Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Problems of a Global Traditionalist Church

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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 noted previously, Traditionalist United Methodists in the United States are making a concerted bid to persuade African United Methodists to join the new Traditionalist Methodist denomination that they intend to launch. Traditionalists’ main argument is that because of Africans’ common opposition to homosexuality, they would be best served by being part of a Traditionalist denomination.

The problem, however, with unity forged through a common enemy is that once that enemy is gone, internal fracturing soon follows. There are significant reasons to believe that this pattern may apply to a global Traditionalist denomination, unless they are able to articulate a common vision that goes beyond opposition to gay ordination and gay marriage. Moreover, this vision needs to be adequately fleshed out by theological and operational agreements on thorny issues such as power sharing, contextualization, and the nature of partnerships.

US Traditionalists and (some) Africans may currently be united in opposition to changing the stance of The United Methodist Church toward gay ordination and gay marriage, but the moment they jointly leave for a denomination where those practices are out of the question, they lose their main point of commonality, since there will no longer be arguments about sexuality to unite them. The question then is, what next? Evidence of grounds for possible future division are already visible.

There is a particularly telling moment in Mark Tooley’s recent interview of Jerry Kulah. Tooley asks, “How can USA traditionalists help [the] UMC in Africa?” Kulah responds, “That is an interesting question. I think your question should rather be, ‘How can USA traditionalists and African traditionalists be of help to one another, following the schism?’ And that is what I would prefer responding to.” As part of his answer, Kulah states, “We desire mutual partnership in response to the holistic needs of one another, not one that is dependent or paternalistic.”

It is clear that, having helped Traditionalists prevail at General Conference 2019, Kulah is not willing to accept a second-class status in a church in which Africans continue to play the role of poor objects of US benevolence. Instead, Kulah intends that African agency be recognized and that Africans have power in whatever church they become part of. While US Traditionalists affirm the worth of African church members, it may be a hard shift for those used to pulling the levers of power to suddenly find that others have their hands on those levers too.

In particular, US Traditionalists may be surprised when Africans want to speak to issues other than evangelism and vitality. There is a deep-seated trope among US United Methodists of all stripes that defines Africans in terms of their vibrant worship and growing number of church members. This trope is evidenced in Tooley’s next question to Kulah: “What can [the] UMC in Africa teach [the] USA church about church vitality and evangelism?”

Kulah’s reply includes several points of critique of US culture. While US Traditionalists are likely to agree with the points Kulah raises here, how will they react when Africans want to speak about more than just evangelism and vibrant worship? How will they react if Africans want the church to address neo-colonial economic structures that keep the church in Africa poor but benefit the church in the US? How will they react if Africans want a role, as Kulah suggests, in determining the curriculum not just for African theological schools, but for American ones as well? There are numerous points of potential conflict.

The possibility for offense goes the other way as well. Despite the title, Keith Boyette’s piece on “The Beauty of a Global Church” has a fundamental problem: It only speaks of cultural or contextual particularity in negative ways. Boyette does say, “Becoming a truly global church means we recognize and highly value the gifts, abilities, and contributions of each part of the movement, and we work intentionally to identify and deploy those gifts, abilities, and contributions to make an impact beyond the limitations of country, culture, or context.” Yet he also describes diverse cultures as “local idiosyncrasies, myopic visions, and efforts to shape the gospel to accommodate a particular setting” characterized by “regional prejudices, ethnic tensions, economic differences, and social distinctions” and says that focusing on one’s local church is “selfish.” What happens in a new denomination when Africans feel their cultural heritage is dismissed by US Traditionalists as a “local idiosyncrasy” or, worse, a “regional prejudice”?

Boyette argues that the church should be shaped by “the word of God which is not bound by geography, time, language, or culture.” This is similar to a statement that Kulah makes about the need to “[p]reach the simple message of Scripture without diluting it with the cultures and philosophies of the day.” That is well and good. But what happens when differing language or culture impacts the ways in which US Traditionalists and African Methodists understand the word of God? As works such as Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes make clear, there are abundant examples of issues where Westerners and non-Westerners have significantly different ideas about what the “simple message of Scripture” is.

It is entirely possible that US Traditionalists and African Methodists may be able to forge a strong working partnership based on a shared vision and a mutually acceptable modus vivendi of working toward that vision. But that will not come automatically, and it will not come simply through shared opposition to homosexuality. Being a global denomination takes difficult work, culturally sensitive negotiation, and a willingness to learn from the other, acknowledge one’s mistakes, and forgive the other party. Time will tell whether US Traditionalists and African United Methodists are able to transition from a shared enemy to these deeper practices of partnership.

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