Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unity and the Modern Denomination

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.

Unity has been much on the minds of United Methodists lately. There has been extensive discussion (including by me on this blog) of the theological and spiritual grounds of unity. There has not been as much attention paid to what unity looks like in functional, organizational terms.

First, it is important to note that unity need not be taken in a structural sense. It is possible to have spiritual unity with fellow Christians from other denominations, and that is real unity. Nevertheless, since the question at hand is the question of the unity of The United Methodist Church, a particular Christian denomination, it is worth thinking about what structural unity means for a denomination.

The question of what unity means functionally and organizationally for a denomination is actually a complicated one, given the complicated nature of modern denominations.

Many might assume that denominations are primarily about setting doctrinal standards. Here perhaps echoes of the recently observed 500th anniversary of the Reformation ring in people’s ears. The Reformation was about debates over beliefs, so denominations must be about belief, right? Yet while setting doctrine is (at least in many cases) one function of denominations, it is not the only one.

Another function of denominations is establishing systems of authority. The Reformation, especially the English Reformation, was as much about questioning the pope’s authority as it was about doctrine. Denominational structures indicate who has authority to make what decisions in the common life of a group of Christians. Those decisions may or may not be related to doctrine.

While it is easy to see the roots of denominations in the Reformation, the modern denomination as an organizational form was perfected in the United States. Here, denominations have taken on at least two additional functions.

First, denominations serve to credential clergy and connect clergy and congregations. They define a pool of Christians designated as clergy who are commissioned to perform sacraments. Denominations also provide some assistance to congregations in helping identify credentialed clergy to exert congregational leadership and perform sacraments in those congregations (though the extent and form of that assistance vary widely).

Second, denominations provide a means for congregations, clergy, and individual Christians to collaborate in joint ministry. This joint ministry can include everything from evangelistic campaigns to mission organizations to pension systems to publishing efforts to colleges. The list goes on. These joint ministries are in many ways the most visible part of the denomination, since they are the most numerous and link individual congregations on the most regular basis.

Hence, there are at least four components to denominations and thus denominational unity: theology, authority, clergy, and joint ministry.

What makes the question of unity in modern denominations complicated is that unity or disunity in one area does not necessary, but may, imply unity or disunity in another area. This observation holds both within and between denominations. For instance, the UMC’s full communion agreement with the ELCA recognizes unity in clergy and sacraments and some theological unity without implying any unity in authority or joint ministry or complete theological unity.

Thus, it is possible for a denomination to be simultaneously united and in a state of disunity. In the UMC, there has been long-standing disunity on theological understandings of homosexuality and related theological questions. In recent years, these have increasingly been translated into disunity regarding clergy (Can LGBTQ+ persons be ordained?) and authority (What authority do Boards of Ordained Ministry, bishops, and clergy have to make case-by-case decisions in disputes about ministry with and by LGBTQ+ persons?).

The situation in which the UMC currently finds itself is asking to what extent the existing theological, clergy, and authority disunity should be formalized and whether and to what extent these forms of disunity will cause disunity in the joint ministry of United Methodists. The answers to these questions are complicated not just because there are strongly held theological differences, but because it is unclear what this theological disunity should mean for other functions of a denomination and, furthermore, because the answer might be different for different functions.

Among the components of denominational unity, shared authority and clergy are the most basic. Shared authority and mutually recognized clergy are both necessary and sufficient for a group of Christians to function as a denomination. It is possible to do joint ministry through interdenominational (or nondenominational) means. Theological debates always exist within denominations, to some extent and on some issues, though they are often what motivate people to sunder the basic unity of shared authority and mutually recognized clergy.

Another way to ask the questions facing the UMC, then is to what extent theological disagreement necessitates ceasing to share common authority structures and mutually recognition of clergy, and if so, to what extent continued joint ministry in a newly interdenominational sense is possible.

Thus, there is a range of options for the UMC from complete separation (formalized disunity in all four areas) to confederated churches (formalized theological, authority, and clergy disunity, with continued unity in joint ministry and possibly some continued shared authority and clergy) to continued existence as a single denomination (with unity in authority, clergy, and joint ministry despite theological differences). At play here are not just individuals’ theological beliefs about sexuality but their understandings of the nature of unity and the nature of denominations. It makes for a complicated debate, but one that will be interesting to watch.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

55 Futures for the UMC

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.

The Council of Bishops has released their initial comments on the midterm report of the Commission on a Way Forward. They have indicated that they are considering three options for the future of The United Methodist Church in the face of its long-standing and increasingly divisive debate over homosexuality and the roles of LGBTQ+ people in the church.

Two of the three options seem fairly clear at this point, but the third option could entail a variety of distinct scenarios. This post will present three such scenarios. Taking each of these different scenarios as a distinct proposal, that leads to five possible proposals from the Commission and the Council of Bishops.

As I will then detail, each of these five proposals could then meet with six possible responses from the called General Conference in 2019, all but one of which would presumably need to be voted on by the annual conferences, which could ratify or reject the special General Conference’s action.

That gives at least 55 options still on the table for the future of the denomination (5*5*2 + 5*1). It’s a large number, and the ultimate outcome may not be evident until sometime in 2020.

The first option the Council of Bishops indicated is “a model [that] affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.” Presumably this means harsher penalties for those who disobey existing provisions against ordaining LGBTQ+ persons or performing gay marriages, which would lead to a purging of progressives from the denomination.

The second option mentioned is “a model [that] removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This seems to be the much-discussed “local option,” which would leave decisions about ordination to annual conferences and gay marriages to individual pastors and churches.

The third option is “a model [that] is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” It is not clear what exactly, this option would entail, but I can anticipate at least three possibilities:

1. A split into confederated churches – The United Methodist Church would split into two or more denominations with different stances on homosexuality. The two (or more) denominations would enter into an ecumenical agreement to mutually recognize members and, when they meet requirements, ministers. The two denominations would also continue to support joint ministries through shared boards and agencies and collaborative committees. The degree of collaboration and cooperation is a big question in this option. Another big question is whether the split would apply to any branches of The United Methodist Church outside the US.

2. US geographic central conferences – The five US jurisdictions (or some other configuration of geographic areas) become central conferences. Central conferences have the power to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline. Sexuality is placed in that portion to allow some parts of the church to maintain a traditional stance, others to adopt an affirming stance, and perhaps others to choose a local option. Presumably central conferences outside the US would have this option, too, though other than possibly parts of Europe, it seems unlikely any would.

3. US theological central conferences – The US is divided into central conferences, as above, but rather than rely on geography as a proxy for theology, the central conferences are explicitly based on theological convictions over sexuality.

Of these three, the first seems most likely, but the latter two may still be possibilities.

The bishops also indicated that whichever proposal they put forward will include a “gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.” This pressure-valve release, if you will, allows a strongly dissenting minority to leave the denomination, presumably through relaxation of the trust clause, thus allowing congregations to take their church property with them.

Whichever of these five (two clearly indicated and three possible) proposals the Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops ultimately recommend; General Conference will then need to vote on the recommendation. Again, there are several different possibilities for what the General Conference will do.

1. General Conference approves proposal – This is the most straight-forward scenario, though not necessarily what will happen.

2. General Conference significantly alters proposal – The bishops put forward a proposal, but General Conference delegates are not completely happy with it. They significantly alter the details of the proposal (especially possible if it’s one of the confederated church or US central conference proposals).

3. General Conference rejects proposal, approves alternative model indicated by bishops – Instead of merely changing the bishops’ recommendation, the General Conference may reject it in favor of a completely different proposal, substituting one of the other three models mentioned by the Council of Bishops.

4. General Conference rejects proposal, approves completely different plan – Instead of substituting one of the other three models mentioned by the Council of Bishops, General Conference could approve a completely different option not considered by the bishops, up to and including a full division of the denomination into two or more unconnected successors.

5. General Conference rejects proposal, implements only pressure value release – The General Conference could decide to keep the system as it is, yet seek to rid itself of those most discontented with the current system. Accommodations could be made for those on either side of the debate who wish to leave the denomination to do so.

6. General Conference rejects proposal, takes no alternative action – Varying interest groups, based either on theology or geography could oppose the plan put forward by the bishops. The plan could fail to garner sufficient votes to pass. However, because of the divided nature of the church, no other plan may win sufficient votes to pass, especially if it requires constitutional amendment. The called General Conference would end without any action being taken.

The first five of these possible General Conference actions would presumably involve changes to the UMC’s constitution. If so, such changes would need to be ratified by the annual conferences. Annual conferences, then, would vote on any General Conference-approved plan and could either ratify or reject it. It is certainly possible that even if a plan is approved by General Conference, opposition to it could build afterward, leading annual conferences to reject it. This may be especially likely if General Conference approves something other than what the bishops recommend.

It is unclear whether such annual conference ratification on a plan approved by General Conference in February of 2019 could begin with the American annual conference season in June 2019. Such a time-table would allow all annual conferences around the world to vote before the 2020 regular General Conference. (Some European annual conferences meeting in spring 2020 would be the last to vote.) General Conference 2020 could then take further action to implement the decisions of the prior year, if ratified. It is also possible ratification voting may not begin until fall 2019, with the final votes coming at American annual conferences in June 2020, after the May 2020 regular General Conference, though that seems ill-timed.

The last possible General Conference action, taking no action, would of course not require ratification by the annual conference. If this happened, it is not clear where the denomination would go from there. It is likely that, General Conference having failed to address the denomination’s impasse on sexuality, individual annual conferences and caucus groups like the WCA would implement their own plans for the future of their particular constituencies. Such plans are likely to be conflicting.

While it is unclear which of these 55 roads the church will go down, what is clear is that we are still several years away from knowing the ultimate fate of The United Methodist Church.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Report on GBHEM Colloquy on Missio Dei and the United States

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.

I had the honor of participating earlier this week in the Colloquy event organized by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The colloquy was a meeting of United Methodist seminary professors and bishops (and me). The theme for this event was "Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness." I will provide some reflections on the colloquy as I experienced it. These, of course, will not reflect the experiences of all others at the event.

As the colloquy began, there was confusion about the purpose of the event. The stated goal of the colloquy was "to engage United Methodist scholars and bishops in constructive dialogue that will open new pathways in our understanding and faithful practice of the Missio Dei. During the colloquy, participants will explore the future of the church from a missional perspective, and examine how to reengage our Wesleyan heritage to participate in the Missio Dei."

Because of the phrase "the future of the church" and because the first GBHEM colloquy in the spring was directly tied to the work of the Commission on A Way Forward, many participants and attendees assumed that this colloquy was also intended to be directly tied to the Commission's work and the status of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. GBHEM staff clarified that this colloquy was not designed to feed into the work of the Commission; the bishops had asked for it as a separate resource for the UMC in the US.

In part because of this confusion, there were at least four different conversations happening within the colloquy: a conversation about the status of LGBTQ+ persons, a conversation about decline and pathways to revitalization in the denomination, a conversation about the general theological content of missio Dei as a term, and a conversation about specific practices of mission and ministry or specific applications of the concept of missio Dei. These four conversations frequently intersected but were nonetheless to some extent distinct.

Moreover, within these four conversations, participants spoke with a wide variety of voices based on their social location, theological presuppositions, contexts of ministry, racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and personal scholarly interests. Again, there were intersections, but participants at times seemed to struggle in articulating convergences among the many voices.

What emerged instead were three broad areas of concern, articulated by Dr. Anne Wimberly: polity, especially as it relates to the roles of LGBTQ+ persons in the church; theology; and practices of ministry. While GBHEM will continue to process the insights shared around these three points, there did not seem to be overriding consensus on what the missio Dei meant for the future of The United Methodist Church within these three areas.

Two other points of convergence did, however, emerge, though not around the meaning of missio Dei or a shared vision for the future of the church.

The first point of convergence was an appreciation to GBHEM for having brought together this group of scholars and bishops for conversation, even if those conversations were at times difficult and painful. Many participants affirmed the need for the academy and the church to be in deeper relationship and more frequent conversation with each other.

The second point of convergence was around a spiritual posture implied by missio Dei, one of humility and listening. These two points came up frequently in discussions around all three broad topic areas: polity, theology, and practices of ministry. Humility and listening are not a program in any of these three areas, but they are perhaps an important prerequisite for hearing and responding to the missio Dei.

Relationship, humility, and listening may not seem like much, and for those who were hoping for specific programmatic recommendations or a shared theological framework to come out of the colloquy, it may have seemed like a failure. Yet we should not scorn such elements of deepened spirituality. They may indeed be exactly where God is leading us in God's mission.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Want a more united church? Make some friends.

This is the tenth 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.

This blog is the latest in a long series of posts discussing the problem of unity in The United Methodist Church. How do we stay together and stay talking to and working with each other when we’re so divided by theology, politics, race, ethnicity, class, culture, and a whole host of other characteristics? I think figuring out how to balance diversity and unity or diversity and cooperation is one of the foremost challenges of the church and the world.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us offers an answer to the problem of disunity. Putnam is worried about social disunity. As a political scientist, he’s worried about Americans becoming divided and atomized in ways that cause the civic arena to suffer.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell set out to answer a question: How are Americans able to be so religiously devout and religiously diverse, while avoiding large-scale religious conflict? Sure, there are tensions around religion, as reflected in many of the culture war issues. But religion is not the source of violence in this country in the way it is in many places around the world. Putnam and Campbell set out to figure out why.

The main answer that they provide is that we’re able to tolerate religious diversity despite being serious about religion because we know people of other religious backgrounds who are part of our friends and our family. Putnam and Campbell talk about “Aunt Sue” and “My Pal Al,” both of whom are hypothetical people of other religious traditions who are nonetheless good people and important parts of our social networks. Because we’re willing to accept Sue and Al, we’re more willing to accept people of other religious convictions in general.

Thus, it turns out that the solution to the problem of balancing diversity and cooperation may be simple: making friends. If you want the church to be more united, make friends with someone who understands the church differently than you do. If you want the world to be a better, more tolerant place, make friends with someone who is not exactly like you.

This finding of Putnam and Campbell’s is entirely consistent with the aggregate model of unity I have been discussing. I noted the importance of bridge-builders in this model. Another way of thinking about bridge-builders might be to see them as those with a diverse set of friends.

Of course, friendships work better when people have something in common, but friends need not have everything in common. Indeed, it may be a good source of personal and spiritual growth to learn from a friend who is different from you, in addition to facilitating unity.

This prescription to make friends also highlights one of the dangers of contemporary American society. As algorithmic newsfeeds, niche marketing, exclusive neighborhoods, and social sorting of all sorts proliferate, it becomes ever more possible for us to be friends only with those who are already like us.

There is a real danger in this, as well as a loss. The loss is a personal one, that we may miss out on knowing wonderful people who nonetheless differ from us in some regards and that we may miss out on learning from them.

The danger is religious, social, and political – that if we do not learn to get along with others who are different from us as friends, it will make it more difficult for us to get along with them as neighbors, co-workers, fellow association members, fellow citizens, and ultimately as fellow Christians.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Connectionalism as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the ninth 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.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been taking a rather long detour from what had been my topic for the past couple of months, the sources of unity in The United Methodist Church, to talk about a related but still somewhat tangential topic: the aggregate model of unity I’ve introduced. Today, I’m finally going to connect that topic thread back into my discussion of The United Methodist Church in specific ways.

I would like to propose one more possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church, one with long historical roots, one which can encompass the other sources of unity I’ve mentioned, and one which I think holds the most hope for the future: connectionalism.

What is connectionalism? It’s a peculiarly Methodist understanding of what it means to be the church. According to connectionalism, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority. It’s defined by connections between people: connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity. When The United Methodist Church claims to be a connectional church, that means that we hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.

At the beginning of Methodism, connectionalism meant connection to John Wesley. After Wesley, though, there was no one person who defined connectionalism. Even Francis Asbury, who had a central role in shaping Methodism in America, saw the connection of Methodism as being between the preachers and each other, not between the preachers and him. Thus, connectionalism has become not a hub and spokes model of relationship, but a network.

For those of you who read last week’s post, this talk of network should sound familiar. I claimed that the aggregate model of unity is a network model of unity. Therefore, connectionalism can be thought of as an instance of the aggregate model of unity. Connectionalism takes a whole bunch of smaller social groups, be they congregations, annual conferences, jurisdictions/central conferences, caucuses, ministry networks, or other groups, and ties them all together into a denomination through a network of relationships.

The test for connectionalism is always two-fold.

First, are these relationships strong enough to hold when tensions come? Can we maintain our relationships with one another, even when we disagree or feel hurt or wronged?
Second, are we willing to extend our sense of connection beyond just those with whom we have a direct, personal relationship into second-, third- or even more degrees of connection? Are we willing to recognize ourselves as in connection with not just those to whom we are directly connected, but also those people to whom our connections are connected (and their connections, too, and so on)?

The first of these challenges is a perpetual one. Since sanctification seems to be a gift given to few, we can expect that church people will remain people, which means that they’ll occasionally disagree or hurt each other or fear each other, and such instances will test their relationships.

The second challenge becomes increasingly difficult, however, as the church grows in membership, expands into new geographical areas, and lives in an individualistic culture. When there are too many people to know personally, even at one or two degrees of remove, and when distance (not to mention many of the other challenges of modern life) make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships, our sense of connection to others in the denomination suffers. When we are content to be individuals independent of community, we care less that our connections to others are not what they could be.

There’s not much we can do about the first beyond praying that God will continue to give us sanctifying grace and then trying to cooperate with what is given.

There may, however, be ways in which we can try to overcome the second and third challenges. Can new theologies re-emphasize community and connection? Can new technologies facilitate those connections? Can structures emphasize relationship rather than business? If United Methodists want to remain united, these are questions worth asking ourselves.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Recommended readings: Filipino UMC and violence in the Philippines

The United Methodist Church in the Philippines has often had a prophetic stance toward social issues, along with an evangelical emphasis on revival.

Perhaps the most significant social/political issue in the Philippines currently is the government's use of "extra-judicial killings" as part of a war on drugs. The phrase indicates the killing of Filipinos by police and military units without a trial. The United Methodist Church, along with other Christian groups in the Philippines, has criticized these killings as a means to target the poor and indigenous groups, whether or not they are involved in drug use or the drug trade.

The issue is also connected to larger issues of the treatment of indigenous people, the implementation of martial law, and violent conflict in the Philippines. A related story is violence against Lumad indigenous people, an issue which United Methodists have also been involved in addressing.

To get a sense of how significant this issue is for the Philippines and the Filipino UMC, here's a rundown of articles about the Filipino UMC protesting government actions in the last six months:

July 11, 2017: Filipino deaconess: 'Resistance is a gift'
July 27, 2017: United Methodists decry Mindanao martial law
August 30, 2017: Filipino United Methodists protest teen's death
September 7, 2017: UM deaconess responds to Philippine extrajudicial killing crisis
September 15, 2017: Filipino United Methodists help refugees fleeing violence
September 22, 2017: Filipinos protest on martial law anniversary
October 12, 2017: Philippines United Methodists decry government killings