Monday, August 24, 2020

UMC Ecumenical Partnerships: Why They Matter Today

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.

Over the past month, I have done a deep dive into the extent, nature, and history of UMC ecumenical partnerships, both those with other Methodist denominations and those with Christian denominations from other traditions. In part, I have done this work because I thought that United Methodists do not know enough about these relationships, even though ecumenism is a long-standing part of the Methodist tradition, and I wanted to help educate the church.

In addition, though, I think knowledge about our ecumenical partnerships, past and present, is particularly relevant for The United Methodist Church at this juncture in its history. With the delayed General Conference meeting just a year from now, it seems likely that The United Methodist Church is headed toward some sort of break up or reconfiguration.

A breakup of The United Methodist Church will certainly come with a great deal of pain, difficulty, and internal focus. But there are also opportunities included in such a process.

One of those opportunities is for all successor denominations to rethink what type of ecumenical relationships they want to cultivate. Certainly, an important part of that process is figuring out what (if any) ecumenical relationships those successor denominations want to have with each other. But the question of future ecumenical relationships applies to other Methodist/Wesleyan denominations and other Christian denominations broadly.

As the range of current options reviewed in previous posts and the historical overview provided in a previous post show, there are many options for how to structure ecumenical relationships. Successor denominations may decide that they prefer less-direct, multilateral relationships such as those provided through the World Methodist Council and World Council of Churches. Or successor denominations may decide that bilateral relationships are important, and then will have to choose whether to focus on collaborative ministries or on recognition of sacraments.

Successor denominations will have to choose whether to continue to recognize the current range of ecumenical partnerships maintained by the UMC. Perhaps a Traditionalist denomination will invest more into the Wesleyan Holiness Connection but less into the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do with the Pan-Methodist Commission or affiliated church relationships.

As successor denominations look to their ecumenical futures, it is important to remember that the emphasis in ecumenical relationships has changed over time. Relationships between the UMC and affiliated churches, for instance, have gone from emphasizing missionaries and ministries to emphasizing recognition of members and ministers to exchange of fraternal delegates. Recent UMC ecumenical efforts have prioritized full communion relationships, especially with churches in the US. Some things may have been lost along the way and others gained, but the point is that successor denominations to the UMC will need to figure out what matters most to them about ecumenical relationships at this moment in history.

In reviewing some of the notes, reports, and General Conference speeches about the UMC’s ecumenical relationships, I saw one question raised repeatedly, and I hope it is a question that all successor denominations take seriously as they reflect on their ecumenical relationships: How can ecumenical relationships be structured so as to reflect relationships of equality and mutuality between parts of God’s church?

The United Methodist Church tends towards US-centrism, triumphalism, and in recent years, an internal focus. None of these are healthy habits. But serious attention to ecumenical relationships with churches around the world is an opportunity to counter these trends by taking intentional steps to create relationships of mutual support and sharing.

Ecumenism as a spiritual practice recognizes that no denomination is the entirety of God’s church. In this way, all denominations are incomplete and need the gifts that other denominations bring to the table. Moreover, when the question is phrased about ecumenical relationships globally, it reinforces that no one part of the church, no matter how powerful the nation in which it is located, is the church all by itself. We are all dependent upon one another for a fuller understanding of God’s grace and God’s action in the world.

Thus, I hope that those who are currently United Methodist take the opportunity presented by the next couple of years to reflect seriously about the nature of the ecumenical relationships they intend to retain or cultivate, even after the UMC as we know it is no more. This is an opportunity for greater spiritual and theological depth in how we think about the nature of God’s church.

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