Monday, August 13, 2018

Recommended Reading: Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies

This week, dozens of Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world are in Oxford, England, for the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies. This conference, held once every five years, is a major event in the academic life of global Methodism.

The theme for this meeting is "“THY GRACE RESTORE, THY WORK REVIVE”: Revival, Reform, and Revolution in Global Methodism." A description of that theme is available on the webpage for this year's meeting.

The theme is interpreted in ten different "working groups," including ones on topics of interest to this blog such as mission and evangelism, history, and interreligious studies. Descriptions of how that theme is interpreted in each of these working groups are available here.

In addition, the Institute includes a number of keynote addresses for all participants. The names of presenters for these keynotes are available on the Institute schedule.

For those who are interested in more, about the Oxford Institute, archives of previous meetings are available on the website. Moreover, GBHEM just published a book containing papers from the previous Oxford Institute meeting in 2013.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Our Sikh Neighbor

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

We must have at least heard of some famous contemporary Sikh personalities; from the last Premier of India, Manamohan Singh, a renowned economist who became the thirteenth Prime Minister of India, to the famous Sikh film actor Waris Ahluwalia, who has played a number of roles in commercials and Hollywood films, including The Life Aquatic and The Inside Man, from Amrit and Rabindra Kaur, contemporary British artists of international standing, to Ravi Bhalla, who recently became the Mayor of Hoboken, NJ. But my question is, have we ever explored our Sikh neighbor’s faith?

Following a series of interfaith seminars, on July 18, 2018 Mission Theology Desk of Global Ministries of the UMC Atlanta invited Mr. Kuldip Singh of Sikh study circle and gurdwara of Stone Mountain, GA, to conduct a mission dialogue forum for the staff. Mr. Singh is the public relations liaison for the gurdwara in Stone Mountain.

A modern Religion
Mr. Kuldip Singh began his lecture by offering a basic introduction to the Sikh faith, which emerged on the Indian sub-continent. The Sikh religion is one of the most recent religions of the world, which originated during the late fifteenth century and finally formalized in the early eighteenth century.

The emergence of Sikhism took place in the Punjab region of South Asia, which now falls into the present-day nation states of India and Pakistan. The main religions of the area at the time were Hinduism and Islam.

The word “Sikh” means learner or disciple. This term is close to the Christian concept of discipleship.

The total population of Sikhs world-wide is estimated at around 29 million, or 0.4 per cent of the world population in mid-2000, with their presence in 34 countries. In India, Sikhs account for 1.9 per cent of the population, with more than seventy per cent living in Punjab, a province in North India.

Guru Nanak
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (born in 1469 AD). Guru Nanak was born about 40 miles from Lahore (now in Pakistan) in 1469. Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546) was a contemporary of Guru Nanak. Sikh tradition teaches that his birth and early years were marked with many events that demonstrated that God had marked him out for something special and was keeping an eye on him.

Sikhism as a faith began around 1500 CE, when Guru Nanak began preaching and teaching a faith that was quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam. Guru Nanak was followed by nine more Gurus.

In 1708 AD, the Guruship was ceremoniously bestowed by Guru Gobind Singh upon the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the Holy Scriptures of Sikh faith. Since then, the SGGS is revered as the living Guru in the form of scripture/word.

Salient Features
Among the many points what Mr. Singh taught on that day, I wish to summarize six main points.

1. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion; accordingly, there is only one God. God is without form, or gender. Everyone has direct access to God. It’s a virtue to keep God in one’s heart and mind always. Sikhs focus their lives around their relationship with God and being a part of the Sikh community. The Sikh ideal combines action and belief. To live a good life, a person should do good deeds as well as meditating on God.

2. Everyone is equal before God. Mr. Singh emphasized the gender equality in the Sikh faith in detail.

3. A good life is lived as part of a community, by living honestly and caring for others. The believers are called to be generous to the less fortunate. Social action is a very significant aspect of faith.

4. The Sikh scripture is the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs consider this scripture a living Guru.

5. The three duties that a Sikh person must carry out can be summed up in three words: Pray, Work, Give. Nam japna – Keeping God in mind at all times. Kirt Karna – Earning an honest living. Since God is truth, a Sikh seeks to live honestly. This doesn't just mean avoiding crime; Sikhs avoid gambling, begging, or working in the alcohol or tobacco industries. And Chhakna – Giving to charity and caring for others (literally, sharing one's earnings with others).

6. The meaning of the symbols – 5 Ks: The 5 Ks taken together symbolize that the Sikh who wears them has dedicated themselves to a life of devotion and submission to the Guru. The 5 Ks are 5 physical symbols worn by Sikhs who have been initiated into the Khalsa (some thing similar to Baptism in Christianity). The five Ks are:

Kesh (uncut hair): Throughout history hair (kesh) has been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength. One's hair is part of God's creation. Keeping hair uncut indicates that one is willing to accept God's gift as God intended it. Sikhs should wear a turban. In the western cultural settings this has caused and can cause many problems and misunderstandings. Educating people on Sikh identity and faith is crucial in developing cross-cultural understanding, Mr.Singh insisted.

Kara (a steel bracelet): A symbol to mean that a Sikh is linked to the Guru. It acts as a reminder that a Sikh should not do anything of which the Guru would not approve. It also symbolizes God has no beginning or end. This reminds the faithful of good deeds.

Kanga (a wooden comb): This symbolizes a clean mind and body; since it keeps the uncut hair neat and tidy.

Kaccha (cotton underwear): This is a pair of breeches that must not come below the knee. It's a symbol of chastity and self-discipline.

Kirpan (steel sword): This symbolizes the spirituality, defense of good, defense of the weak, and the struggle against injustice.

Mr. Singh also lamentingly highlighted some of the cross-cultural challenges that Sikhs are faced with such as micro-aggression, bullying, hate-crimes and physical harassments. These need to be addressed peacefully. Educating the community on world faiths and cultures from middle school to adult settings is the only way to overcome such situations, Mr. Singh resolved. However, given the above salient features of Sikhism there can be significant possibilities for interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Sikhism for global compassion, peace and development. That’s the hope!

Sikhs have lived in America for over 150 Years. They helped build the transcontinental railroad. They served valiantly in WWI and II. The first Sikh Gurdwara was established in 1912 in Stockton California. There are 0.6 Million Sikhs in the USA.

Obviously, India has taken a lead in the ministry of dialogue between Christianity and Sikhism. The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (C.I.S.R.S.) in Bengaluru has been a pioneer in this field. From the Sikhs side, Punjab University, Patiala, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, also have given leadership to a great extent. However, we have a long way to go, especially in western countries.

Stanley Samartha, a renowned scholar in interfaith relationships, writes “dialogue is one of the critical areas of relationship between Christians and people of other faiths today where sustained theological reflection must continue not in isolation of academic discussions but in the midst of our life together in the community where all pilgrims on the high roads of modern life.” (in an address to the WCC central committee, 1971, in Ecumenical Movement: Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, ed., Michael Kinnamon, WCC 2016.p 348).

Are Christians ready for this missiological challenge?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Preamble: Change and Continuity

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.

As I indicated last week, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the second of several posts explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.

In the original missional ecclesiology document I drafted, I included a long, historical “Preamble.” I had to remove this Preamble from the short version I sent to the Commission because of space constraints. Thus, this portion of my writing had little bearing on the work of the Commission, but I still wanted to share what was in this portion and why I included it.

The heart of this section is its third and fourth sentences: “Much has changed about how Methodists have understood mission and church over the last two plus centuries. Nevertheless, certain constants have persisted.” As a historian, I thought some historical perspective on this tension between continuity and change was useful background to the commission’s work.

Although I wrote the document to be neutral with regard to the three specific plans under discussion by the Commission, I did presume that it was the Commission’s job to recommend some sort of changes in the UMC. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to reflect theologically and historically on the nature of change within the life of denominations and its relationship to continuity.

As humans, we have a strong tendency toward presentism. We assume that the way things are is the way things have been and will continue to be. Yet historians know that is not true. Things used to be different, in some cases quite different. As British novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Knowing that the past was different frees us a little from our presentism.

And if we are able to recognize that the past was different, perhaps that will also free us to recognize that the future will be different as well, and in ways that are neither all good nor all bad. Just as the past contains a mix of good and bad relative to the present, so the future is likely to contain a mix of good and bad relative to the present. Knowing this allows us to face the future with less anxiety and a less totalizing and catastrophizing approach to the decisions we face as a denomination. Certainly, The United Methodist Church faces some potentially significant changes at this juncture of history, but change per se is nothing new for Methodism.

At the same time that there is value in recognizing the ways in which the past is different from the present, there is also value in trying to identify the continuities between the past and the present. We do not recreate Methodism completely anew every new day; instead, we reshape and refashion traditions we have inherited. What, then, are the hallmarks of these traditions? Amidst the change, what has remained the same about Methodism?

This question – What has remained the same about Methodism throughout its history? – and two related questions – What is true about Methodism in different geographic areas? And what is true about Methodism among different Methodist denominations? – were questions I grappled with as I sought to develop the “ecclesiology” part of this missional ecclesiology.

The answers I arrived at – Methodism is missional, ecumenical, connectional, conferencing, appointive, and episcopal – are in the “Affirmations about the Church” section of the document, and thus I will address them more fully in a future post. The “Preamble” gives a quick historical sketch of Methodism drawn around these foci, from its early days as a frontier revival movement to its current existence as a complex, multinational, corporately-structured church, showing the ways these hallmarks changed but also had continuity throughout the centuries of Methodism’s development.

Seeing how Methodism has been faithful to its understanding of how to be the church and has also continued to incorporate these hallmarks despite significant changes is again, I hope, freeing for future change. We have been able to remain faithful to our Methodist DNA despite changes, and therefore we can remain faithful to our Methodist DNA despite whatever future changes the Commission on a Way Forward or General Conference 2019 or other actors might decide upon. Change does not preclude faithfulness to our heritage.

Hence the conclusion to my “Preface”: “Amid this [present] change, faithful United Methodists continue to develop new understandings of mission, connectionalism, conferencing, appointive ministry, and general superintendency. We continue to be faithful to these Methodist principles, even as we seek to understand anew how they may best serve the church and the world.”

One of the themes that runs throughout the document and is introduced at the beginning of the “Preamble” is that Methodism is both a missional movement and a church. This dual identity introduces a variety of tensions and dynamics into Methodism, but one result of this duality is that change and continuity must both be part of who we are. If we do not change, we cease to be a missional movement; if we have no continuity with our past, we lose our sense of church. Both are necessary, and the tensions between the two are at their best a productive driving force in the development of Methodism. I hope they will be so in our current time.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Recommended listening: How to do short-term missions without long-term harm

Ministry Matters has posted a podcast from Youth Ministry Partners that interviews Jen Bradbury, youthworker and author of A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm. In it, she discusses youth-oriented short-term mission, including the evolution of short-term missions to a youth-focused endeavor, the associated shift of motives in short-term mission trips, the possibility of doing harm in short-term mission, and the importance of partnership. While most of the material in the podcast will be familiar to those already participating in the conversation around short-term mission, the podcast can be a useful introduction to those not previously familiar, especially those for whom a podcast would be a more accessible format than a book. The podcast is about 36 minutes long.

Friday, August 3, 2018

What are United Methodist views on homosexuality in the Philippines?

 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.

Recently, United Methodist Insight published a story about students at a United Methodist seminary in the Philippines participating in the Manila Pride March. The story includes pro-LGBT quotes from several United Methodist youth leaders.

For those who have a dichotomous view of regional opinions on homosexuality in The United Methodist Church, this story might be surprising or confusing. Often, the narrative in the UMC goes that northern and western Americans (and Europeans) are pro-gay marriage and gay ordination in the UMC, whereas southern Americans, Africans, and Asians (i.e., Filipinos) are anti-gay marriage and gay ordination. Yet there are reasons to be wary of overly simplistic narratives, including this one.

First, we should not assume that the conversations happening about homosexuality are the same in all places in the world. There are significant differences between countries where gay marriage is legal vs. countries where gay marriage is not legal vs. countries where homosexuality itself is a crime. There are differences between theology, marriage, ordination, membership, and acceptance in other aspects of the life of the church. These are all different conversations, and different countries are having (or not having) different conversations about homosexuality. Americans, however, tend to conflate this wide range of conversations into a binary pro/con conversation that mirrors our own experiences of the theological/culture wars in this country.

Second, as most Americans experience in their own areas, there are a range of opinions, even in supposed liberal or conservative areas of the US. There are conservative United Methodists in Oregon, and there are liberal United Methodists in Mississippi. Geography correlates with but does not determine one's views on homosexuality (or any other topic). We should not be surprised if the same is true elsewhere, including the Philippines.

Given these considerations, where then does The United Methodists Church in the Philippines stand on questions related to homosexuality?

A word about the context of the Philippines is in order. The Philippines as a whole actually has relatively accepting views on homosexuality, more so on average than the United States, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. Gay sex is not criminalized. Gay marriage, however, is not legal in the Philippines, though there is a case under consideration by the Filipino Supreme Court that could change that. The Philippines is facing a variety of justice-related challenges under the rule of current strongman president Rodrigo Duterte. While LGBTQIA+ Filipinos seek for greater rights, gay rights issues are only one of a variety of active rights struggles in the Philippines currently.

Filipino United Methodists exist as a small minority church within that context. The country is overwhelmingly Catholic, and United Methodists are a minority within the country's Protestant minority. Nevertheless, Filipino United Methodists have some good connections to the center of society in realms such as education, health, and social services. Thus, Filipino United Methodists also have a different sense of their relationship to the rest of society than American United Methodists, who, while recognizing America's religious diversity, retain some sense of when they were the country's largest denomination.

These two pieces of background set up a better understanding of Filipino United Methodist views on homosexuality. In short, Filipino United Methodists are, on the whole, opposed to gay ordination and gay marriage in the church, but a variety of opinions exist, and Filipinos do not see this issue as central to the church's identity.

As the article about the seminarian students clearly shows, there are Filipino United Methodists who are pro-LGBT inclusion in the church. Some might see the students in this article as a minority fringe in the church, but there are other indications that a variety of opinions exist. A United Methodist forum on LGBTQ issues held in 2016 gives some sense of the variety of opinions held by Filipino United Methodists. Retired Filipino Bishop Daniel Arichea has been public in his support for gay rights in the church, after his son came out as gay. As in the US, younger and more urban United Methodists tend to be more supportive of LGBTQ inclusion.

The majority of Filipino United Methodists do remain opposed to gay ordination and gay marriage in the church (though the latter is currently less pressing, since as noted, Filipino law does not allow for gay marriage). Nevertheless, Filipino colleagues have suggested that the division of opinion is perhaps somewhere in the 70/30 to 60/40 range of opposed/affirming.

What is just as important to note is that, whatever the exact percentage of opinions in various camps, this issue is not as salient in the Philippines as it is in the United States. In the United States, views on homosexuality are a litmus test in the culture wars and theological wars in the UMC. In the Philippines, this issue is one among many issues facing the church and the culture. It is not the most pressing, and it does not serve as a proxy for people's views on other political, social, and theological issues in the same way that it does in the US.

Moreover, given the denomination's role in Filipino society and overall Filipino views on sexuality, there are good reasons for even those opposed to homosexuality in the UMC in the Philippines to not make this opposition a central issue for the church. Minority religious groups in general pick and choose carefully what issues they want to challenge society on. Currently, the UMC is trying to challenge the Filipino government on a variety of other issues - extra-judicial killings and indigenous rights among them. Challenging prevailing social norms could reduce the support they need from people outside the UMC to make traction with the government on these other issues.

None of this is predicative of what Filipino delegates will do when they are in the global United Methodist context of General Conference 2019. As two recent UMNS stories ([1] and [2]) make clear, there are Filipino United Methodists supportive of the One Church Plan, and there are those supportive of the Traditional Plan. This is, however, a reminder to see all people and regions in the connection as complex, with a variety of objectives and views that cannot be quickly reduced to the objectives and views that people in our own contexts hold.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Engaging the Commission on a Way Forward on mission

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.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I had the honor of being asked by the Commission on a Way Forward to assist them in developing a document on mission to guide their thinking and discernment in their work. To help readers engage in conversation about the Commission’s work around the issue of mission, I want to provide some reflections on my role in the development of their “Missional Framework.” In so doing, I will not speak about how the Commission members used and refined my contribution (most of which I do not know) but rather about the work I shared with them and what my intentions were in crafting it in the way I did. This post will be the first of several on this topic.

Late last year, I received an invitation to submit a document on “missional ecclesiology” to the Commission. I believe I was chosen for this assignment because of my role as Director of Mission Theology for Global Ministries. By the term “missional ecclesiology,” I assumed that the Commission was looking for a document that would comment theologically on mission but would also connect those comments in some way to reflections on the church (hence “ecclesiology”). Thus, in writing the document, I attempted to do three things:

My first objective was to share key highlights of ecumenical thinking about mission from the past half century. The document I prepared for the Commission contained a set of “affirmations” about mission that I sought to craft to reflect not my own personal thoughts about mission but rather important pieces of consensus on mission among United Methodists and others reached over the last half century. That is why I chose the term “affirmations.” These points are not doctrine, but they are widely affirmed by people other than just me. I am sure every missiologist would have her or his own list of most important insights, but I choose particular ones I felt most significant and most relevant to the task at hand.

My second objective was to give a description of the key ecclesiastical practices that have defined Methodism broadly over its history. Given the recent release of Wonder, Love and Praise, I did not feel it necessary to reflect on the theological nature of the church (e.g., as rooted in grace) in my document. That was perhaps a lacuna, but I preferred to let Wonder, Love and Praise speak to these issues and instead focus on key attitudes and practices that have given Methodism its distinctive flavor as a Christian tradition, as I felt less attention had been paid to such practices. Again, I called these points “affirmations” to indicate that these are not dogma but are widely adhered to within Methodism. It is worth noting that these attitudes and practices characterize Methodism broadly and not just United Methodism.

My third objective was to describe a set of values or spiritual dispositions that I hope flow from the first two objectives. In this regard, this set of values or attitudes are the pay-off of the document. Presenting the conclusions of my document as a set of values reflects my conviction that the issues facing The United Methodist Church are primarily matters of the heart, not of polity. Hence, I wanted to present attitudes of the heart that would help us live out our calling to mission. In crafting this section of the document, I was trying to be a bit more creative and not merely reflect consensus positions. I did try to draw connections from the first two lists to the list of values to show how I saw these values as logically related to the widely-held affirmations from the first two lists.

It is important to note that at the point at which I wrote the document, the Commission had released its midpoint update with thumbnail sketches of what became the three proposals now being sent to General Conference 2019. I did not consider it my job to comment on the merits of these three proposals, but rather to offer theological reflections on mission, which the Commission could use in their on-going discernment. Therefore, the documents were intended to be neutral regarding the main questions regarding sexuality and polity with which the Commission was grappling.

I completed an initial version of the document, which was about 2900 words. I was then asked to revise it down to 700 words. That was difficult for me, and I had to cut out a good deal, some of which I regret not leaving in. I delivered the 700-word version to the Commission (with a link to the longer version that I wasn’t able to let go of!), and they further revised this version to produce their own Missional Framework.

This project was undertaken in a lot of prayer, more than the amount of prayer I have used in any other professional undertaking. Nevertheless, I do not pretend to have accomplished any of my objectives perfectly, and I’m sure others would have taken a different approach than I did and set up different objectives for themselves. Moreover, as an individual, I could offer my gift to the Church, but it required the work of the Commission as a whole to discern how to transform my gift into something that reflected the Church more broadly. Having shared that gift with the Commission, I share it now with you readers, hoping it will spark more conversations about mission in The United Methodist Church.