Thursday, June 29, 2017

Ole Birch: What happened to the worldwide church? A response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part 1

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 first of two written by Rev. Ole Birch, pastor in Copenhagen, Denmark Annual Conference, and member of The Connectional Table.

In the introduction to “Wonder, Love and Praise”, the motivations behind the document are presented and among them, the following is mentioned: 

The dramatic recent growth of The United Methodist Church in parts of Africa and Asia, and the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries in its leadership, are gradually bringing United Methodists in the United States to a greater (if belated) awareness that theirs is, if not a “global” or “worldwide” church, at least not simply an American denomination”.

The text then proceeds to talk about the “adequacy of a polity that has been essentially U. S.–centric, taking for granted a basic, normative national identity for the denomination”.

My intention with these two blogposts is to offer two European (or Central Conference) perspectives on the church that can perhaps deepen this question of center and periphery, and bring something new to our understanding of Methodist Theology on the church.

Wesley’s threefold ecclesiology
I want to start with some observations made by Ph. D. Jørgen Thaarup[1] about the ecclesiology of early British Methodism. He claims that John Wesley held three dimensions of church in dynamic tension with each other.

First, Wesley formed his societies, bands and classes for the people who wanted to be in association with him and his great sanctifying project. This structure corresponds with the Wesleyan teaching on accountable discipleship and sanctification, as well as demanding and exclusive membership. Its focus is the development of a strong personal spirituality and character. Drawing on the first part of the ecclesiology of Confessio Augustania and the Anglican Art. of Rel. XIII: "The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men ..." Later reformulated in the EU Art. Rel. V: "... the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ." This is ecclesiola, the church within the church. Here Wesley exercised strict discipline and removed people who were not serious about their Christian life. Note that this did not mean that anybody was excluded from the sacraments or the institution

Secondly, Wesley respected and utilized the forms and privileges of the official state church, The Anglican Church. He demanded that his followers attended the Sunday service and made frequent use of the sacraments there. This is ecclesia as the institution. This institutional church structure corresponded with the Wesleyan reformatory preaching on justification. The church was public and open to all people. There were low demands for membership, as well as service for the people of the country coming to the church. Drawing on the second part of the ecclesiology of Confessio Augustana and the Art. Rel. XIII: "... in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance..." Later re-formulated in the EU Art. Rel. V: "... in which the Word of God is preached (...) and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment." This is church as the institution of the means of grace.

The third concept of church in early British Methodism was that of The Evangelical Revival. This evolving platform of pietistic, Calvinistic and later more and more Methodist preachers in Britain was seen and used by Wesley as an expression of Church for his time, and his organizing of “his” preachers in The Conference established a new dimension of church as a connection around mission. This understanding of being connected to a larger movement of God’s activity in the world opens a greater perspective of the Kingdom of God, and in more modern terms, the mission of God (Missio Dei) in the present world. It corresponds with the Wesleyan teaching on evangelism, diaconal ministry, ethics and the task to go out and seek the lost sheep of God. Drawing on what is formulated in the last part of the EU version Art. Rel. V: "Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for (…) the redemption of the world."

Reading our new study document, I ask myself if we still claim all three dimensions of church in the UMC? Becoming an independent church in America, where there was no Anglican Church be the broad, open institution, changed something. Wesley held these three dimensions of church separate from each other, and could therefore benefit from their different perspectives and possibilities. He could have tolerance and openness, and at the same time, he could enforce strict discipline without losing the emphasis on free grace and the availability of the means of grace. He could support the institution and he could act with the agility of a movement.

I would suggest that these aspects of our theology of church be brought into the coming work on the text.

[1] “Methodism with a Danish Face” Jørgen Thaarup 1998, Wesley Theological Seminary, ISBN: 978-87-90828-76-9 and “The Praxis of Wesleyan Ecclesiology and the Effectiveness of the Methodist Mission in Scandinavia” Jørgen Thaarup 2002, Oxford Institute.

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