Thursday, September 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Peter Bellini - Methodism on Fire

Rev. Dr. Peter J. Bellini is Assistant Professor in the Practice of Global Christianity and Intercultural Studies in the Vera Blinn Chair at United Theological Seminary. Dr. Bellini is a member of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, sponsors of this blog. He has written a recent piece for the Wesleyan Accent blog of World Methodist Evangelism.

The piece is entitled "Methodism on Fire." Dr. Bellini's piece expresses his convictions about the Holy Spirit's role in renewing Methodism, especially in the midst of present uncertainties about its future. In his piece, Dr. Bellini also touches on the Spirit's role in mission and on the global nature of Methodism.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

History as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the second in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

Last week, I began looking at the question of what constitutes the basis of unity for The United Methodist Church. I examined whether theology could serve as a useful basis for unity and concluded it couldn’t. This week, I’d like to examine another answer which serves better than theology but ends up coming up a little short itself; that answer is history.

As a church historian, let me be the first to affirm that denominations arise out of particular historical contexts and that their present shapes are the result of historical processes that have operated on them since their formation. The United Methodist Church has a historical past that includes John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Philip Otterbein, Jacob Albrecht, the circuit riders, various schisms over race and holiness, James Thoburn, the Central Jurisdiction, commitment to temperance, and a whole host of other characters and movements.

We may be prouder of some of the pieces of our past (John Wesley’s opposition to slavery, perhaps), and we may be less proud of some of them (the racism of creating a segregated Central Jurisdiction). Some of them may resonate with us better (Charles Wesley’s hymns), and some of them may resonate with us less well (who is James Thoburn, anyway?). But to be a United Methodist is to share, in some way, this past or heritage.

There’s a difference, though, between saying denominations are historical creatures and saying history is a sufficient basis for denominational unity. To see why, imagine two high school reunions. At the first, the alum goes and has a great time. She or he enjoys seeing old friends, catching up, and reliving the glory days of their time together. The party goes long into the night.

At the second high school reunion, the alum goes, but doesn’t have a good time. He or she talks to friends from high school, but realizes after exchanging a few stories about the past that he or she no longer has anything in common with these people other than those stories about the past. She or he feels uncomfortable and leaves soon.

That’s the same way history works for denominations. In some cases, it can really make you happy with and proud of your identity as a member of a group. In other cases, it just emphasizes the differences between you and your supposed group-mates, and you leave anyway.

What makes the difference between the two cases? First, you need to identify enough with that past for it to mean something to you. If you didn’t like your high school experience, then you won’t even go to the reunion. If the past doesn’t mean anything to the people in the pews or they don’t know it, then it’s not going to further denominational unity.

The key, though, to both having the past mean something to people and to having it be a source of unity (like in the good high school reunion) is that the past can’t just be the past. It must be connected to the present. Unless we recognize who we were in high school as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find we have nothing in common with people at a reunion. Unless we recognize who we were as a denomination in the past as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find our history to be just boring stories about dead people who lived long ago.

Thus, history in and of itself is insufficient grounds for denominational unity. It doesn’t work to say, “We’re a denomination because we were a denomination in the past.” Inertia is a great force in church life, and so the answer of “we’ve always done it that way in the past” will carry you a certain distance, but it doesn’t ultimately make for vitality or the ability to move forward.

History can, however, be used as a tool to aid in the creation of denominational identity in two ways. First, examining our past can be a good source of ideas when we’re casting around to figure out what exactly it is that constitutes denominational identity. Second, telling ourselves stories about our shared past can reinforce that sense of common identity once we’ve identified what it is.

Yet we must choose that identity in the here and now. It isn’t automatically given to us by history, and the effective telling of history to create denominational unity requires a preexisting notion of common identity.

Thus, history may end up being an effective vehicle for conveying unity. Nevertheless, history must be used intentionally to create unity. Relying on unreflective notions of “how it’s always been” just isn’t good enough.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Creation Care Updates

Christians are once again in the midst of the Season of Creation, a month-long focus by Christians from many traditions around the world on the Church's role in caring for God's creation. In light of this month's focus, here is a rundown of some creation care news from The United Methodist Church in the past several months.

A UMNS story, bishops' statement, and UMW response on/to US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords at the beginning of June

Wespath's announcement of its recognition by Responsible Investor for its sustainable investment reporting in June

Global Ministries' announcement of its hiring of Jenny Phillips as its new creation care staff, starting in July

A UMW story on their advocacy related to methane emission regulations in July

A UMNS story from early July about UMC responses to global climate issues

A United Methodist commentary on desert encroachment in Nigeria from early July

An UMCOR report of United Methodist Earthkeepers training in August

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Theology as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the first in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

Starting this week, and for the next several weeks, I’d like to look at the question of the basis of unity in The United Methodist Church.

I think a lot of Christians, especially those from creedal traditions, assume that the basis for unity should be theology or belief. I don’t think this works for United Methodism, though, and I’m not sure how well it works for any non-creedal tradition (or creedal tradition, for that matter).

Before I explain, let me make a disclaimer: I’m not saying in this post that theology doesn’t matter or that people should be able to believe anything they want and still call themselves a Christian or a United Methodist. I think theology does matter. I personally believe a number of things quite fervently and hope others do, too. I even think belief is something that’s worth arguing about at times. So, I’m not saying in this post that belief is unimportant. I’m saying that theology can’t serve as a good basis for unity in The United Methodist Church.

The first reason why theology is an insufficient basis for unity is that, if we look at the church today, it is not a current source of unity. In fact, it’s often a source of division within the church. Liberals and conservatives fight like weasels (a phrase I once heard a United Methodist layperson use to describe General Conference) over theological issues. In order to go from where we are now to a place where theology is the basis for United Methodist unity, either someone would have to persuade a whole lot of people or kick a whole lot of people out of the church. The first seems unrealistic, the latter unacceptable.

Second, it’s not really clear what theological pieces we would set up as the basis for United Methodist unity, were we to try to go that route. Most of what either evangelical or liberal United Methodists would like to get everyone to believe isn’t distinctively United Methodist but is tied into larger theological currents in the U.S. that cut across denominations, so in many cases, neither side is really presenting a distinctively Methodist vision of theological unity.

We could, then, turn to the Book of Discipline to see what it has to say about the doctrinal basis for Methodist unity. But it turns out the Book of Discipline is not very helpful in this regard. It states that the 25 Articles (John Wesley’s condensation/reduction of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Faith) and John Wesley’s sermons shall be the standards of Methodist theology. Added to that are the EUB Confession of Faith.

But that’s such a large body of works that it’s not really useful in defining standards of United Methodist theology to serve as a basis for unity. It’s certainly no five point creed. There are many strands within the Sermons, Articles, and Confession on which to draw. Plus, how many people are you going to get to read even the 25 Articles and Confession, let alone all of Wesley’s sermons (which even most Methodist seminarians don’t read in their entirety)?

If we can’t use these textual resources for unity, perhaps we could identify a couple of historically distinctive doctrines as the theological basis for United Methodist unity. Here, two of the most distinctive Methodist doctrines have been an Arminian approach to salvation and the doctrine of sanctification. Arminianism states that God offers God’s grace freely to all, enabling humans to respond by accepting that grace. The doctrine of sanctification states that God is capable of making humans perfect in love while we are yet alive, and we should all be striving for that.

The problem with Arminianism, though, is that it’s been so widely successful as a theology in the United States that it’s no longer distinctively Methodist. The emphasis within a lot of Arminianism has shifted from free grace to free will, and almost everyone wants to believe in free will in this country. Even a lot of Calvinists or people from Calvinist traditions have become Arminians. Hence, saying that United Methodists are going to be known as the people who believe in free grace and free will Arminianism is like saying Burger King is going to be known as the fast food place that serves burgers. It’s true, but it’s not like there aren’t others making burgers, so it’s not really something that would set them apart.

Which leaves us with sanctification. The problem with trying to make sanctification the theological basis for United Methodist unity is that so few United Methodist actually know what the doctrine is and know that it’s a traditional Methodist doctrine. Of those who do, probably even a smaller number actually believe in the possibility of entire sanctification in this life. I think it’s sad, but nonetheless true, that Methodists have lost touch with the doctrine of sanctification. Given that that’s true, though, it seems like it would be a lot of work to try to reclaim sanctification as the basis of theological unity in the church.

Therefore, I don’t think theology works as the basis for unity in The United Methodist Church. That may make some upset or uneasy, but I don’t think that means there aren’t other possible bases for unity. Agreement on a set list of beliefs is not the basis of unity for families, the Army, knitting groups, or Phish fans, yet there is something which holds each of these groups together. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue to look at some of these other possible grounds for Methodist unity.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Plan now: Methodist Mission Bicentennial

Readers of this blog will be interested to learn of a series of projects and events over the next couple of years celebrating the bicentennial of Methodist mission. The text for an announcement from Global Ministries about that bicentennial follows. More information about the bicentennial can be found at www.methodistmission200.org.

"Over the next two years a series of celebrations will recognize Methodism’s bicentennial of mission, which will occur in 2019 in accord with the 1819 founding of the Missionary Society by the Methodist Episcopal Church, a forerunner to The United Methodist Church. It is exciting that the year 2019 will also recognize the 150th anniversary of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, also of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

"This will be a celebratory time not only for honoring mission in the life of the church, but also for drawing the church further into God’s mission. It will be a time to reflect on the practice of mission, within local churches, annual conferences, and throughout the Methodist family. What have Methodists learned from our past in mission? How is God moving among Methodists today? Where is God calling Methodists to go in mission in the future?

"From its beginning, inspired by lay persons, teachers, church leaders, and clergy in annual conferences, mission has grown to include evangelizing; starting new churches; alleviating suffering; building peace; empowering women; working for justice; training leaders in society; conducting medical missions; starting new schools, hospitals, clinics, and printing presses; and witnessing to the kingdom of God!

"For the celebrations over the next two years, there will be two key components.

"One component will be the collection of stories of Methodists in mission, especially from annual conferences and autonomous Methodist churches. Methodist around the world have stories about their historic participation and current work in mission. Methodist scholars and students, annual conference and autonomous church leaders, and clergy and laity engaged in mission are invited to submit their stories. Collecting and celebrating these stories will be an important means of understanding the many faces of Methodist mission. A website, www.methodistmission200.org, will gather and share these stories.

"The bicentennial will also include a world conference of mission leaders and scholars. Sponsored by Global Ministries, in collaboration with Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, GA, USA, the conference will be called “Answering the Call: Hearing God's Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present, and Future.” It will be held in Atlanta, GA, USA, at the Emory University Conference Center Hotel, April 8-10, 2019. The conference will celebrate Methodism’s mission heritage and look to the future of mission. A call for papers is available at http://bit.ly/2rAMEQw

"The dates for the conference were chosen to coincide closely with the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Society on April 5, 1819, formed to support the work of John Stewart, a free African-American, among the Wyandotte Native American people of Ohio.

"Questions about the bicentennial may be sent to Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology, Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, [and blogmaster for this site] at dscott (at) umcmission.org."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Recommended Reading: Lloyd Narota on How We Can Build a United 'Way Forward'

Lloyd Narota, a United Methodist pastor originally from Zimbabwe but serving a Zimbabwean immigrant congregation in Canada, has recently published an opinion piece on UM Insight on how The United Methodist Church should proceed in its global restructuring efforts associated with the Commission on A Way Forward. This piece will be of interest to readers for two reasons. First, Narota provides a perspective from outside the US on this pressing set of questions in the UMC, and one that is direct in its analysis of the United States' role in the denomination. Second, Narota uses the concept of "unhu," a concept from the Maungwe community of Zimbabwe, in his analysis. Thus, his piece provides a good example of theological reflection informed by non-Western concepts.