Monday, October 21, 2019

The Filipino UMC Link Between Revival, Unity, and 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.

In a previous post, I recounted the story of the Lito Tangonan-led split in the Philippines UMC in the early 2010s. I argued that politically this split has made those in the UMC more committed to the global church and more averse to the possibility of further splits in the UMC in the Philippines.

Yet there has also been a significant theological development that has come out of the aftermath of the Tangonan split. For the Philippines UMC, revival, unity, and mission go together. One can best see the connection between these three theological concepts in the Revive events held in the Philippines.

The first Revive event was held in November 2012. It was a revival gathering of 8,000 United Methodists from across the Philippines. It was organized by lay Methodists, especially retired Philippines Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

The event was intended as a direct response to the Tangonan split. Puno referred to the event as an attempt to heal “our wounded church,” a reference to wounds incurred during the split.

The event also came just two weeks before the Philippines Central Conference met to elect bishops. 16 out of the 26 candidates for episcopal election spoke at the event. I am sure that part of the reason for holding a revival and prayer meeting at which the episcopal candidates spoke was to ensure that the Spirit would guide delegates two weeks later in making good choices of episcopal leaders, thereby avoiding another harmful saga like that set off by Tangonan’s election four years earlier.

The event drew on and sought to reignite Filipino Methodist holiness piety, which have its roots in a holiness theology shared among the Philippines and the US in the early 20th century, one that has proven to be more enduring in the Philippines than in the US. Yet in addition to the focus on holiness, there was also a focus on unity, an important theme for an event organized to respond to the Tangonan split. American speaker Scott Kelso, one of the main presenters, spoke about “praying for healing and unity.”

Unity continued to be a main focus for Revive 2, held in November 2016, just before the next meeting of the Philippines Central Conference. That event was even more popular than the first, drawing 10,000 Filipino United Methodists, including participants from across the Filipino theological spectrum. The theme for Revive 2 was “Go in Faith, Go in Power, Go in Unity,” making even clearer the connection for Filipino United Methodists between revival, unity, and mission.

Reynato Puno was again a major organizer of the event, and he again connected it to unity in the wake of the Tangonan split. In a UMNS interview for the 2016 event, he explained the origins of the event in 2012 by saying, “Some of the churches were breaking away because of some issues not being reasonably resolved. As laymen, we thought that the proper response to the crisis was to have a revival.”

And although the church was past the worst of the split in 2016, the issue had by no means faded from memory. In testimonies by current bishops shown at the revival, Bishop Rudy Juan, then bishop of the Manila Episcopal Area, mentions the AIMP split in his description of the challenges and goals in the work of his episcopal area (see minute 13).

Nor was Puno the only one to make the connection between revival and unity. Several videos were produced for the event, including interviews with retired Filipino bishops. The opening video for the event includes several retired bishops speaking of the connection between revival, unity, mission, and evangelism.

A history of the UMC in the Philippines produced for the event (worth a watch in its own right) concludes with remarks by retired Bishop Soriano linking unity, revival, and mission. In those remarks, he specifically mentions the debate over sexuality as an issue of disagreement, but one that need not preclude unity for the sake of mission.

Moreover, there is evidence that this theological linking of revival, mission, and unity has continued to have currency among Filipino (and Filipino-American) United Methodists since the Revive events. In announcing the formation of the Global Filipino United Methodists Movement earlier this year, Rev. Edgar De Jesus again made the connection between revival, unity, and mission, saying “This [mission] movement is a wakeup call to the people called Methodists to keep the main thing the main thing — the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ, the humble servant and the risen one, who draws us into profound community with one another in love and unity.”

To grasp the significance for the UMC connection as a whole of this linking of revival, unity, and mission by Filipinos, consider some of the American alternatives.

For American centrists, there is a strong link between unity and mission, but that linkage typically lacks the inclusion of revival. Thus, unity is primarily understood in structural terms – we as United Methodists are united because we are part of one organization. For Filipinos, however, unity has less of structural connotation and more of a spiritual one – we are united because of our connection in Christ and our love for one another. That spiritual dimension to unity is evident in de Jesus’ quote above.

For American traditionalists, there is a strong link between revival and mission, but instead of these two being linked to unity, they are linked to purity. American traditionalists believe that revival will lead to mission, especially in the form of evangelism. But American traditionalists believe that for such revival to occur, the church must be pure, especially pure in its teachings around sexuality, which is to say, of one mind about those teachings. For American traditionalists, purity leads to spiritual power, whereas for Filipinos, unity with one another leads to spiritual power.

American progressives are less likely to use language of revival and mission, though they do have a vision of a future church where cherished spiritual values are in greater abundance (revival) and in which the church has an impact on social issues in the world around it (mission). They are, however, often antagonistic to language of unity, seeing it as a term used to justify continued oppression. It is clear that for progressives, as for traditionalists, purity is the theological virtue that will lead to the church they want, not unity. For progressives, this purity means a church that is pure from anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

There are also different understandings of mission among American centrists, American traditionalists, American progressives, and Filipinos. Centrists are most likely to think in terms of charity, traditionalists in terms of evangelism, and progressives in terms of social justice. Filipinos are more likely to have a wholistic view of mission which encompasses all three, since all three have been important to the UMC in the Philippines, not just through separate constituencies, but through overlapping concern.

Thus, the Philippines again represents a different starting point from which to think about the nature of the global church, one that could potentially lead to different conclusions about the future of that global church, were others willing to listen to Filipino theology and history and see where thinking alongside them might lead.

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