Today's post is by Dr. Meeli Tankler. Dr. Tankler is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary and a member of the Nordic and Baltic Central Conference Council. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption.
In such a time as this when the church is debating structural, financial and administrative issues in the anticipation of a possible division, it is refreshing to be offered a different viewpoint and to be invited to reflect about the real essence of the church as „a redeemed and redeeming fellowship“.
However, my guess is that it’s not the best moment to present such a document for general discussion in hope to renew our ecclesial vision. The atmosphere seems to be too loaded with suspicion about possible subtext that almost every statement in this document could become interpreted as a support to one or another “camp”. My fear is that the text would not always be read with a sincere theological mindset and be approached with a sincere wish to define our denomination’s basic values and identity in this situation where diverse interpretations of Christian core values are painfully clicking with each other.
Having said all that, I still believe that the text as it stands carries in itself hope for healing. It covers a wide variety of important aspects about being church here and today, guides our thoughts toward a search for core values, and offers rich substance for further thinking and discussion in our diverse contexts worldwide.
I’m stepping into this discussion as a former theological seminary president in a small country, Estonia, where possibilities to get theological education became available only about 25 years ago, and Christian churches including the UMC are still in the process of finding their place and voice in the society that has been saturated with aggressive atheism for decades. In conversations with our students who have experienced their call to ministry, we have felt an urgent need to understand and define the very essence of church as a messenger of God’s grace in our particular time and context.
I’m also stepping into this discussion from the wider European perspective where secularism is growing fast, church membership is diminishing in most denominations, and at the same time people seem to be more and more interested in various spiritual practices that would promise them some “peace of mind.” In this context, it is utterly important to ponder seriously how to define and represent the church in a way that would also address un-churched people in their sincere search for spiritual values.
These are the main reasons why I first of all greatly appreciate the strong emphasis on outreach and mission throughout the whole document, and not exclusively in the part “Called to be Apostolic – The Saving Love of God Empowers the Missional Community.”
I myself am coming from a church that was forced to be almost invisible under the communist regime for decades (without any legal opportunity to reach outside the church walls) in order to merely survive. Functioning in this very restricted context has led to a serious struggle while trying to define ourselves anew as a church in the open democratic society with greater religious freedom than ever. Opening up to the local community, partnering freely with other charity organizations as well as local government, and proclaiming openly the Christian message in a meaningful way for believers as well as unchurched people continues to be a challenge. The temptation is still there to define the church as „a congregation of faithful“ people (43) but in a very narrow view which would focus the ministry to insiders only.
In contrast to this narrow perspective, the proposed document states that the “conviction that the work of God’s grace extends beyond the walls of the visible church has important implications for how the church understands itself in the relation to its non-Christian neighbors” (45). The document also provides numerous reminders about the importance of opening up and becoming a church that is “outward facing” (24), in the sense that it has “a sent character that should guard against an inward-looking and self-protective stance” (56). I do believe that these reminders urge and help churches like ours to re-think and re-define their identity.
Another helpful and encouraging emphasis throughout the whole document is its strong focus on contextualization. The appreciation and affirmation of regional diversity as a normality for a worldwide church is repeatedly expressed. The declaration that “we are brought together in the first instance by grace, not because we share the same views, customs, cultural practices, or even moral convictions” (108) emphasizes freedom of thought and allows a variety of practices in order to be “enculturated in ways appropriate” (73).
Even as there is unfortunately no background information about Methodism in the Central Conferences in the historical part of the document, it is clearly stated elsewhere how much the local ecclesiological circumstances besides historical, cultural, and social context are influencing and shaping the ecclesiology at the local level (72).
In the European context, the UMC is mostly a minority church compared to other denominations like Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran, and the UMC ecclesiology has clearly been influenced by the theology, practice and policy of other denominations, as in most cases ecumenical ties are also quite strong. The result is that the UMC in Estonia has somewhat different flavor compared to the UMC in Bulgaria or Lithuania etc. The statement in the very beginning of the document about the UMC being ecumenical in its very nature is therefore an encouraging reminder for our context.
The emphasis on contextualism could help us also understand a bit better the confusion and battles regarding the present conflict about LGBTQ persons and their place and role in the church. Churches develop and practice their ministry in their particular environment and face different challenges raising from their context. A great challenge in one part of the world may not have the similar weight in another region, even when these countries are geographically close to each other or have shared a similar history.
Furthermore, this challenge may even not be understood properly, as the terms used in the discussion arise from a particular context, and especially when translated into other language (and culture!) they may lose some of their original meaning or gain somewhat different flavor.
And while those actually facing the real challenge have grown into it gradually and have seen it emerging step by step, others invited to be part of the discussion are drawn into it in the middle of the conversation, so to say, and are presented only certain fragments of the whole thing.
This is the reason why I especially liked the statement in the end of the document that the central task of the church is “to creatively correlate the commitment to the marks of the church with the contextual challenges at hand” (115); my proposal would be to add: contextual challenges in their part of the world, not challenges of the whole wide world.
It is encouraging that Wesley also recognized that “Christians in different times and places will come to different conclusions regarding practices, modes of worship, or opinions enjoined by the Christian faith” (70). May we recognize the same.