Monday, November 4, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 2: Recognizing the Crisis

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.

Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the first category:

Denominational Factors Related to Recognizing and Responding to the Crisis
First are a set of factors that relate to recognizing and responding to the crisis, answering the following questions: Is there a crisis? Why? Should the church respond? How extensive should that response be? Unless a denomination agrees that there is a crisis and that it should respond in some way, a crisis cannot be resolved. The identified reason and extent of a crisis are also key in shaping the resolution.

1. Denominational consensus that one’s denomination is in crisis
It might seem that the UMC does indeed have a consensus that the denomination is in crisis. Traditionalists, centrists, progressives, and liberationists in the United States all agree that there is a crisis and that the current state of the church cannot continue. Something must give.

Most Europeans, I think, would also agree that questions about the status of LGBTQ persons in the church and related questions about international polity and financing must be addressed, though perhaps with less of a sense that the future of the denomination depends upon this issue.

Yet it is not clear to me that United Methodists in the Philippines or especially Africa have the same sense of crisis in the UMC as United Methodists in the US and Europe do. Most African United Methodists have limited information about the UMC in the US and only experience debates about sexuality at the occasional general church meetings they may attend. Moreover, in many places in Africa, the church is growing rather than declining.

Thus, while top-level African leaders certainly are aware of the scope and magnitude of the crisis in the UMC, I do not think that sense of crisis goes much beyond the top level. For most African United Methodists, the crisis the UMC faces is actually about local political and economic conditions or competition with pentecostals.

Since Africans represent 30% of the votes at General Conference, this difference between Africans on the one hand and US Americans on the other over the extent and nature of a crisis in the UMC may significantly hinder the denomination’s ability to resolve the UMC’s crisis as I (as a US American) have defined it.

7. Honest denominational self-appraisal
Understandings of some aspects of the current crisis of the UMC are widely shared – there is little debate over the specifics of demographic trends in the US, financial trends globally, or specifics of what church polity says and how it is practiced (which are not the same). Most of this understanding is at the level of facts.

On a deeper level, there is little agreement amongst various factions within the United Methodist church about the underlying explanations for those facts, limiting the extent of honest denominational self-appraisal.

In particular, most of the narratives that the various parties (US traditionalists, US progressives, US centrists, Africans, etc.) attribute the crisis to the actions of other parties and downplay the actions of that group. Each group blames the other(s) for the crisis and is unwilling to honestly admit the role that they have had in creating or sustaining the crisis.

Furthermore, it seems to me that partisans on both sides of the US ideological spectrum tend to scapegoat the debate over LGBTQ persons in the church, making a successful solution to this conflict the key to addressing all other issues related to US membership and financial decline and to international decision making. This assumption seems unrealistic to me.

It also seems to me that some US United Methodists make unrealistic assumptions about their ability to continue to determine the terms of discussion in the UMC long-term, whereas some African United Methodists make unrealistic assumptions about the US ability to continue to subsidize ministry elsewhere long-term.

Thus, in some important ways, United Methodists are not honest with themselves about the reasons for their current crisis.

2. Acceptance of denominational responsibility to do something
Among those United Methodists who agree that the denomination is in crisis, it seems that all of them have accepted responsibility to resolve that crisis in some way, even if they are unwilling to accept responsibility for having caused it. American caucus groups such as Good News, UMC Next, the WCA, and UMForward; European annual and central conferences; and African and Filipino bishops have all made statements, put forth plans, or initiated processes to respond to the crisis of the church.

Yet to assume responsibility to do something without accepting responsibility for having had a role in causing the crisis is to set up one’s own group as the savior and all others, therefore, as the ones in need of saving. This undercuts the possibility of cooperation with others.

If anything is missing in terms of denominational responsibility to do something, it is a sense that for the denomination to do something, various groups must work together rather than independently. Much of the action that has happened to address the UMC’s crisis is action taken by specific groups by themselves and not in concert with others.

3. Building a fence, to delineate the denominational problems needing to be solved
At times, at least for US American United Methodists, the debate over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church can feel all-consuming. This debate, while primarily focused on the two questions of gay ordination and gay weddings, can seem to impact almost all other areas of the church. Indeed, if the church splits, most other areas of polity may be impacted.

Moreover, to the extent that US membership and financial decline impact all United Methodist institutions beyond the local church level, and many local churches themselves, it can also feel like there are no fences around this aspect of the crisis.

To the extent that these perceptions are true, this represents a failure to build a fence around the issues needing to be addressed.

Yet, it should be remembered that this sense of the all-pervasiveness of the crisis is primarily a US sense. United Methodists elsewhere have less of a sense that this crisis is all-consuming, requiring changes in all aspects of what it means to be a United Methodist. This is true even when they acknowledge that the crisis exists.

Moreover, looked at another way, there are key United Methodist practices and characteristics that are not impacted by our current crisis of the sexuality debate, global decision-making, and US membership and financial decline, even in the United States. While the long-term fate of some of these facets depends on what shape possible new denominations might take, things like a belief in connectionalism, an emphasis on free will and personal responsibility, and the practice of itineration are core features of United Methodism that are by and large not presently affected by the crisis.

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