resources in Wesley's theology to develop a theological basis for a church that experienced genuine unity in the midst of diverse and even contradictory theological positions and practices.

"My book  Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity is an attempt to uncover these resources as a gift to Methodist Churches as they struggle to maintain unity and I trust to motivate them to greater ecumenical engagement. My present experience as a member of the UMC's Commission on a Way Forward has convinced me again that Wesley's theology has enormous potential for our church. To put it starkly, I am convinced that taking the path to division is a denial of our Wesleyan identity and heritage.

"The chapter titles of the book are:
  1. What has holiness got to do with it?
  2. Participation in a diverse community as a means of grace
  3. Wesley in his historical context
  4. The Catholic Spirit - Being one on heart
  5. A Caution Against Bigotry - A common mission
  6. Theological roots - anthropology
  7. Theological roots - Epistemology
  8. The identity of the church and the threat of schism
  9. Sanctified and sanctifying conferencing
"The conclusion includes a section which applies the insights gained to the current debates around human sexuality.

"Some of what I write will be familiar to Wesley scholars, some I think is new and some will be controversial. I invite you to read it critically and engage with me in critical dialogue in the service of the Church and God's kingdom."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Recommended Reading: Robert Hunt on Cross-Talk in the UMC

Many digital bytes have been spent responding to and analyzing the recent Judicial Council decision on the South Central Jurisdiction's challenge to the Western Jurisdiction's nomination, election, consecration, and assignment of Karen Oliveto as a bishop. Of all that's been said, perhaps the most insightful piece I've read was written by Rev. Dr. Robert Hunt before the decision was announced. Dr. Hunt uses missiological analysis to reach a broader perspective on the debate as a whole.

In his piece, Dr. Hunt analyzes the various arguments on both sides of the debate to identify the sources of authority to which each appeals. He notes six: biblical arguments, arguments from the early church, arguments from Wesley and the distinctively Methodist tradition, arguments from God's providence at work in history, arguments about the basis of valid ministry, and legal arguments. As Dr. Hunt notes, both sides in the debate use all six, but in very different ways from one another.

Dr. Hunt traces the disparate interpretations of these six sources to what might be termed two different theologies of inculturation or contextualization:

"On one side are those who argue that Christianity is about certain essential principles that must be enacted in different ways in different times. For them the Bible and all successive Christian tradition is a contextual document, telling us how those principles were to be enacted in a particular places and times. The combination of general principles and specific instances of their realization over time helps us clearly understand the principles, but doesn’t force us to accept those enactments as precedents that must be followed.

"On the other side are those who argue that Christianity is precisely about fidelity to the precedents set by Christ, his apostles, and the apostolic church. The principles of Christianity are not mere abstractions, but specific structures, laws, and actions commanded by Christ that must be upheld in all cultural and historical contexts."

As Dr. Hunt notes, such a debate is not unique to this issue, to United Methodists, or even to Christians. Seeing the debate in this light does not indicate how we should move forward. (Indeed, Dr. Hunt suggests the UMC is at an impasse over this difference.) It does, however, add perspective in understanding the debate.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

David Field: Response to Wonder, Love & Praise, Part 3

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

International Connectionalism and the Ecclesia
In this third blog I will look at three themes addressed to varying extent in WLP and argue that when related to each other they have significant impact on the understanding of the church that is absent from WLP. These themes are the international character of the UMC, the terminology of ecclesia, and connectionalism.

WLP briefly discusses the meaning and associations of the word ecclesia and settles on an interpretation of it as community. While it does note the political associations of the term as the gathering of the voting citizens, it does not explore these associations. I would propose that these political associations, along with its use in the Septuagint, are significant. The early Christians did not adopt the normal terms for religious or voluntary associations but a term with social and political connotations. It is also interesting to note how Paul interplays the geographic political location (polis) of the church with its identity as the church of God in the introduction to his letters.

The connotations of these references suggest that ecclesia is not merely to be understood as a general term for community paralleling koinonia but as the transnational messianic/eschatological community of the people God which manifests itself in a particular polis. Ecclesia is a community distinguished by its loyalty to the crucified messiah which stands in tension with the broader civic community of that particular polis. As the church developed and spread, it came into increasing tension with the civic community and its social and political structures for two reasons. Firstly, its loyalty to its crucified Lord relatavized all loyalty to civic authorities, including the emperor. Secondly, its communal order (its polity) undermined the dominant social hierarchies and divisions.

The UMC claims to be a manifestation of this ecclesia in the contemporary context. A particular feature of the way it manifests this ecclesia is its polity of connectionalism. In one sense connectionalism emerged as a series of pragmatic responses to particular issues confronting the early Methodist movement and the churches that emerged from it. The result, however, is a complex network which has horizontal and vertical dimensions. Methodist congregations are linked together across geographical space. There are vertical relationships between congregations and conferences. The superintendency and itinerancy provide another interrelated set of networks. Binding these networks together is a set of interlocking covenant relationships centered on the covenant with God renewed regularly in a covenant renewal service.

The result is a complex network providing mutual support, mutual responsibility, mutual oversight and mutual decision making but at the same time is directed toward equipping local churches for mission. This interlocking network emerged at a time when nation states were beginning to come into being in Europe and later in the Americas. Hence it is of significance that Wesley described the early Methodists as “the people called Methodist”. Methodist together formed a new corporate community – a people in a way similar to the approach of the framers of the US constitution when they began with “We the people…”

Wesley envisaged Methodism as an international network – in his time covering England, Ireland, and America – in his words “Methodists all over the world are one people.” It is not insignificant that he chose a French-speaking, Swiss immigrant John William Fletcher to be his successor. The UMC as an international church is an embodiment of this Wesleyan vision. The significance of this international character is experienced differently by people in different parts of the UMC connection. And for many the denomination is still experienced as very US-centric despite its growing numbers outside of the USA. In Europe, where Methodists are mostly small minority churches, being part of an international church is of particular significance. For some, the international character is a burden and a hindrance to moving in a more “progressive” direction on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. In the US, where the UMC is a major denomination, the focus tends to be on the US context as is evidenced in WLP.

In my previous blog, I argued that contextuality is of fundamental significance for ecclesiology as different contexts provide for diverse embodiments of the divine love. The UMC in Congo has sought to embody love in the context of wars and continuing factional conflicts in which millions have been killed and wounded; and in which hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. The UMC in Russia and Ukraine is working out what koinonia means in response to civil war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. European Methodists are gaining new understandings of what it means to embody love as they engage in ministry to the thousands of refugees and other migrants that are arriving in Europe.

These diverse embodiments are invaluable to the church in other contexts modeling alternatives which challenge, compliment and enrich their own embodiment and understanding of the ecclesia. The international character of the UMC provides a unique opportunity for such mutual learning. However, the present structures of the church remain too US-centric and do not allow for sufficient contextual embodiments of the ecclesia; going into the future, it is imperative that the UMC develops new structures which enable both greater contextuality and more fruitful opportunities for mutual learning and growth.

The international connectional character of the UMC has perhaps more important theological significance in that it provides a remarkable embodiment of the transnational character of the ecclesia of God. In an age of globalization, resurgent nationalism and mass migration the significance of this transnational character needs to be emphasized and expounded.

Three points can be noted for our purposes. Firstly, while a certain love for and pride in one’s own nation is legitimate, to affirm the transnational character of the ecclesia is to submit that legitimate patriotism to critique and in particular circumstances to reject it altogether. Paul’s comments in Philippians that the church’s citizenship is in heaven are worth noting not in an other-worldly sense but in the affirmation that the church is the ecclesia of the ascended Lord who was rejected and crucified by the imperial authorities. When loyalty to the nation and its interests or the pursuit of its greatness compromises in any way our prior loyalty to the crucified Lord and the values and purposes revealed in the cross, they must be rejected. It is always the ecclesia of the crucified Christ and its mission first and the interests of our own nation subordinate to it. Why is it that so many Christians experience the presence of migrants as a threat to their national identity rather than as an opportunity to embody God’s love to them?

Secondly, our relational bonds with our fellow Christians ought to be stronger than our bonds with our fellow citizens. As Paul puts it in Colossians, in Christ there is no longer Greek, Jew, barbarian, or Scythian. We are fellow Christians and siblings in Christ with people from diverse nations, cultures and societies. Together we represent the ecclesia of God in the world.

Thirdly, the church always exists as alien community within particular societies and nations. It is never at home – it is an assembly of foreigners – of immigrants who do not belong. When the church begins to be too comfortable in a given culture or society it is in danger of betraying its true identity as the manifestation of the ecclesia of the crucified and resurrected Lord.

The UMC as an international church is in a unique position to embody the transnational character of the ecclesia – both in its explicit ecclesiology and in its denominational praxis. This can only be achieved when the international character is not viewed as a burden and a problem but as a unique opportunity to discover new ways of embodying what it means to be the church. It will also require a radical questioning of the continuing US-centricity in the structures and mindset of many United Methodists and a critical engagement with the colonialist and paternalist legacy of the past.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Recommended Readings: United Methodist Migration Events

Migration has continued to be an important focus for the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church around the world. As such, there have been a number of recent and upcoming events related to migration at global, national, and local levels. Here's a rundown:

An interagency workshop on March 31, convened by Bishop Minerva Carcaño, head of the United Methodist Immigration Task Force

A migration seminar on March 30, organized by Global Ministries

The National Gathering on Immigration held March 11-14, sponsored by the Immigration Task Force

A vital conversation on March 21, sponsored by GCORR

A community conversation on March 21, hosted by Florida Bishop Ken Carter

A rally and prayer vigil on April 1, sponsored by the Wisconsin Annual Conference

The General Secretary's address on April 20 at the Global Ministries Board of Directors meeting

Immigration clinics on April 29 and April 30, sponsored by the California-Pacific Annual Conference

An upcoming workshop for local churches on May 6, sponsored by the San Antonio Region Justice for Our Neighbors (SARJFON)

A Lenten study series, held by Federal Way UMC, Auburn, WA

An ongoing series of citizenship classes, hosted by Chevy Chase UMC, Chevy Chase, MD