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.