Thursday, August 17, 2017

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

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 fourth 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.

Institution
Another area in which we at Global Ministries appreciated what WLP said but wished it would go further was in talking about the human dimension of the church. As WLP states, “The truth—the theological truth, even—is that the church is indeed also a very human community, an association of often all too like-minded individuals, and that it does also serve human purposes quite distinct from, and sometimes counter to, the purposes of God.” (lines 406-408). The document also makes frequent reference to the “human uses” of the church and draws on the language of the “visible” and “invisible” church to talk about the distinction between the church as God intends it and the church as humans have made it for their own purposes. We found the recognition of the failings of the church contained in these discussions useful.

Yet we also felt that it was possible to go beyond what was already included in the text. While the text explores “human uses” of the church and “human abuses” of the church, these discussions are not grounded in a theological anthropology or a theology of sin, both of which would give greater insight into what it means to be human and when humans depart from the will of God. As we noted in our discussion, merely being human is not itself problematic. Indeed, in light of the Incarnation, God highly values the human. Wesley affirmed the imago Dei in humanity. Humanity is not inherently deficient or broken, but sin is a rejection of our “humanness” as God created and intended it to be. Thus, the problem is not the church being at times human but the church being at times sinful in its actions and attitudes. WLP does not contradict these theological affirmations, but could benefit by stating them more clearly.

This discussion of the human aspect of the church would also be strengthened by a thorough theology of institutions. At the same time as the church is a movement and a community, neither of which are institutions, it is also an institution. A solid understanding of institutions could also help us better understand Methodism as a movement by allowing us to draw clear distinctions between the two categories. Moreover, many of the conflicts within The United Methodist Church revolve around the institutional structures of the church. A theology of institutions would complement a theological anthropology to help us understand our church institutions in more than a solely functional or merely political way but also help to make sense of the political and functional dimensions of the church.

Admittedly, there are fewer resources to draw on here, as modern institutions are in general under-theologized. Nevertheless, some conclusions are possible. Such a theology of institutions would have to balance the natural human tendency toward organization with the sinful human tendency to use institutions as a means to pursue power, control others, and indulge our base and selfish motives. Thus, a proper theology of institutions should be confessional, prophetic, aspirational, and humble.

There are moments at which WLP does strike confessional notes on the ways in which Methodists and their institutions have failed to live up to the calling of God. It makes brief nods to the racism and colonialism that characterize the history of the church. Yet there is more for United Methodists to confess. We have also sinned in our treatment of women, the poor, immigrants, foreigners, and God’s creation. Moreover, our sins are not entirely behind us. We as a denomination continue to be Americentric in our structures and thinking. We let money distort relationships and the mission of the church. We exclude, denigrate, and discriminate against people based on a whole host of characteristics. We choose our own comfort over God’s calling. We continue to reflect rather than challenge the world around us in too many ways.

Thus, we thought it important for WLP to not only confess the sins of the church but to affirm and model the church’s prophetic calling. WLP chooses to use Christ’s threefold offices as priest, prophet, and king to frame its discussion of ordained ministry. However, this framework seems at times forced to encompass the ways in which United Methodism has structured its ordained ministry. While a prophetic dimension is theoretically part of ordained ministry in the UMC, our theological documents and structural practices frequently discourage the exercise of such an office. For example, we might note here how the 1968 Book of Discipline, quoted and discussed in lines 724-746 of WLP, defines ordination primarily as being entrusted with special authority over Word, Sacrament, and Order. Priestly and kingly functions (as well as administrative responsibilities) are clearly contained within this understanding of ordination, but prophecy is conspicuously absent.

Too often we expect our members and our ordained leaders to keep the system going rather than to challenge it with a prophetic vision of God’s calling for our institutions. Since this document is intended as a teaching document, it should not only reflect the church as it is, but also project a vision of the church as it should be.

Thus, a good theology of institutions must also be aspirational. The prophetic voice should not only condemn the injustices that are but paint a picture of the church and the world as God intends them to be. It should show how our deepest theological convictions are expressed in the church currently but also what a fuller expression of those beliefs would look like – in structures, in practices, in attitudes. At several points, WLP does recognize the aspirational nature of the church as the document describes it, and we appreciated these moments. For instance, WLP recognizes that the Methodist distinctives we proclaim are often aspirational. Such an affirmation seems a very Methodist statement – proclaiming that we are individually and collectively going on toward perfection but are not there yet.

Thus, the final necessary element for a good theology of institutions is humility. In present day American if not global culture, there can seem to be a tension between being prophetic and being humble. Yet this tension resolves when both are properly understood. Prophecy is not shouting loudly about how one is right and others wrong. Prophecy begins with the ability to be self-critical, a deeply humble and humbling activity. Pride binds us to institutions as they are, but humility frees us to imagine them another way, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to grant a prophetic vision for change. Humility allows us to recognize, to borrow an ecumenical term from Karl Barth, that ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church must always be reformed. Finally, recognizing the common root of humble and human, an ecclesiology with humility allows us to embrace an ecclesiology with humanity, even as we reach toward the divine.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Middle and the Margins in Methodism

American United Methodists seem to have generally come to accept that the proposal of the Commission on a Way Forward will include some sort of “loosening” of the connection that involves separate structures for different groups of American United Methodists under a common umbrella. This being seen as fait accompli, the debate among American United Methodists has shifted to one between conservative incompatibilists (i.e., those opposed to gay marriage and ordination and are unwilling to live in the same structure as those in favor) and compatibilists (i.e., those of whatever opinion on homosexuality who are willing to live in the same structure with those of different opinions).

This debate has progressed along two main lines – one structural and one rhetorical.

The structural question is whether the US should be split into two or three sub-denominations. Many conservative incompatibilists would like the denomination to split into two – a “progressive” denomination for those unwilling to live with the current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to be small, and an “orthodox” denomination that continues current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to contain the majority of the current US church. Conservative compatibilists assume that they would be positioned to control this orthodox-majority church.

Many compatibilists, however, would like the US church to split into three – an “orthodox” denomination for those seeking hardline prohibitions against homosexuality, a “progressive” denomination for those seeking immediate full inclusion of gays and lesbians, and the rest of the denomination, presumed to be the majority, which would tolerate a diversity of opinions, perhaps through some sort of local option. Compatibilists assume both orthodox and progressive churches would be small and they would be positioned to control the tolerant majority church. Thus, the fight between conservative incompatibilists and moderate compatibilists is over who will have control over the majority of the US church.

Along with this basic fight for control through structural arrangements has been a rhetorical fight over which group is the “middle” in United Methodism. American moderate compatibilists claim that, by willing to engage people of all opinions, they are in the middle of American Methodist views on sexuality. American conservative incompatibilists claim that they actually are a majority of American Methodists and, if not, they are certainly in the middle of United Methodist views on homosexuality globally.

Thus, this debate is, at heart, a debate about being in the center and therefore having the power to determine the rules for those on the periphery. Moreover, it is clear that for both sides of the debate, United Methodists in the central conferences and progressive American United Methodists are not at the center and therefore should not have the power to determine the rules for the rest of the denomination or even, in some cases, themselves.* Thus, center/periphery functions as both a geographic and a theological distinction.

There are, however, two good, theological reasons to question both sides’ framing of this debate and their objectives within it.

First, one may take issue with the central objective of being at the center and wielding power. Jesus cautions, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is not an invitation to seek the center. Paul adds, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” because we follow “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Seeking the center is not seeking to be like the crucified Christ.

This rush to the center and avoidance of the margins also goes against the best in contemporary theological reflection on mission. The margins are often where we best encounter God and where God does some of God’s best work. As Together Towards Life states, “We affirm that marginalized people are agents of mission and exercise a prophetic role which emphasizes that fullness of life is for all. The marginalized in society are the main partners in God’s mission.” Seeking the center can take us away from participating in God’s mission.

Second, one may take issue with how the wielding of power is conceived. In Mark 10, Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” For Jesus, being a ruler, being great, being at the center, is not about “lording it over” those at the margins; it’s about serving them.

Cast in secular political terms, several commentators have expressed sentiments to the effect that the true moral test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities. The United Methodist Church is a democracy and moreover one that is not set up well to impose the will of the majority upon a substantial minority; hence the large amount of local disregard for General Conference directives.

This is not to say a church can’t set boundaries to its teaching or membership, but does mean that those who would see themselves at the center, whether conservative or moderate on issues of sexuality, should ask themselves what they are willing to do to support the mission, ministry, and spiritual development of those at the margins, whether that’s Filipinos, racial minorities in the US, Africans, American progressives, or Europeans. Last weekend's events in Charlottesville dramatically demonstrate how threatened those at the margins can be from systems of sin and oppression. How can those in the Methodist middle, as John Wesley would say, first do no harm to minority groups and second do good to minority groups’ ministries so that all may stay (and grow) in love with God?

Both sides in the current UMC debate accuse each other of accommodating to the world while proudly proclaiming the counter-cultural witness of their own side. More than anything, the world seeks power and privilege. True Christian witness that goes against the ways of the world seeks humility and gives power away.

*Conservative American incompatibilists say that Africans should be allowed to determine the rules on the issue of homosexuality, where they agree with conservative Americans, but by and large conservative American United Methodists do not argue that we should follow Africans’ lead in other regards, expect perhaps an emphasis on revivalism, which is already a value for conservative Americans and thus not something that they support because they were led to it by Africans. American compatibilists largely do not talk about non-American United Methodists.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

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

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 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.

Community
Community is an important term for WLP. One of the three core theological convictions that shape the document is, “The saving love of God creates community.” Global Ministries appreciates and affirms this focus on the church as a community. Nevertheless, we also felt there were important ways in which this focus on community could be extended and given additional Wesleyan theological grounding.

Such additional grounding could be achieved by noting the connections between the three theological emphases of WLP: that the saving love of God is for all, that the saving love of God is transformative, and that the saving love of God creates community. Put another way, WLP could enrich its discussion of community by focusing on community as not merely a static state, part of the unchangeable essence of the church, but by focusing on community as an active entity, the body that carries out the works of the church. Such an active understanding of community would highlight the connection between community and mission (related to the first emphasis) and between community and discipleship (related to the second emphasis).

We have already noted the need for a greater mission-orientation in the ecclesiology presented in WLP. In addition to the already given reasons for doing so, such an orientation could help uncover important insights into the nature and activities of the church as a community. The church as a community is always invitational. It is perpetually reaching beyond itself, seeking to bring new members into itself. Even in the face of rejection, the church continues to extend the invitation of Christ to the world, thereby participating in God’s mission of redemption.

Yet to say that the church is (or should be) such an invitational community is to make a claim that sets the church apart from many other communities. Community of any type presumes some level of similarity. All too often, however, similarity implies group boundaries, and those boundaries make it difficult for those outside of a group to join it. In our world today, we see the tragic consequences of such an approach to community formation in nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, tribalism, and sexism. These chauvinistic forms of community wound the world and the church. The church is called to bind these wounds inflicted by false understandings of community and to seek reconciliation in such conflicts.

The church can most effectively do so when it remembers its missional, invitational nature as a community. For the church, unlike almost any other community, the commonality that brings us together also impels us to reach beyond ourselves, rather than focus within or on precisely drawing the boundaries. The saving love of God in Jesus Christ is the commonality upon which Christian community is built (as WLP recognizes). Yet our experience of that saving love must, according to Wesleyan theology, lead us to respond by seeking to share that love with others. Thus, any community that is not actively engaged in God’s mission to share the saving love of God in Christ cannot claim to be a fully Wesleyan expression of the church. We recognize that we as a United Methodist community are still, as WLP puts is, “in pursuit of God’s gift of community,” and thus imperfect in living out this task, but the task should be named.

Just as Christian community cannot be separated from active participation in God’s mission, so it also cannot be separated from the process of forming individual believers as disciples. As WLP notes, “the saving love of God is transformative,” and as it further notes, “growth in love and in the other fruits of the Spirit is possible only in community.” Yet given the emphasis that Wesley and other Methodists have placed on this practice of social holiness – growth in discipleship in community – it is disappointing that WLP does not spend more time discussing this aspect of the church as a community. Classes, bands, and other small fellowships have been central Methodist means to make disciples in community, and it would be nice to see such groups lifted up in the document.

Moreover, a discussion of the relationship between community and disciple-making would be an opportunity for WLP to bring additional Wesleyan theological insights into the conversation. In particular, WLP could talk about the communal practices involved in Wesley’s means of grace. Methodism as an expression of church originated in just such a setting – believers joining together in class meetings and bands to hold one another accountable in their process of growing as disciples. By acknowledging the importance of community as a context for experiencing the transformative love of God, WLP would have an opportunity to exposit key Wesleyan ecclesiological concepts such as discipline. Such a discussion could help laity better understand such historically important practices of Methodism, commend them to Methodists today, and emphasize the practical nature of Methodist ecclesiology.

Furthermore, a discussion of the communal means of grace could further enrich WLP’s exploration of the relationship between koinonia and ekklesia. The two Articles WLP cites from United Methodism’s theological affirmations both mention the sacraments and the word of God. Wesley mentions the importance of both communion and Bible study as communal works of grace. While sermons are certainly not the only means for studying the Bible, they are a means. Affirming communion and group engagement with the Bible as elements of both koinonia and ekklesia would make an important connection between the two, one that highlights our Wesleyan theological heritage.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Recommended reading: Annual Conferences act on immigration

Immigration is a hot topic in the United States, so it is not surprising that recent UMC annual conference meetings in the US should address the issue. 17 US annual conferences passed some sort of resolution regarding welcoming and caring for immigrants and/or reform of the United States' immigration system. Both Church & Society and UMNS have rundowns of the actions:

Church & Society summary of annual conference actions on immigration

UMNS story on annual conference actions on immigration and other topics

Thursday, August 3, 2017

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

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 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.

Mission
While there are times at which WLP discusses the missional nature of the church, such an understanding of the church could use greater emphasis in the document. Although the document makes regular references to the “mission of the church,” it spends relatively little time exploring mission as an activity of the church or sent-ness as a characteristic of the church, i.e., the church’s missional nature. To make this assertion is not to take issue with WLP’s choice to use the Wesleyan theology of grace as a framework, but to call for the inherent missional nature of Wesley’s theology to be more clearly explicated.

Indeed, many commentators have seen Methodism as a missional movement at its core. Both in its efforts to “spread scriptural holiness” and in its efforts to “reform the nation” (in John Wesley’s words), Methodism has served missional goals, and much of the theology and structure of The United Methodist Church evolved to serve these missional ends. WLP references Russ Richey’s remarks on the missional nature of connectionalism in lines 196-203, but it does not seem to have taken these remarks to heart. An emphasis on mission as part of the nature of the church would seem appropriate, even necessary, for a United Methodist ecclesiology.

Such a focus on mission would be furthermore appropriate because of the significance of ecumenical theological reflections on the missional nature of the church. Several ecumenical theologians have opined on the essentially missionary nature of the church, including such famous statements as Emil Brunner’s “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”

Even if one might like to interject that mission is not the entirety of the church’s nature, it is beyond dispute that mission is a central aspect of both what the church does and what the church is. As Article V of the EUB’s Confession of Faith indicates, the church exists for worship, discipleship, and mission. In this formulation, mission is one of the three primary tasks of the church. WLP recognizes this aspect of the Article but could do more to expand upon it. Such an expansion is especially important given that mission is the only of the three tasks that is primarily focused beyond the church. This makes it an essential task for the propagation of the church throughout time and space.

The outward-facing nature of mission highlights something about the church’s nature as well as its activity. The church is not a closed set. It does not exist merely for the sake of those who are already members of it. Indeed, Anglican Archbishop William Temple famously remarked, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members” (emphasis added). As WLP recognizes in its discussion of grace, the church is a gift of God to the world. Thus, the church is sent from God to the world; or in other words, the church is an expression of God’s mission in the world. A focus on mission as an essential aspect of the church would help The United Methodist Church reclaim this vital theological insight and move past much of the organizational and theological navel-gazing that has beset the church in the past half century, to deleterious ends.

As this discussion of mission suggests, an adequate ecclesiology must explore the relationship between the church and the world. The world does not define the church, but the church must be defined in relation to the world. World may be taken in several senses here: The church itself is part of God’s created world. The church is in the world but not of the world, in the sense of the social order of things. The church is a sign from God to the world, here understood as that which is not church. And the church seeks the redemption of the world, in all three senses of world.

In its introduction, WLP does mention several significant features of the world today. Nevertheless, after raising these issues, it does not explore them or their meaning for the church today. Issues such as globalization, migration, economic inequalities, and climate change can and should have profound implications for the church, especially a church that views “the world as [its] parish.” Yet WLP does not go into any of these issues.

Some might argue that this omission is an indication of a primarily privileged white, American perspective pervasive throughout the document – only those with such privilege could ignore the implications of these trends in the world for the nature of the church. Such an allegation is another instance in which the document would benefit from more serious engagement with mission as an aspect of the church, as such as discussion would entail a theology of culture. As The United Methodist Church seeks to live into its nature as a “global” or “worldwide” church, it is in sore need of such a theology of culture. How are we to understand the church both as a community that includes people of all races, cultures, and nations and as a collection of particular communities, each shaped by their own cultural understandings of the world? WLP is silent on such questions.

While the concept of diakonia or service is distinct from the concept of missio or mission, the two are related in their orientation toward care for a creation that “groans for redemption.” WLP does make some scant references to mission, but the concept of diakonia is completely missing from the document. Some exploration of this term would help United Methodists understand not only the church’s relation to the world but also its internal leadership structures, as the order of deacons is predicated on this concept.

WLP shows significant interest in ecumenical questions, and this is another area in which a discussion of mission, service, and the church’s relation to the world would benefit the document. The document does note the connection between mission and the unity of the church in lines 91-96, but this insight is not carried out in the rest of the document’s discussion of ecumenism or unity, nor does this paragraph define mission or unity. Yet the challenges of the world are often them means through which individual churches are prompted to work together and recognize their unity in God’s calling to serve the world in mission.

Mission can potentially be a means to foster internal Methodist unity as well, to distinguish between so-called “legitimate” and “illegitimate” forms of diversity (mentioned in lines 599-639). The authors of WLP claim that we possess “no workable means of resolving this question” about legitimate v. illegitimate difference. Could not a focus on mission (as well as an emphasis on the importance of humility and love the authors mention in the concluding section of the document) give us some common ground upon which we could adjudicate our differences? Wesley indicates that missional unity aimed at helping people grow in the love of God and others, which is Wesley’s definition Christian holiness, should create a sense of fellowship among Christians, even when they are separated by significant and deeply held beliefs about aspects of the Christian religion.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Recommended Viewings: SAIH Norway videos

After last week's Nordic-inspired reflections on giving, here are some more Nordic-originated thoughts on how to do mission well:

SAIH Norway (the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund) has put out thought-provoking and entertaining videos meant to cause Westerners to question the stereotypes they have of Africa and aid to Africa. These funny videos could be quite effective at provoking important mission conversations in classroom settings.

First are several videos promoting a non-existent "Africa for Norway" aid campaign for Africans to sent heaters to Norway:
Africa for Norway
Radi-Aid - Warmth for Christmas
The Radi-Aid App

Second are a couple of videos skewering the types of attitudes and practices that go along with Western aid to Africa:
Let's save Africa! - Gone wrong
Who wants to be a volunteer?