Thursday, July 27, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part I

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 four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

We will begin with the role of the laity. WLP, following the example of the WCC documents The Church: Towards a Common Vision and Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, explores issues related to the roles of those set aside for leadership within the church through ordination. Such an exploration is worthwhile, as ordained leadership is a significant aspect of the church. Yet WLP fails to give sufficient attention to an exploration of the theological understanding and significance of the laity within the church. The document could have drawn on other United Methodist theological resources such as By Water and the Spirit to discuss the common Christian calling that all members of the church enter into through their baptismal vows.

Overlooking the role of the laity is a significant miscalculation for several reasons. First, it seems a missed opportunity in terms of the document’s envisioned purpose. WLP is intended to serve as a teaching document for the church, similar to This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit. If the document is used as such, the primary audience who will engage it will be laity. It is important, therefore, that laity see themselves in the document. If they do not, the chances it will be adopted and used as a teaching document will significantly decrease.

Second, by overlooking the laity, WLP also overlooks a primary Methodist distinctive. Section III of WLP examines three aspects of The United Methodist Church’s distinctiveness within the church universal: the scope of grace, connectionalism, and theological reflection as a task of the whole church. While the wording of this last aspect of distinctiveness might seem to indicate some attention to the role of laity within theological reflection, the discussion here is about General Conference without any specific references to the laity. Moreover, while WLP asserts that theological reflection is a distinctive mark of Methodism, we felt that practically, not enough space was created for such reflection. Few would call General Conference a space for deep theological reflection.

Although the laity are not mentioned in this section or in the rest of the section on United Methodism’s distinctiveness, arguably a large role for laity in the church has been one of the most distinctive aspects of Methodism since its beginning as a movement led predominantly by lay preachers, lay class leaders, and lay stewards. Methodists have taken Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers and thoroughly applied it. In Britain, in America, and around the world, Methodism often spread through the initiative of laity. Laity have long held crucial leadership roles within the church, both on the local and general church levels. United Methodist governance structures are set up to reflect equal participation by clergy and laity. Thus, by omitting specific attention to the role of the laity, WLP overlooks what is one of the most important aspects of United Methodist distinctiveness and therefore one of its contributions to the church universal.

Third, a more thorough theological exploration of the role of the laity within the church would have served to better ground WLP’s discussion of the role of ordained clergy within the church. Since significant leadership roles are available to laity within The United Methodist Church, confusions frequently arise about what the distinctions between laity and clergy are. How are lay licensed local pastors and clergy elders different when they serve similar functional roles? How is a deacon who serves as a social worker different than a lay person who serves as a social worker? Such questions must be answer not only through a theology of the clergy, but a theology of the laity, or a theology of the whole people of God, as well.

By omitting such a theological discussion of the laity and their relation to the clergy, WLP inadvertently reinforces a tacit hierarchical understanding of The United Methodist Church, one with laity at the bottom. Too often, United Methodists view the church as a pyramid of prestige proceeding from laity to licensed local pastor to deacon to elder to bishop. Deconstructing such a view of the church requires a firm understanding of the common baptismal ministry that all Christians are called to, regardless of ordination status. Indeed, Methodists have always emphasized witnessing to Christ in the world in vocations of daily life and service through secular occupations. Such faithful living is a primary and not secondary aspect of what it means to be the church.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Giving

I recently read Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything. One of the arguments she advances in the book is something she calls “the Nordic theory of love.” According to this theory, relationships between people represent the truest expression of love when they are not encumbered by any form of dependency of one party on another. Dependency is seen as introducing power dynamics that negatively affect both giver and receiver. Moreover, it shifts the basis of the relationship from love to need or power.

The alternative to this type of dependency is to guarantee certain things as a right within society so that people are not dependent on family, other individuals, companies, municipalities, etc. to provide them. This “Nordic theory of love” is operationalized within society by creating social and government systems that emphasize the autonomy of individuals and provide basic needs for all through collective programs so that people are not dependent upon one another. Certainly, many Americans are uncomfortable with the state playing such a role in people’s lives, but my point is not to argue for an active state; it is to use Partanen’s ideas about dependency to reflect on the UMC.

To give a few instances of how the Nordic theory of love plays out in the Nordic countries, college students are not required to report their parents’ incomes on financial aid forms, since college students are presumed to be financially independent of their parents and should not be forced to rely on parental assets to determine their futures. The government runs health programs so that people are not dependent on their employers for health insurance and thus forced to continue to work at jobs they hate just to keep their health insurance. Married couples file tax forms separately to avoid fostering financial dependency of one spouse upon the other.

Let’s see specifically how this theory works out with the imaginary example of Wi-Fi. The American system is that everyone should pay for their own Wi-Fi. For those with the resources to do so, that works out great. If someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for Wi-Fi, then they would have to rely upon a neighbor or friend to share their Wi-Fi password with them, perhaps, or go without. The neighbor or friend may ask for favors in exchange or set conditions on the gift – the password recipient may not watch Netflix in the evenings or must wash the password-giver’s car, perhaps. The recipient thus becomes dependent on the giver. As a consequence, they are not free to use their internet and other resources as best they see fit.

The Nordic solution would be to provide Wi-Fi through a municipal utility, as some cities in the US have done. Thus, everyone gets Wi-Fi – the poor are not left behind, but no one is dependent on another person for their Wi-Fi access, since it is a basic service provided to everyone. Note, that this is not charity Wi-Fi for the poor; it’s Wi-Fi for everyone that the poor can use along with the middle class and rich. Moreover, under the Nordic theory, everyone contributes to the Wi-Fi, to the extent they are able (and barring severe temporary circumstances such as loss of a job), through their taxes. Wi-Fi is thus not an issue of charity; it’s a basic public service.

I was thinking about this system as I was thinking about dependencies that are created through mission giving in the UMC. There are many instances in which American or European United Methodists share generously with their fellow believers in Africa and the Philippines. Yet, like the person giving out his or her Wi-Fi password above, American and European giving can come with conditions or expectations of return favors. These conditions may range from naming rights to restricted uses of donated gifts to expected support for polity positions. When such conditions or expectations are attached to them, the gifts create dependency. As a result, the receivers are not free to use the gifts or their other resources as best they see fit.

There are several ways to move beyond such dependencies. One way is to revamp giving along the lines of the methods described in When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and similar books. This is an important approach to overturning dependency-creating models of mission, and readers are encouraged to explore these books if they have not already.

Yet I wonder whether it would also be possible to institute some Nordic theory of love solutions to the issue of dependency in the UMC. What common services would we want as guarantees for all churches, regardless of location? What services would we want our general agencies to provide to ALL churches or annual conferences – rich or poor, Western or Southern? Construction assistance? Disaster relief coordination? Technical assistance for annual conferences? How could we structure contributions to the World Service Fund or other means such that all annual conferences can contribute to these basic public services, to the extent they are able and barring severe temporary circumstances?

Such a shift would require significant changes in mindset and sacrifice of privilege by American and European churches. It’s nice to be the donor and to be able to dictate the terms or call in favors when needed. There are advantages to being the patron in a patron-client relationship, and Westerners would need to self-sacrificially give up those advantages for the sake of striving toward the gospel equality to which Jesus calls us.

Yet Methodists are supposed to be known as a people of love. It’s worth thinking, therefore, about what Anu Partanen’s Nordic theory of love might have to say to us as we seek to better love our Methodist neighbors as ourselves.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

James Labala: Comment 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. Dr. James Z. Labala, Associate Dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology and Conference Secretary for the Liberia Annual Conference.

We are living a in time in the life and history of the church when the need for our self-understanding is very critical. There are challenges within and without that make this need very acute. From the general global, continental and local contexts, the image of the church as a sign of hope has become so blurry that there seems to be very little difference between the church and the world which the church is called to transform. At such a time in the varying contexts of The United Methodist Church, I see “Love, Wonder, and Praise” as a necessary instructive construct which invites us to engage in an intentional process of critical reflection on our nature, vision and mission as a church.

Drawing from the historical, theological and missional roots of the church and locating The United Methodist Church in that general background, the document develops a framework that provides much needed insights about its distinctive convictions. The distinctive convictions include the following: the saving love of God is intended for all people everywhere; the saving love of God is transformative, transforming the life of everyone that embraces it by the power of the Holy Spirit; and it is a love that creates community, a community in which love is learned and lived out.

The document uses the three convictions as a foundation to cast a renewed vision that is relevant for the present and varying contexts of The United Methodist Church. This renewed vision challenges the church to see itself as a gift of the triune God, a communion whose life is sharing in the life of the Triune God. The new vision of The United Methodist Church, gleaned from careful analysis of the core belief or creed of the Christian tradition as well as the ecumenical document, Towards a Common Vision, presents the church as a community whose life is generated by the very life of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. It describes the life of the church as “a sharing in the life of the Triune God,” and the mission of the church as communicating “that possibility to a world in need.” As koinonia, “the church is not an association of like-minded individuals serving purposes they may have devised for themselves.” It is rather a community established by God and rooted in the very life of God. But “Wonder, Love and Praise” is quick to point out that the church is also a human community which serves human purposes that sometimes counteract the purposes of God.

Our awareness of the church as human community lifts up its need of constant self-evaluation of its self-understanding and missional effectiveness. As such, the church must be intentional to engage in self-critical reflection in an effort to determine its areas of need for reformation and renewal. The document argues that Wesley himself presents a lesson to learn in this regard: the church is to exercise a realistically self-critical capacity when it comes to the quality of our own life and witness as Christians and Christian communities and be sensitive to the danger of self-deception and be aware of our own permanent need for repentance and renewal… we are to also be open to the presence of God, and open to the love of God that might come to us through them.

Critical in the life and structure of the community is the theology of ministry, “Wonder, Love and Praise” argues. It is a theology that is rooted in the “threefold office” of Christ as prophet (bearing witness to God’s word), as priest (offering the life of a life lived in discipleship), and king (serving as instruments for the establishment of God’s reign). In this new age our participation in the ecumenical forum, reaffirmation and exploration of the triadic pattern of “Word, Sacrament, and Order” would serve to strengthen our theology of ministry.

Finally, the document discusses the question of locating The United Methodist Church within the global Christian community and the impact its participation in the ecumenical conversations might have in addressing the issues of its diversity. The effort is to construct a renewed ministry theology. Amongst the points the document uses in fashioning this ministry theology, two really stand out for ministry context particularly in the west Africa Central Conference: the first is the fact that our connection is intended for “the strengthening of all by the gifts of all.” We are stronger together as we value one another for who each one is and for what each brings to the table for the common good of all. The other is the emphasis on theological reflection. This is the tool that helps to keep us in check as a people of God when appropriately utilized, for the un-reflected life is not worth living (Socrates in Plato’s Apology).

The last portion of the work discusses diversity and conflict leading a new vision of the church that is relevant to the present reality with which the church is faced. As called out people from diverse backgrounds, we are challenged to see our differences as a gift that enhances our unity. Our differences should be seen as an opportunity to open ourselves to learning from those who do not see things as we do. This means that such learning experience should empower us to be who we are and at the same recognize and honor those with whom we might not agree. This is the church we are called to be, a sign of hope and life to a hopeless and dying world.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Recommended Reading: Philippines Quadrennial Plan

United Methodists may be familiar with the plans and priorities of their annual conference or perhaps an agency or two that they may be particularly invested in. But how can United Methodists find out what it really is that their religious compatriots around the world really care about and where they are focusing their efforts?

Here is an opportunity to do just that for the Philippines. The Philippines Central Conference has made its 2017-2020 Quadrennial Plan available through Google Docs.

While few may want to read the entire 54-page program spreadsheet, this document offers good insight into the priorities of fellow United Methodists around the world. The document details efforts that the Philippines Central Conference will make over the next four years in the following categories: develop[ing] vital congregations; developing principled Christian leaders; certified coaches; financial support to UMC theology students; happy, health, holy clergy and deaconesses, financial independence; performance evaluation system; ministry with the poor; stamp out killer diseases; caring for the environment; preparedness for catastrophes; and respect for human rights.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity: The Church of the Nazarene

This is the fourth 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 three-self mission theology were written into the Book of Discipline? One possible answer is the Church of the Nazarene.

The historical roots of the Church of the Nazarene are many and complex, but they include early leaders such as former Methodist Phineas Bresee, along with others who were part of the diverse holiness movement in late nineteenth century America as well as abroad. The Church of the Nazarene sees itself as a Wesleyan body in the Methodist tradition. It strongly emphasizes the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification, and although there are congregational influences on its polity as well (pastors are called by local churches, not appointed), on the whole, its polity is distinctively Wesleyan/Methodist.

Today, the Church of the Nazarene is the largest Wesleyan holiness denomination in the world. According to its 2016 figures, the church has nearly 2.5 million members across 192 “world areas” (countries or substantially distinct portions of countries, such as Guam). That makes the Church of the Nazarene an extremely well-distributed church globally, more so than the UMC. Among its membership, 26% reside in Africa, 26% in the US & Canada, 16% in Mesoamerica, 13% in Eurasia (Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia), 13% in South America, and 5% in Asia-Pacific.

The Church of the Nazarene is structured into three legislative/deliberative levels – local congregations, districts (equivalent to annual conferences), and General Assembly (equivalent to General Conference). Districts are overseen by district superintendents, and the denomination as a whole is led by six General Superintendents, who have individual responsibilities for specific parts of the denomination as well as shared responsibility for the entire denomination.

The Church of the Nazarene groups districts into six continental “regions,” which are not legislative but instead allow for contextually-relevant administrative structures and upon the basis of which some denominational representatives are elected. Thus, the regions are somewhat analogous to jurisdictions or central conferences in the UMC, though there is no distinction between the USA/Canada region and other regions, in the same way that differences do exist between the UMC jurisdictions and annual conferences.

In additional to regional programs, the Church of the Nazarene also has three denomination-wide agencies covering the areas of education, mission, and Sunday School/discipleship. Though based in the US, these three agencies are intended to serve all Nazarenes throughout the world.

The regions facilitate some level of contextualization. Nevertheless, like the UMC, but unlike The Wesleyan Church and Free Methodist Church, there is one standard policy book for the entire denomination. The Church of the Nazarene’s Manual (equivalent to the Book of Discipline) is about 400 pages long and binding on churches everywhere, including a standard set of committees that are expected to exist in all districts and congregations. The Manual does stipulate contextualization in places, such as the development of educational standards for pastors.

The approach to being a global church that the Church of the Nazarene has taken does not emphasize contextual adaptation of polity so much as thorough implementation of Anderson/Venn “three-self” theory: that the goal for new mission churches should be to become self-led by indigenous pastors, financially self-supporting, and self-propagating through the ability to start new churches themselves. The roots of this approach in the Church of the Nazarene go all the way back to founder Hiram Reynolds, who as a mission executive and then General Superintendent sought to make this approach to mission standard policy for Nazarenes.

This emphasis on creating three-self churches which remain part of a worldwide denomination (rather than become autonomous) has led to a long history of self-reflection by Nazarenes on what it means to be a global denomination. There are many milestones on this path, including important decisions in favor of “internationalization” in 1980.

An emphasis on three-self churches is still part of Nazarene policy. Nazarenes make distinctions between three types of districts: Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. Phase 1 districts are for new mission work. Phase 2 corresponds to a certain amount of growth in size. A district doesn’t become a Phase 3 district, however, until it is “100% self-supporting in regard to district administration.”

This means that once a district becomes a “Phase 3 district,” no matter where in the world it is, it is able to take its place as a full equal to other Phase 3 districts throughout the rest of the world. A Phase 3 district in Africa is not financially dependent on districts in the US, in the same way that many UMC annual conferences in Africa still subsist on donations from the US to cover basic expenses such as pastors’ salaries. American Nazarenes may donate to charitable work in Africa or elsewhere, but as far as the basic operations of the church, those are fully in the hands of locals.

Of course, the process of internationalization is on-going work in the Church of the Nazarene. Questions about use of the English language and delegate visas for General Assembly still remain. General Assembly is always in the US, as is the denomination’s headquarters. Most of the General Superintendents have been white American men.

However, at the most recent General Assembly earlier this summer, Nazarenes elected two new General Superintendents, both originally from outside the US. That gives the Church of the Nazarene a majority of non-US General Superintendents for the first time ever. Watching the Twitter comments about General Assembly as a whole, one noted the frequency of positive references to the global nature and racial, ethnic, national, and linguistic diversity of the church.

While the Church of the Nazarene still has work to do in its process of internationalization, it is clearly well on its way. Indeed, it may well deserve the title of most global of the Methodist/Wesleyan denominations.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Darryl Stephens: On What Really Divides Us: A Response to Philip Wingeier-Rayo

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press).

In a recent post, my colleague Philip Wingeier-Rayo wrote about mission to the religiously unaffiliated in the US. He and I are in agreement on many points, not least the importance of faithfully inculturating the gospel so as to reach the nones and dones. However, one aspect of his analysis deserves further consideration: the roots of “our greatest divide.”

Wingeier-Rayo wrote: “I believe that our greatest divide is that certain sectors give more primacy to Scripture and tradition, while other sectors place more authority with experience and reason. These tendencies might be representative of the values of Boomers and Millennials, which generally live within modernist (belief in the Truth) vs. post-modernist (truth is relative) views toward authority.”

Yet, these binary distinctions do not hold up to closer scrutiny. While there exist clear generational patterns regarding attitudes toward homosexuality (see Pew study released June 26, 2017), I believe the roots of the divide are neither primarily generational, postmodernist, nor dependent on privileging one or more aspects of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. It is true that folks differ in how they weigh the different theological sources of wisdom. It is also true that some people might be described as modernist and others post-modernist. However, it is not at all clear that these persons are easily correlated and grouped into identifiable sectors, particularly as an explanation of differing views on the issue of homosexuality, the most visible manifestation of the divide in the church today.

If we want to understand what divides, we need to examine power and authority—not the authority of various sources of wisdom but the authority of those persons wielding these sources and how they choose to exercise their social and institutional power.

Reason. A century ago, Protestants in the US were sharply divided over science as a form of human reason. Modernists embraced historical criticism of the Bible and Darwin’s theory of evolution over and against Christians who embraced creationism as an alternative to science. Nevertheless, there were points of agreement. White Christians of both perspectives leveraged their power, either citing the curse of Ham (Gen 9:22-27) or the new “science” of Darwinian-inspired eugenics, to justify the racial superiority of whites. When the interests of white males in these opposing camps overlapped, the result was a powerful system of social and legal oppression of non-whites in Methodism and society. General Conference repented for past racism in 2000 and for past support of eugenics in 2008.

Contrasting modernist versus postmodernist perspectives does not illuminate any consistent pattern in the selective embrace of scientific reason by Methodists since the 1920s Scopes Monkey Trial. For example, the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, legislated into the Social Principles in 1972, seems immune to advances in scientific knowledge about sexuality and gender. Today, scientific evidence indicates that sexual orientation is naturally occurring (like left-handedness) and is not a choice.

Yet, few United Methodists supporting the current language of the Discipline on homosexuality are anti-Darwinian creationists. Rejection of scientific truths is not a consistent indicator among these United Methodists who otherwise have no trouble “believing” in everyday technologies dependent upon the scientific breakthroughs of the past century (nuclear power, GPS, semiconductors, etc.). It’s not a matter of giving reason primacy or not; it’s rather a matter of how particular rationales are leveraged to support the material interests of those with power. An appeal to other parts of the quadrilateral provides no more clarity about the divide.

Experience. Likewise, it’s not a matter of whether to give experience primacy. Rather, it’s what kind of experience counts as authoritative. For evangelical Christians, experience is privileged over all other sources of theological insight. The quintessential religious experience among evangelicals is being saved through a personal relationship with Christ. Without this experience, one cannot be saved (and consequently, cannot discern God’s will or what is morally right). For charismatics, the ongoing experiences of God’s grace through actions of the Holy Spirit are primary. For many progressives, the experience of God’s grace through the charism of radically inclusive love of all persons (regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) defines how they understand their faith. Christians across the theological spectrum privilege experience in different ways.

Tradition. Which aspect of tradition counts as a source of wisdom? As I have argued in Methodist Morals, public engagement in the moral questions of the day is a predominant aspect of Methodist tradition. This tradition of social witness is dynamic and responsive, requiring the church to function as a community of moral deliberation as it discerns how to be faithful in the world. United Methodists supporting full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church are faithful to this tradition. Conversely, an insistence on a “literal” interpretation of the Bible as the only faithful reading is a distinctly modern phenomenon, upending a centuries-long tradition of much more varied approaches to scripture, including ways in which the Bible interprets itself.

Scripture. Privileging Scripture as a source of wisdom is no less complicated. It’s not a matter of whether to give Scripture primacy. Rather, it's a matter of how one engages Scripture and on which issues. By what scriptural account did Methodists promote Prohibition of alcohol, that defining moral crusade of the last century? By what scriptural account did Methodists cease to consider remarriage after divorce a moral issue and focus, rather, on homosexual marriage? By what scriptural account do Methodists choose to welcome the immigrant, speak out for war, support international cooperation, or embrace US exceptionalism? Scripture has been used and abused to support a wide variety of moral crusades in Methodism.

Power and authority. There is a pattern among these divisive issues, but the distinction is not between one unchanging Truth and an evolving or relativistic understanding of truth. Nor is the distinction between the primacy of one or more sources (Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason) by various interpreters. Rather, the roots of division reside in human power and authority. To understand “our greatest divide,” we must ask: What existing forms of authority are threatened? Who stands to lose power? Who stands to gain power? What ideologies and which material interests are being threatened?

In a patriarchal, racialized, economically stratified church and society, it is not difficult to imagine whose authority and power might be threatened when Methodists and others decide to discern anew what the Lord requires. The attempt to control our own destinies and to wield control over others rather than to trust in God and to love one another—these tendencies feed what really divides us as United Methodists.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ole Birch: What happened to the worldwide church? A response to 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 the second 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.

What if there was no center?
My second point in looking at the text from a Central Conference perspective goes to the identity we try to claim as a global or worldwide church.

In our present church structure, it is fair to speak of a strong center and a periphery. At the center we find the General Conference and the administrative order (the agencies, the commissions and the Connectional Table. The program agencies and the administrative organizations have historically been set up to provide support functions for the connectional system in the US. Their purpose and functions have been determined by the perceived missional needs of the five jurisdictions, and their mandates reflect theological and sociological developments in the American church and society. In 1996, General Conference gave the agencies a new identity as Global Agencies, with a global mandate. At the center, the agencies have their mandate, a budget, some staff and the power to determine how to implement the wisdom of the GC.

At the periphery, we find the church in Africa, Asia and Europe. The seven Central Conferences are very different because they serve in very different circumstances. Some are small, in wealthy countries; some are big, in poor countries. Some are highly dependent on financial support, while others are not. What unites them is that their pastors, laypeople and leadership possess contextual competence in their unique missional situation.

In some parts of the world, the church, under the leadership of these people, has demonstrated astonishing growth over the last 20 years. Today more than 40 % of the UMC membership is in the church outside the US.

If the church in these parts of the world needs support, it can ask the center for it.

The administrative order we have today is heavily dominated by the UMC in the United States. Communication is always determined by the need of the periphery and the power at the center.

All agencies are based in the US. All but one have a US born (and educated) general secretary. All have US bishops as presidents. The boards of the agencies do have CC representation. The Connectional Table of 2016-20 has approx. 85% US members.

The very real problem is an administrative order for at global church that cannot possibly be contextually relevant in Africa, Asia and Europe.

My questions regarding our understanding of our church are these; in a worldwide church, what should be the relationship between center and periphery? Do we need a center? Is our present American center determined by history, theology, need for control or American power?

Let’s presume that the church in the US becomes its own region, and we therefore have a unified structure throughout the world. Then each region (or CC) could establish the administrative order it needs to do the mission of the church (No global agencies) These regional bodies relate to each other and find partners around common projects.

What would that mean?

In terms of contextual mission? It could mean that the contextual competence present in the church in the different parts of the world would gain influence on the administrative order and the programs that were created.

For connectionalism? It could mean that the focus of our connectionalism would move towards mission, instead of policy.

In terms of equity? Less dominance by the already privileged.

For subsidiarity? It could mean that decisions would be made close to, and even by, the people affected by the decisions.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Recommended Reading: Dakotas connecting across the globe

For American readers of this blog, today is the Fourth of July, the country's national holiday. It is good to celebrate one's country, but I thought a novel way to do that would be to share a reflection on what connects our country, and The United Methodist Church in our country, to other countries, and The United Methodist Church in those countries. Thus, here are some thoughts on that topic by Rev. Rebecca Trefz, Dakotas Conference director of ministries, written after a trip this spring to Africa University: