Friday, March 29, 2019

Why United Methodists need to better understand straight marriage

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.

In the wake of General Conference 2019, The United Methodist Church has seemingly reached an impasse in its debate over gay ordination and gay marriage. It is possible that the impasse means it is simply time for those of differing viewpoints to go their separate ways. Yet for those who want to remain and continue the dialogue, it seems another way to approach the topic is necessary.

One perhaps counter-intuitive possibility would be to talk more about straight marriage.

This is not an attempt to center straight people in a debate that is fundamentally about LGBTQ persons. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that whatever views one holds on gay marriage, the "marriage" in the term "gay marriage" is understood by analogy with views on and practices of straight marriage.

Moreover, a thorough examination of straight marriage in the church would likely reveal that there is less consensus on this concept than many might initially suppose. In particular, a cross-cultural conversation about straight marriage might reveal that some of the differences between many Americans and many Africans over gay marriage stem not just from different understandings about homosexuality but different understandings about marriage itself.

US Americans, both traditionalist and progressive, often forget how significantly American views of straight marriage have shifted over the past two centuries. Books like Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz and A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition by Elizabeth Abbott describe some of the ways that Western understandings of straight marriage have shifted significantly over the course of history. In particular, they highlight the shift from viewing marriage as an arrangement to promote group economic and social well-being to viewing marriage as an arrangement to promote personal emotional and sexual fulfillment.

And if views of marriage have varied significantly over Western history, it is safe to say that views of marriage likely vary significantly across cultures today. Not everyone in the world understands marriage in the way that most Westerners, traditionalist and progressive, do. Personal emotional and sexual fulfillment are not the primary goals of marriage in all places in the world. Marriage serves different personal, familial, social, religious, economic, and even political purposes in different contexts. Yet whatever purpose it serves, marriage often carries the weight of a lot of personal and cultural expectations. A broader exploration of views on marriage may help reveal why this issue has also become loaded with such theological weight, when it is far from the only one over which United Methodists disagree.

Moreover, a more thorough discussion of straight marriage is likely to lead to a more thorough discussion of gender, since straight marriage is a primary way in which societies assign and carry out gender roles. Understandings of gender are linked to understandings of LGBTQ persons, and thus more discussion of gender is likely to serve the causes of both women's rights and LGBTQ rights.

Until United Methodists from around the world can come to better clarity on the diversity of the ways in which they understand the term "marriage," especially in its predominant form of straight marriage, it is likely that they will continue to talk past each other on the topic of gay marriage.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Recommended Reading: Eboo Patel on United Methodists, LGBTQ Exclusion, and Diversity Progressives

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core. He is deeply committed to diversity, especially though not exclusively religious diversity. He is also sympathetic to those from the global South, having been born in India himself. And while he is Muslim and not Methodist, he has close connections to United Methodists. (A college friend of mine, for instance, was for many years both a senior staff member at IFYC and attending a United Methodist church.)

This puts Patel in an interesting position to comment as a sympathetic outsider on the current state of The United Methodist Church, something he did for Inside Higher Ed in a piece called "United Methodists, LGBTQ Exclusion and Diversity Progressives." Patel does a good job of laying out the tensions for those "diversity progressives" who, like him, want to affirm LGBTQ inclusion while also taking seriously the voices of people of color, specifically Africans.

The piece as a whole is worth a read, but the ending is particularly on point and challenging:

"Finally, an interesting intellectual challenge for diversity progressives: explain the reason that the overwhelming number of African and Asian delegates voted against LGBTQ inclusion without resorting to racist and colonialist tropes, by which I mean things like, “They were duped into this by white people” (it denies people agency) or “Just wait fifty years and their views will be inclusive like ours are” (it assumes Western ways are the end of history and the zenith of civilization).

"For that, we diversity progressives might have to actually listen to the perspectives of people with whom we deeply disagree, and even find hurtful."

Monday, March 25, 2019

Recommended reading: United Methodist Women turns 150

This past Saturday was the 150th anniversary of the founding of United Methodist Women. It was founded March 23, 1869 in Boston, MA, as the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

I (David Scott) had the pleasure of being at the 150th anniversary celebration organized by the New England Conference UMW at Boston University. For those who missed out, you can see a live-stream of the event here. You can also see social media messages related to the event by following the #umw150boston hashtag on Twitter and on Facebook.

For more on the anniversary beyond the celebration in Boston, you can visit UMW's 150th anniversary website and follow the hashtag #umw150 on Twitter and on Facebook.

Friday, March 22, 2019

A New Definition of Mission

The following is an excerpt from UM & Global blogmaster David W. Scott's new book, Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God's Good News Through Mission.

My guess is that if you asked the average person in a pew on Sunday morning, they would not have a definition of mission that they could rattle off to you. While some Christians are deeply committed to mission and have thought extensively about it, many Christians have not thought about mission enough to have a pat definition ready-to-hand. But I would further guess that if you pushed that hypothetical average parishioner to come up with a definition of mission, it would be something along the lines of “helping others.”

To say that mission is primarily about helping others indicates that mission involves Christians providing some sort of assistance or something of value to other people, who are in need of that assistance or item of value. Thus, it presumes that we, the Christians in mission, are the “haves,” and others are the “have-nots.” Not all forms of helping, then, are recognized as mission. If we give a homeless person a blanket, that is seen as mission; if a homeless person helps us change a flat tire, that is not usually seen as mission, even if the homeless person does it as an expression of his/her Christian faith. If we share a spiritual insight with someone else, that is mission in the form of evangelism, but if we get a spiritual insight from someone else, that is a “God moment.” If we define mission as helping, it usually involves an unspoken sense of who is doing the helping—us!

Christians also often interpret mission as helping in programmatic ways. If you asked your average worshipper what they meant by “mission is helping others,” they would probably give you examples of programs that their church carries out to help others—a soup kitchen, a toy distribution drive, trips to other countries to paint schools, etc. Perhaps this definition would also include evangelism, in which we help others come to the Christian faith, often by following a particular script or program for presenting the faith.

To say that mission is a program indicates that it is something that happens at specified times and places in an organized fashion. Whether that takes the form of a mission trip, a service project, or a financial transaction, there is an identifiable and planned action or set of actions, often with formal responsibilities, budgets, a sponsoring organization, etc., that can be termed “mission.” Thinking of mission as a program also involves making distinctions between what types of helping count as mission and what do not. If we move furniture because a friend is changing apartments, that is not seen as mission; if we move furniture because our church is holding a rummage sale where the proceeds go to the food pantry, that is seen as mission.

I do not want to suggest that helping or formal programs are necessarily and always bad, but I would like to point out that this understanding of mission is limited and potentially problematic as well. Thinking of mission as helping programs is limited, because it makes us miss the breadth of God’s mission in the world and the full spiritual significance of joining in that mission. Many Christians would say that we should help others because God calls us to love others. That is true: God does call us to love others. Yet to equate helping and love is to dramatically misunderstand love, both God’s and ours. Helping may be part of love, but it cannot be the entirety of love.

An understanding of mission as helping programs, though, is not only limited but actually harmful at times. Such an understanding is especially problematic when we see helping as always flowing from the “haves” (the Christians in our congregation or group) to the “have-nots” (everybody else). As books such as When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert and Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton show, it is quite possible to set out to help others but to actually have the opposite effect, if we do so with improper understandings and attitudes.

Therefore, I would like to offer a definition of mission that goes beyond “helping programs.” Mission can instead be defined as cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news. This is a long definition, so I’ll unpack it by looking at the four main parts of this definition.

First, mission involves good news. In mission, God sends messengers with a message. That message is good news. This is what makes Christian mission distinctively Christian as opposed to other forms of boundary crossing collaboration, such as international nongovernmental work, political diplomacy, transnational business, or global cultural phenomena. Note that it’s not just evangelism that involves good news. All forms of mission should have a component of good news to them. They should be both good and involve something new or not present in that situation before. Thus, good news is not just a narrow formulation of theology but includes the full breadth of God’s good actions in the world.

Second, mission involves relationship. Messengers are most credible when they act and live in ways that are consistent with their message, and it is relationship that best allows others to judge our consistency, authenticity, and, therefore, credibility. Moreover, relationship is a primary form of good news tied to other forms of good news. Mission is less about doing and more about being in relationship with others.

Third, mission involves crossing boundaries. As the biblical discussion of mission above showed, mission involves being sent across human boundaries. Mission involves something more than just relating to those we already know who are like us in almost every way. It involves encountering the Other.

Fourth and finally, mission involves conversations in word and deed. Mission involves cultivating relationships across boundaries not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of understanding the good news. Yet understanding that good news is a mutual process. It involves conversations between all mission partners, and between humans, the Bible, and human contexts. It is a process of mutual learning, not a monologue in which we seek to unload our information on others. While words are a central medium by which we have conversations, actions also have their place in mission as a way of demonstrating our understandings of good news and observing others’ understandings as well.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How Visas Work in 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.

As The United Methodist Church is roiled about possible voting irregularities at General Conference 2019, people are paying more attention to the 31 General Conference delegates who were unable to attend, mostly due to visa issues. This post is an attempt to answer some questions about the visa process and why a General Conference delegate or someone attending another United Methodist meeting might be unable to attend due to visa issues. I have learned a lot about the visa application process recently, as I have been coordinated the "Answering the Call" Methodist mission bicentennial conference, and this guide arises in part from that experience.

What is a visa?
A visa is a temporary permit to enter another country that is required in addition to a valid passport. Many Americans may be unfamiliar with visas, since Americans are not required to have visas to enter many countries where Americans typically go. However, the United States government does require visas for people from many countries to come to the US. Canada is the only country whose citizens can enter the US visa free, though citizens of some, mostly European countries, can get a visa waiver. Citizens of all African countries must have a visa to enter the US, even for short periods.

How does someone get a visa?
To obtain a visa, travelers must apply to the US Consular Office in their country. The must pay a fee, fill out an application (usually online), provide documentation, and attend a visa interview. The individual must take the steps of the process themself; others cannot apply for a visa on one's behalf.

But can't the UMC help General Conference delegates get visas?
The UMC does provide visa assistance. GCFA has a very diligent, talented, and well-informed staff person who provides visa assistance. She provides supporting documentation for visa applications, creates a tutorial to help walk applicants through the steps they must follow, and answers questions applicants may have about the process. Nonetheless, the applicant is ultimately responsible for applying for the visa themself.

What challenges might prevent a delegate from successfully applying for a visa?
One possibility is that an applicant may just not complete the steps for the application because of misunderstanding or because they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities. GC delegates are usually leaders in their annual conferences with many demands placed on them. Moreover, even delaying application due to other duties can mean that delegates may run out of time to successfully apply. They may also have difficulty paying the application fee, which can be a couple hundred dollars, quite a lot for someone from a country with a weak economy. Delegates may also have difficulty completing online applications due to poor internet connection. Or they may have difficulty making it to a consular office for the in-person interview, especially if they are located at some distance from the office and roads are bad or non-existent and flights infrequent.

How does the US Consular Office decide to issue someone a visa?
The US Consular Office considers several factors in their decision that address three basic questions: Will the applicant be able to cover the costs of their travel, or are they likely to become a burden on US support systems? Does the applicant pose a threat to the US? Is the applicant likely to return home after their visit, or are they a risk to overstay their visa? (Despite the rhetoric about border migration, people who have overstayed their visas are actually a larger source of undocumented immigration to the US.)

On the first point, invitations to United Methodist meetings in the US typically indicate that the UMC will be covering the costs of applicant's travel and stay in the US; thus, applicants should not pose a risk of needing support. The other two questions can be more challenging. If applicants come from areas where conflict is prevalent, they may be seen as posing a threat to the US.

But the biggest challenge for applicants is convincing consular offices that they will return home after the event they will be attending. To do so, they must demonstrate significant ties through family, employment, etc. to their home countries. This is especially difficult for young adults, who are regarded as a higher risk of overstaying their visa.

What else might lead to someone being denied a visa?
Applying for a visa is a complicated process. If an applicant has accidentally made a mistake on their application, either in the category of visa for which they applied or in recording some element of their personal information, they may be denied for that reason.

What happens if someone is denied a visa? Do they have other options?
If an applicant is denied on their initial application, they may appeal and re-apply. However, they must pay the application fee again, and the appeal process takes additional time. If the appeal process takes too long, a delegate may run out of time to successfully apply.

If central conferences know that some of their delegates may be denied visas, why not just send more reserve delegates?
The biggest reason here is cost. General Conference pays for the expenses of regular delegates, but not reserve delegates. The cost of a reserve delegate to attend General Conference from a central conference could be thousands of dollars once flights, hotel, and food are taken into consideration. That can represent a significant expense for individuals from or annual conferences in countries with weak economies. Furthermore, it may be even harder for reserve delegates to obtain visas, since they do not have the guarantee of the UMC that their expenses while in the US will be covered.

This all sounds complicated.
It is. It's also an instance in which the inequalities between the US and the rest of the world affect the church, even independently from any inequalities within the church. The UMC does not control the US visa process. But that process reinforces the power differentials that already exist between people from the United States and those from other countries.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Recommended Reading: WCC Ecological Justice Roadmap for Churches

The World Council of Churches has released a "Roadmap for Congregations, Communities and Churches for an Economy of Life and Ecological Justice," a short, practical guide of steps that churches can take to practice ecological justice in their economic habits. Tragically, its main author, Rev. Norman Tendis, was killed in the recent plane crash in Ethiopia, making its release poignant.

One significant point raised at the "Creation and the City of God" theological consultation hosted by Global Ministries recently was that there is a need for more resources for congregations, conferences, and other United Methodist entities as they seek to make decisions about property in ways that take into consideration the impact on our environment and the inclusion of all people. This WCC resources is therefore a welcome arrival.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The UMC in Denmark considers "a better way forward"

Ole Birch, a pastor in the Denmark Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has suggested that body appoint a commission to recommend "a better way forward" for the UMC in Denmark. While Birch's suggestion is just that - a suggestion - it reveals the range of options that may be under consideration in Denmark following the adoption of the Traditional Plan by the special General Conference 2019. A translation by David Scott of an interview with Birch by the official website of the UMC in Denmark is below.

Proposal for a Better Way Forward (Forslag om en bedre vej fremad)
After the conclusion of the extraordinary General Conference last week, Ole Birch, pastor of the Jerusalem Church, posted a proposal to Facebook that he will present to the Methodist Church's National Meeting [Annual Conference]. Ole Birch calls the proposal "A better way forward," and it is about establishing a commission that will have the task to prepare a report for the 2021 annual conference on a future for the United Methodist Church in Denmark where gays and lesbians enjoy the same opportunities to have their relationships blessed and to serve in the church as all others.

You can read the proposal here. [Link in Danish.]

Proposals are made to the National Meeting and are handled by the delegates that the local congregations elect to represent them. has asked Ole Birch to explain the background for his proposal:

Ole Birch writes:

I have sent a proposal to the [United] Methodist Church in Denmark's annual conference about a commission for a better way forward. Moderator Anne Thompson has asked if I would shortly explain my thoughts in this regard, and I will do that gladly.

Like many others, I have experienced repeated disappointments that our more conservative brothers and sisters are not willing to allow room for different theologies on the question of human sexuality. I had dared to hope a little bit that our bishops initiative and support for the One Church Plan at the now concluded General Conference could have helped us into a new situation. As all who followed along saw, it went very differently. It is difficult to see how it would possibly go differently in the foreseeable future. It is my experience that many Danish Methodists experience discouragement and a feeling of powerlessness over this.

I make my proposal on two grounds. First, to point out that we are not powerless. We can, with God's help, take the situation into our own hands and form our future as we think it should be shaped. We must not give in to discouragement, which is a great temptation in this situation. Discouragement will lead us to give up and take us away from our fellowship in the church. I cannot think of any that feel discouraged, namely not the LGBTQ people that have held fast to their church, which has condemned and discriminated against them, but I will say that there is hope for a better way forward, if we stay together to form the way.

Second, I think we need to investigate what possibilities we have to come to a situation where we do not condemn and do not discriminate. Many have asked if one or another solution could not work? The commission I suggest should investigate to answer this question. Can we work together with European Methodists on a new church? Can we find ecumenical partners in Denmark to be church together with? Can we be autonomous? Can we ever leave the United Methodist Church? Can we become an affiliate church to the United Methodist Church, and thereby open more freedom? There are many such questions, but we lack answers. It is my hope that the commission can help us to find a better way forward.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Convening "Creation and the City of God"

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 last two days, Global Ministries hosted “Creation and the City of God,” a theological consultation that considered how the built environment can exemplify the flourishing of God’s creation through the ways in which development integrates with and enhances the places where it exists, ensures physical, economic and emotional safety for people in the community, and contributes to the sustainability of all of creation.

The consultation brought together a unique mix of scholars, pastors, agency executives, financial decision-makers, and creation care advocates from across The United Methodist Church and beyond. Five panels fostered interactions among those gathered around the topics of the theological significance of the built environment, how the built environment can promote inclusion and belonging, how we respond to vulnerability and living in liminal spaces, stewardship of finances and property, and creation care witness and advocacy.

I had the good fortune, along with Rev. Jenny Phillips and Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, to be one of the people convening this event. Thus, I know as well as any why Global Ministries hosted this event. I share here a version of my remarks from Monday morning to the participants on that question.

In my role as Director of Mission Theology at Global Ministries, I see one of my main jobs as fostering conversations. In fact, I’ve argued that mission is conversation – conversation in the context of relationships across boundaries about God’s good news. That focus on conversation is spelled out in the purpose of this blog (“Dedicated to fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church”), and it’s present in much of the rest of the work I do as well.

Thus, when Rev. Malcolm Frazier, at the time the United States Regional Office Representative for Global Ministries, approached me and my colleague Jerome Sahabandhu about the possibility of convening a theological consultation for mission partners from around the US, I was intrigued.

When Jerome and I agreed to take Malcolm’s idea and run with it, we had to decide: On what area of missional work should we focus? What topic would be significant enough to warrant our time and attention, while not duplicating existing resources and conversations?

On the question of significance, it was clear to me that creation care is one of the most pressing political, social, cultural, and religious issues of our time. Recent scientific findings released in the past six months have only heightened that sense.

I have been deeply encouraged to see missiologists paying increasing attention to creation care as an area of mission work over the last decade or so. For instance, it is included as one of the Five Marks of Mission, J. Andrew Kirk lists it as one of four main areas of mission work in his seminal book What Is Mission?, and recent ecumenical documents on mission such as Together Towards Life have emphasized the importance of creation care as a realm of mission work.

Yet while there has been important work done in the area of creation care within The United Methodist Church by the bishops and by our sister agencies such as UMW and Church and Society, and by some of Global Ministries’ own global missionaries, it seemed like there was room to do more. Indeed, until we see dramatic changes in the ways our economy and society are structured for the sake of reducing our impact on the created world, I don’t think any amount of effort related to or attention on this issue can really be too much or unnecessarily duplicative.

At the same time, Global Ministries was deepening its creation care efforts, including naming the creation care dimension to long-standing work. In addition to a growing attention to creation care, Global Ministries has a large and diverse network and a reputation as a trusted partner to many in the denomination. Therefore, we thought that Global Ministries had the possibility of bringing together people around this issue in a way that had not been done before by including a wider array of partners in the conversation.

Thus, Jerome and I agreed to focus on creation care. Yet, although creation care is something I care very deeply about as an individual and think is quite important as a missiologist, it is not my area of primary academic expertise. Fortunately, it was at just this time that Global Ministries hired Rev. Jenny Phillips as our first-ever Creation Care Program Manager. Jenny brought a wealth of experience, knowledge, and networks that have really made this event possible.

Together, Jenny, Jerome, and I identified urban areas and the built environment as an aspect of creation care that would benefit from more attention from the church. Moreover, we felt there was often a disconnect between conversations among those involved in creation care, those involved in property stewardship, and those involved in efforts to increase inclusion. Therefore, it seemed a good topic around which to build this consultation. Jenny was much influenced here by the work of Barbara Rossing, one of our panelists this morning, on ecology and eschatology. Hence, we arrived at the theme of “Creation and the City of God.” The rest of the program flowed from there as we asked questions about what the City of God would look like, for people and the rest of God’s creation.

I expect some interesting insights to come from these two days of conversation, especially around this focus on urban and built environments. But beyond these specific insights, I pray that this event serves to encourage further conversations, conversations in which we all have a role to play, about our relationship as humans with the rest of God’s creation and our responsibility to discern together God’s good news, not just for humanity, but for all that God has made.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Recommended Reading: German United Methodists Strive to Preserve Unity, Say No to Traditional Plan

The United Methodist Church in Germany has released a "Message from the Executive Committee to the congregations of the United Methodist Church in Germany." (Linked text is in English.) In the message, the Executive Committee states that while they are not of one mind about homosexuality, they will not abide by the provisions of the Traditional Plan. They indicate that they do not anticipate their differences of opinion to disappear anytime soon, but nonetheless they want to remain in unity, and they see the Traditional Plan as threatening that unity. The message also announces a series of roundtable discussions and promised that the 2020 Germany Central Conference will adopt "trendsetting resolutions."

A translation of the accompanying article by UM & Global's David W. Scott is below.

The Struggle for a Way to Preserve Unity (Das Ringen um einen Weg zur Bewahrung der Einheit)
By Klaus Ulrich Ruof

As a reaction to the passage of the "Traditional Plan," the Executive Committee ("Kirchenvorstand") of the United Methodist Church in Germany (EmK - Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche) responded with a message on the unity of the EmK/UMC in Germany.

The Executive Committee ("Kirchenvorstand") of the United Methodist Church (UMC / "EmK- Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche") in Germany had its regular spring session on Friday and Saturday (8 and 9 March) of last week. Almost the whole meeting, which met in the Hessian city of Fulda, was occupied with the decision of the recently-concluded general conference in St. Louis. The Executive Committee addresses the EmK congregations in Germany with a message to preserve unity and at the same time lay out the way to do so.

Consternation and concern for the unity of the EmK
"There is hardly a region of the United Methodist world where fragmentation, fractures, and deep chasms did not arise after the decision of the General Conference," Harald Rückert, the bishop responsible for Germany, opened the meeting of the Church Council by saying. These are the first impacts of the decision of the General Conference, which adopted the so-called "Traditional Plan," which reinforced the previous provisions of the church rules on homosexuality. In addition, the resolution calls for the consistent application of all relevant regulations and intensifies them through control and punishment. Deeply concerned, the members of the board of directors heard Rückert's information from numerous episcopal colleagues from northern, central and southern Europe, the USA, Africa and the Philippines. Deep consternation and great concern for the unity of the UMC is heard from all regions. With quotes from letters to the bishop, the members of the Executive Committee for the EmK in Germany also received insight into the turmoil and emotional dismay that the decision triggered in people with very different attitudes in congregations of the EmK in Germany.

"Not acceptable"
The Executive Committee had to deal with the decision of General Conference, because the framework of the decision expressly required a statement from all Annual Conferences of the UMC worldwide. With two essential statements, the Executive Committee addressed its advice to the people in the German EmK congregations. On the one hand, the message of the Executive Committee states: "Independent of the contents of our commitments, we are unanimously of the opinion, that these provisions of the Traditional Plan are not acceptable." That is why the United Methodist Church in Germany is not going down "the adopted way of thought control and intensified punishments." The members of the Executive Committee emphasized that "democratically-made decisions" must be respected. However, the wide-reaching consequences of the decision in this case make the adoption and implementation of the decision in United Methodist bodies in Germany impossible.

A united way "that demands much from all of us"
The second main statement of the message of the Executive Committee is an invitation to all groups of the EmK in Germany, to take part in a way to preserve unity. On this way, the church can only remain together if it succeeds in "liv[ing] in proximity and acknowledgement even without agreeing on important questions. We therefore want to be a church where people with homosexual sensibilities can be ordained and blessed in a marriage ceremony, and also where traditionally minded people can uphold their ideas and lifestyles. The “Kirchenvorstand” has reached agreement on this objective." This path will be pursued in the awareness "that the endeavour to uphold community will make great demands of us all in future too," if people of different convictions are to find security and a home in the church. The plea was made "to stay in our church and join us in our search for this way."

The Executive Council decided, for the search for a way to preserve unity, to form "roundtables," to which "people  from  different  groups  and  directions  in  our  church  will  be  invited." These will begin their work before the middle of May. Bishop Rückert will call and spiritually lead a group that will initiate the process for roundtables. In November 2020, the Central Conference will adopt "trendsetting resolutions," because only there can decisions affecting church rules for all three German Annual Conference be adopted.

Sign in an increasingly torn and divided society
The members of the Executive Committee expressly point out that the decision came about after intensive deliberations. The superintendents of the nine districts of the EmK in Germany (one woman and eight men) as well as the further 21 voting and advisory members of the Executive Committee "have  spent  several  days  struggling  intensively,  emotionally and honestly with this resolution and all its consequences." Despite widely diverging opinions, they came to this unanimous decision. If this way succeeds, as it says at the conclusion of the letter, it could be "an  important  sign  in  an  increasingly  torn  and  divided  society."

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Nancy Ammerman: How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s

Today's post is by Dr. Nancy Ammerman. Dr. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Boston University School of Theology. This piece originally appeared on Religion News Service and is republished here with the permission of the author.

Talk of schism in the United Methodist Church has prompted me to revisit the research I did in the 1980s as the Southern Baptist Convention was being transformed into the monolithically conservative body it is today. I wanted to know: How does a denomination arrive at and move through a split?

What I wrote about in my 1990 book, Baptist Battles, may just have some enduring lessons for what we are seeing now.

Nearly a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote “The Social Sources of Denominationalism,” and my research confirmed his contention that differences over theology or practice are rarely enough to split a denomination. The argument has to tap deeper social divisions.

It’s not that theology doesn’t matter. The Southern Baptist argument was begun by conservatives who claimed an inerrantist view of the Bible. They also definitely disapproved of the growing number of ordained women in progressive SBC churches. These were real theological differences between the parties, just as there are today between the traditional and progressive Methodists.

Those groups’ differences were also social and political, however. Southern Baptist progressives — they called themselves moderates — were more likely to come from cities, to value seminary-educated clergy and to favor women’s and minority rights. Conservatives opposed abortion and welfare and were strongly anti-communist (remember, this was the ’80s). They were more likely to have moved from rural to urban areas and to be somewhat less well-off.

In a very large denomination, spread out across the country, even such socially different groups can coexist for a long time without a split. A split also requires an organized movement to “call the question.” That’s what happened to Baptists in the 1980s, and that is what has happened to Methodists over the last decade.

Now that the Methodists have reached the precipice, the very complicated organizational work of division has to get underway, and one thing is sure: Nothing will happen quickly. Whatever division happens will unfold at multiple levels over at least a decade. Denominations aren’t just individuals who share (or formerly share) a theology. They are complex organizations with national bureaucracies, regional branch offices, local congregations and individual members. Each of those parts of the whole will come apart in different ways.

How that happens is determined by the denomination’s “polity,” that is, the way it governs itself. Baptists don’t have bishops, but Methodists do. That means that it is harder for Methodist congregations or clergy members simply to do what they individually think is right. Most critically, Methodist connectional polity means that the congregation doesn’t own its property — although this recent conference seems to have opened the way for churches to leave without giving up their buildings.

Even denominations without bishops, however, have extensive national organizations with lots of influence over what happens in local churches. They develop programs, publish literature, organize mission efforts and educate clergy.

The conservatives who took over the SBC knew that this connective tissue was their real target. They replaced members of the governing boards, then replaced the staff and eventually transformed all the national institutions into supporters of conservative theological (and political) causes. If traditionalist Methodists prevail and progressive ones leave, we can expect to see just such a slow but inevitable transformation of their national bodies.

We may also expect to see a few Methodist organizations declare independence. Among Baptists, Baylor University’s cutting of its official Baptist ties was the most noted such move. For Methodists, some of the theological schools – especially those lodged in universities – may follow that path. It means developing new funding streams, of course, but it also means “rebranding” so as to keep a claim on one’s historic identity even as the organizational link is severed.

The most visible splitting among Methodists is likely to happen at the local church level. Individual congregations will have to decide whether to stay, and if not, where to go. In some cases, that decision may divide the congregation itself, with one faction leaving to start something new. Jimmy Carter’s Maranatha Baptist is one of the more visible Baptist examples.

Some progressive congregations will choose to stay and force the fight. My old church, Oakhurst Baptist, in Atlanta, stayed, forcing each of its Baptist associations to officially vote it out (which they eventually did). Other congregations may simply exit quietly. There are about 800 United Methodist churches that have identified with the movement to accept LGBTQ members and clergy. They are the ones to watch, but others may join them.

When a church leaves, it can either join with others to form something new or join up with an existing denomination. Departing Southern Baptists formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, which are still going strong, but a few churches also aligned themselves with the American Baptist Churches, effectively mending the North-South rift that was created in the 1840s by slavery. The Reconciling Ministries Network may be the nucleus of a progressive Methodist alternative, but there are also overtures emerging from Episcopal and other denominations.

But what about individual Methodists? If they are like the Baptists in the 1980s, most haven’t been paying much attention to all the sound and fury. It is likely that they already attend a church that mostly matches their theological and political views, so most won’t notice much change, at least initially.

But there are sometimes crises that change that. When the issue of accepting LGBTQ persons becomes personal — a son or daughter, perhaps — individual Methodists may seek a new place to worship, and it may or may not be Methodist.

Perhaps more critically, young adults brought up Methodist are overwhelmingly on the progressive side of this issue. Their failure to pursue a clergy career — or even to stay in the church — is likely to further solidify a traditionalist future for the UMC.

The answer to how you split a denomination, then, is slowly, in hundreds of painful decisions. These will almost certainly result in multiple new, more polarized religious bodies with less diverse middle ground.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Recommended Reading: Inter-Ethnic Strategy & Development Group Statement at Special Called General Conference 2019

Last week, Dana Robert raised the issue of women leaders as "collateral damage" in the current fights over LGBTQ ministry and marriage in The United Methodist Church. Yet women leaders are not the only potential collateral damage in this fight.

The Inter-Ethnic Strategy & Development Group, which represents the five racial ethnic caucuses in the United States, including over twenty distinct racial ethnic groups, issued a statement on the last day of General Conference. While the statement is worth reading in its entirety, one of the last points speaks directly to the issue of collateral damage in this fight:

"We celebrate a narrative of church growth within The UMC in the United States. As you deliberate, please remember that your decisions will have lasting fiscal ramifications for racial ethnic ministries, where membership is growing. Despite our struggle to overcome racism, nationalism, and effects of unjust systems such as immigration, poverty, and other social issue, racial ethnic membership has grown during the decades from 1996 to 2016." The statement then cites statistics first published on this blog.

The statement is clear: racial ethnic congregations in the US are growing, but church-dividing debates that drain necessary support money away from new ministries will hurt that growth. Many of the racial ethnic groups did not take positions on the plans before General Conference because of the diversity of opinion among their membership and because they recognized that unity was important for fashioning their shared future. While it should not detract from the primary damage done to LGBTQ+ people, people of color also stand to lose in this coming Methodist civil war.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Dana L. Robert: The “Other” Issue of Gender: What Happens to United Methodist Women Leaders?

Today's blog post is written by Dr. Dana L. Robert. Dr. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Missions and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.

The recent General Conference was a very public fight over the identity and direction of the United Methodist Church, with regard to LGBTQ issues of ordination and marriage.  Without minimizing the pain of LGBTQ sisters and brothers, as a women’s historian, I need to raise the issue of collateral damage—that of the ministry and leadership of women. As a spirit-filled Wesleyan “centrist” who is more interested in mission than dogma, I offer these observations in dismay and sorrow.

Anyone who watched the live streaming of the conference saw women bishops in the chair, and a disproportionately large number of women supporting flexibility and inclusion. This combination was no coincidence. The United Methodist Church has more women bishops, more ordained women, more women seminary professors, more deaconesses, and more women in charge of church agencies than any other church in the world. When I travel in southern Africa, I often meet women who tell me that their education and empowerment have come directly through the mission of the United Methodist Church. To dismantle it--as was so casually discussed--is a body blow against women’s leadership in the church.

Every women’s historian knows that fights over restructuring undercut the ministry of women. Progress in gender relations is never certain. Women keep fighting to minister, to teach theology, and to serve a God who has called diverse people into ministry. In 1880, northern Methodist women lost their licenses to preach. In 1884, Methodist and Presbyterian officials attacked their women’s missionary societies, and four years later women delegates were denied seats at the Methodist General Conference. In 1910, men in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, forcibly merged women’s organizations. Lacking voice and vote, southern Methodist women began fighting for laity rights. In 1923, during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, the Presbyterian women lost their national agency overnight. It was not until 1956 that Presbyterian and Methodist women got full ordination rights.

Back in the late 1970s, when I was in graduate school, I knew women whose male classmates walked out of the classroom when they gave presentations because they did not think women should teach theology. Women in the graduate religion program just a few years ahead of me talked about how they had to serve refreshments to their fellow male students at departmental get-togethers. As a young southern woman on her first day of graduate school, an older male student—upon learning I had attended Louisiana State University rather than an elite private school—asked me, “How did you get in here? Did you know somebody?” As the first tenured woman in the venerable Boston University School of Theology, I carry memories of struggles that today’s seminarians think happened only in the 19th century. Only one generation ago, Southern Baptist women were ejected from seminaries and lost their right to preach. Even the memory of Lottie Moon was hijacked by fundamentalists, who crushed women’s ministries while they told women to “graciously submit” to their husbands.

In the past few years, freestanding mainline seminaries like Bangor, Episcopal Divinity School, Andover-Newton, San Francisco, Pacific School of Religion, St. Paul’s, and Claremont have collapsed or been forced to merge with other institutions. Today there are fewer seminaries in which women can teach theological disciplines than forty years ago. Emory, Duke, Boston University. . . what happens when these United Methodist university-based seminaries lose the support of a fractured church? The universities that host them will not look kindly on being yoked to fundamentalist-type readings of scripture that prop up exclusion. The fight to the death over LGBTQ rights will continue to shrink spaces in which women can teach theology. And where women cannot teach, LGBTQ students will not be welcome either.

Women’s high visibility at the recent General Conference demonstrated that the tradition of John Wesley has been the most welcoming to women’s leadership in the history of Protestantism.  In global perspective, fundamentalist biblical interpretation yoked with punitive sanctions against LGBTQ persons undercuts that tradition. In effect, the recent General Conference was a stealth attack against women in ministry. The agony of the excluded LGBTQ youth was the agony of the women who have mentored them, and who experience the pain of their own struggles all over again.