Today's post is part of a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
When United Methodists seek to cast a vision of our “nature” as a church, we routinely employ the terms global and worldwide. Paragraph 123 of the Book of Discipline reminds us of the “global nature of our mission” as a denomination, while ¶125 speaks eloquently of our “connectional covenant” as a set of “interdependent worldwide partnerships in prayer, mission, and worship.”
This is a powerful vision, and I affirm it. In fact, it expresses my hope for United Methodism. It is a genuine hope, but a chastened one, for these claims we make about ourselves remain largely unaddressed and unfulfilled.
And so I think it is more truthful to say we stand at the threshold of becoming a “worldwide connectional covenant.” Our vision describes a United Methodist Church we can become but are not yet. The fact is crossing that threshold requires that we become a worldwide connection in conviction and practice and not just in sentiment and name. Paragraph 125 puts the point provocatively: Our “worldwide nature,” it says, must become a “living practice” in our congregations, woven deeply into their daily being and doing. In other words, our worldwide covenant must take on concrete life in our churches, shaping congregational mission, discipleship, and witness.
This is an audacious suggestion, but difficult to visualize. What would such a living practice look like in our congregations, our conferences, our general church? What needs to happen for it to take form? What values and habits need correcting or abandoning? Which need adopting, retrieving, or renewing? And perhaps most important: Is such an idea even worth considering right now? After all, we find ourselves in a worldwide United Methodist connection fractured by factional standoffs, distrust, divisions, and brinkmanship. For many of us, the idea of a connectional covenant-as-living-practice feels like a pipe dream at best and cynical propaganda at worst. I too share these misgivings, more or less intensely, depending on the day.
So yes, the idea is counterintuitive, to put it mildly. And yet, I believe the vision of a worldwide connectional covenant as living practice might just provide us with a pathway through our current brokenness toward the church we can become but are not yet.
Unlike the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, I have no plans to recommend for traversing this pathway. But then, I don’t think plans are where we need to start. Better to start at the level of presupposition, value, habit, and practice. After all, more often than not, fueling our intractable conflicts are unexamined presuppositions, unquestioned beliefs, default habits, and taken-for-granted practices. Let me suggest a couple such habits and practices we would do we to examine as we consider this pathway.
In reflecting on our “worldwide connectional covenant,” let’s focus on “covenant” more than “worldwide.” We seem enamored with geography: where we are located around the globe, where we are growing and declining, which areas need additional or fewer bishops, and the like. These are important concerns. However, in the process we can easily neglect the theological center of the phrase, namely, “covenant.”
As I understand this rich biblical concept, covenantal relationships exist in two modes: Some are symmetrical (the human partnerships) and some are asymmetrical (the divine-human partnership). Paragraph 125 uses phrases like “web of interactive relationships,” “interdependent worldwide partnerships in prayer, mission, and worship,” and “a covenant of mutual commitment based on shared mission, equity, and hospitality” to describe the symmetrical dimension.
What is virtually missing in the paragraph (and in our churchly discourse) is the asymmetrical dimension: We are equal partners with one another, but not with God. The covenant exists because of God’s initiative. Without it, there is no covenant, no “connection.” And that divine initiative—that divine mission—forever transcends our plans and our prognostications, as a grace that always “goes before.” This lends the covenant an eschatological character—open, pliable, expectant. If we believe that God’s mission grounds our “connectional covenant,” too, should we not then be a bit less ready right now to design our own undoing? Shall we not at least hold open the possibility that there is a connection we can become but are not yet?
Let’s resist the temptation to substitute affinity for unity. Against our better instincts, United Methodists tend to think of unity as conformity and compliance and diversity as autonomy and freedom. Paragraph 125 encourages this view by juxtaposing “connectional unity” with “local freedom.” On this view, the freedom to be different must be wrested from the sameness of unity. (Even a cursory reading of the Commission’s deliberations reveals the same understanding at work.)
The very real danger is that such a view of unity can easily justify a move to unity as affinity, as conformity by self-selection. This is particularly tempting when an issue—at the moment, sexuality—becomes the criterion for how, why, and with whom we belong. Such a moribund understanding of unity and diversity puts paid to the possibility of a worldwide connectional covenant. Perhaps it is time to ponder the idea of “connectional freedom”—a freedom found and lived precisely as a connection. Perhaps we discover our unity in and not despite our diversity.
Let’s not use “contextualization” as a strategy for resolving conflict. “Contextualization” and “contextual freedom” have become popular terms in our current discourse, notably in the Commission’s deliberations. The problem is that contextualization is employed as a tool for ameliorating discord, negotiating compromises, and forestalling division.
In fact, contextualization is not a tool or a strategy. It is the church’s obedience to a profound theological truth, namely, that God has chosen to dwell with us as one of us, in the cultural particularity of our cultural forms, our language, our context. That is, contextualization is the church’s acknowledgment of the Incarnation. Unless United Methodists see this truth, we will remain stuck at the threshold of the worldwide connection we can become—or abandon it altogether.
My chastened (at times, anguished) hope is that we will choose to surrender to a connectional covenant yet to be—in which “worldwide” and “global” depict a living practice, a form of discipleship, a spirituality, more than a location on a map.