Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Politico recently published a piece entitled “Here’s How the Pandemic Finally Ends.” The piece, which is based on interviews with a large number of epidemiologists, is predominantly focused on the United States, though it includes some thoughts on the rest of the world toward the end.
Two passages are worth lifting up: First, “this is how it could happen in the United States: By November 2021, most Americans have received two doses of a vaccine that, while not gloriously effective, fights the disease in more cases than not. Meanwhile, Americans continue to wear masks and avoid large gatherings.” Second, “[Zeke] Emanuel anticipates countries opening up international travel as they get and deploy vaccines, but that “it’s going to take a couple or three years to really get … a full return to pre-Covid normalcy” in international travel.”
Taken together, these two insights—that large gatherings in the US may not happen until late in 2021 and international travel may be difficult until 2022 or 2023—indicate that there is a real possibility that a 2020 General Conference delayed to late August/early September of 2021 will still not be possible. Such a gathering may need to be delayed longer, and in an extreme case, may not happen until the regularly scheduled General Conference in 2024.
What would this mean for the church if General Conference 2020/2021 does not happen?
The United Methodist Church is in many ways set up to function without regular input from General Conference. After all, even normally, the body only meets once every four years. The denomination could certainly go a bit longer without an updated Book of Resolutions or updated hymnal, and it would be fine. Even some improvements which would be nice to have could wait, and things could run as they have in the meantime.
But General Conference is still necessary to fix immediate problems in the denomination and to keep the machinery of the denomination running. In particular, General Conference 2020/2021 is important to address the issue of denominational division and to provide for the 3 B’s of Methodist bureaucracy: budgets, boards, and bishops.
With a further delayed General Conference, The United Methodist Church will need to figure out other avenues to address these two challenges. This piece will look at the first question—denominational division—and a subsequent piece will look at budgets, boards, and bishops.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has indicated that it is planning to leave The United Methodist Church no matter whether General Conference 2021 happens, and no matter what happens at General Conference 2021 if it does happen. Their intention to form a new denomination has been clearly stated, planning for the new denomination has continued to proceed even amid the pandemic, and the groundwork for the new denomination is now already well laid.
At the beginning of 2020, it looked like the WCA would leave as part of a grand deal struck among US Traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, with leadership from the central conferences. This deal was embodied in the Protocol for Reconciliation through Separation and Grace, a legislative proposal for General Conference 2020. But without a General Conference, there is no Protocol.
The Protocol offers the WCA two things: rhetorical cover for leaving the denomination without seeming like they lost the fight and $25 million. The train of WCA withdrawal may be far enough out of the station that the first consideration is no longer necessary, and given the terrible state of denominational finances, it is likely that the WCA realizes that the $25 million may not actually be available. Thus, they may decide that whatever amount is available is not be worth waiting around for.
If the Protocol does not happen, it raises questions about how the WCA will leave the UMC. There are long-standing provisions for local churches to leave the denomination, and General Conference 2019 created a new provision (Paragraph 2553) for departures, though the status of that paragraph is somewhat in question due to voting irregularities at General Conference 2019. Less clear is the ability of annual conferences, either in the United States or elsewhere around the world, to unilaterally leave the denomination without action of General Conference. Does the WCA leave as a series of local churches, or do some annual conferences decide to unilaterally depart? At stake is a series of potential lawsuits, if those remaining in the UMC decide they are worth bringing.
The WCA has made clear their intent to be a global denomination. What then happens in the Central Conferences? Russia, for instance, would likely want to leave en masse. Again, does this happen unilaterally, or is there an attempt to go through the (much slower) BOD-provided means for a central conference becoming autonomous, which require eventual General Conference action. What happens elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where attitudes on sexuality are conservative, but ties to Western Europe are important? Europeans were likely to resolve these issues themselves, but do they decide not to wait for General Conference to do their own restructuring?
It is possible that entire annual conferences depart in some places in Africa (perhaps Liberia, for instance), but in many other areas (the Congo, for instance), it seems that the bishops are trying to resist efforts to leave the denomination. Divisions are likely, but local divisions in the UMC in various African nations have happened before without most people at General Conference even being aware of them.
Restructuring the Remaining United Methodist Church
If the WCA leaves before a postponed GC, that also means the Protocol becomes unnecessary when General Conference does finally meet. Thus, if denominational division happens before a postponed General Conference can meet, the most important piece of legislation facing such a General Conference would not be the by-then irrelevant Protocol, but the Christmas Covenant, which would remain a vital component for restructuring the remaining UMC on a more equitable basis.
In that regard, it would be interesting to see whether those promoting the Christmas Covenant and the US as a Regional Conference, which are similar but not identical packages of legislation, would continue to work in harmony, as the Connectional Table has thus far implied, or whether these two plans would come to be seen as competing versions of regional restructuring. The Christmas Covenant is likely to have better support outside the US, and thus it is the more likely vision to win out.
Of course, it is difficult to predict what the political forces at work in a post-separation without the Protocol United Methodist Church would look like two or three years from now. Still, the Christmas Covenant should be required reading for those thinking about the future of the denomination. The rest we will have to wait and see.
Monday, September 28, 2020
Ministry Matters ran a recent piece on Fresh Expressions, the movement to start new forms of church for new people, as it is practiced among American United Methodists. They focused in particular on Michael Beck and Jorge Acevedo and their recent book, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions. Beck and Acevedo's book is a welcome addition to the existing literature on Fresh Expressions among US Methodists. The Ministry Matters piece is also notable because it talks about the challenges of forming Fresh Expressions amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, as mentioned in the piece, there are a couple of upcoming video learning opportunities with Beck and Acevedo.
Friday, September 25, 2020
The panel featured Rev. Dr. Mai-Ahn Le Tran of Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric of Duke Divinity School, and Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings of Yale Divinity School as panelists.The panel was moderated by Rev. Erin Hawkins, former General Secretary of the UMC's General Commission on Religion and Race.
The panel reflected on the ways in which theology and race intersect in the US context but put this discussion in larger contexts of colonialism and World Christianity. Panelists tied racism within the US to patterns of colonialism overseas and lifted up learning from world Christian perspectives as a means to decenter whiteness in American Christianity. The panel, which lasted about an hour, is well worth watching for these and other insights on the topic.
The panel can be viewed online here. There is also a UMNS story summarizing the townhall.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
I have been reading Robert P. Jones' White Too Long recently. The book is a searing indictment of the role of white American Christianity in creating and upholding white supremacy and should be read widely by white American Christians for the sake of their own souls as well as the sake of racial justice.
Among the book's larger argument, I was struck by a passage on p. 75-76:
"While white Christianity was protecting the interests and consciences of those under its canopy, white Christians were also staunchly defending the purity and innocence of the religion itself. They accomplished this principally by projecting an idealized form of white Christianity as somehow independent of the failings of actual white Christians or institutions. ... The problem with this defensive posture is that it prevents us from seeing areas where the religion may have gone off course; where new bearing are needed."
Although Jones is primarily interested in support for white supremacy as an instance in which American Christianity has gone off course (as it certainly is), I got to thinking, "What, speaking broadly across geography and time, are the sorts of ways in which Christianity tends to go off course?"
One of the answers I came to is that Christianity tends towards nationalism. By this I mean that there is a repeated tendency for Christian institutions and individuals to portray the nation (both in the sense of ethne and of nation state) in which they are located in a way that identifies the nations with God's will and action in the world; provides moral covering for the actions of those nations, even when those actions are morally unseemly; conflates national and Christian identity; presents national boundaries as God-ordained; and/or identifies service of the nation with service of God.
Certainly, Jones' book can be read as a description of American Christianity as a support of white nationalism. Another of my recent reads, Kristin Kobes du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne speaks persuasively about (primarily white) American evangelicalism as a form of American nationalism. And this trend of religious nationalism in the United States goes all the way back to the notion of America as a "city on a hill" with special religious significance for the world.
But this tendency does not only appear in American Christianity. It pops up repeatedly in Christianity around the world and over the centuries, from Eusebius' support for Constantine to the autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodoxy to the Peace of Westphalia to the patronado system,to the cozy relationship between Christians and governments in many nations in Africa and Latin America today. Time and again, Christian institutions, theologies, and symbols have proven themselves to be able to be bent in service of the ends of nations, even when those ends or the means used to pursue them go against central teachings of the religion.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with nations--society has to be organized somehow--what is problematic is Christians' willingness to identify the this-worldly aims of nations, which are often characterized by a quest for power and resources and moral compromises in their pursuit--with the other-worldly truths of a God of love, justice, and righteousness.
Still, it is possible to see this tendency towards nationalism as the negative side of what, in other ways, is a positive feature of Christianity. This is what Andrew Walls has called the "indigenizing principle"--the ability of Christianity to adapt itself to the cultural and national homes into which it moves. It is this indigenizing principle that has allowed Christianity to spread around the world and take root in so many different places and contexts.
Thus, the solution to Christianity's tendency towards nationalism is not to do away with the indigenizing principle. It is instead to ensure that this principle remains balanced with the other important principle Walls identified in Christianity--the pilgrim principle. It is the pilgrim principle that prevents Christians from becoming too comfortable in the world or in a particular national context. The pilgrim principle reminds Christians to engage with the other, to see God in the face of those who are different from them, to make a distinction between their faith and their nation.
The pilgrim principle can be supported in many different ways, but one of the most significant ways in which Christians have emphasized the importance of the pilgrim principle has been through mission. Mission takes Christians beyond their home national and cultural contexts and shows them God at work elsewhere in the world. It teaches them to see their home nations with different and more critical eyes.
Of course, not all missionaries have been proponents of the pilgrim principle. Some have used mission as a venue for promoting their particular form of nationalism, as the history of Western mission over the past several centuries so amply shows.
Still, as the activity of the church that is most connection to internationalism, mission remains a crucial force in maintaining the balance of the church in its relationship with nations--able to work in any nation, but also able to distinguish itself from the moral justifications and claims to ultimate ontological status that almost all nations engage in. In this way, mission is part of what keeps Christianity honest, what keeps Christianity from going off course.
Monday, September 21, 2020
The first collection, "A Primer on UMC Assets," includes a series of twelve posts about United Methodist denominational assets, examining what these assets are, what assets are owned by different units of the church, how these assets are impacted by the trust clause, and what might happen to these assets in various scenarios of division of The United Methodist Church.
The second collection, on "Mission, Ministry, and Finances," includes eighteen posts that examine issues related to the financing of church infrastructure, apportionments, financial subsidies of the central conferences by the United States and Europe, episcopal and pastoral salaries in Africa, and internal financial capacities of the central conferences. The posts included in this collection are intended to help readers reflect on how financial arrangements impact the church's missional partnerships and what sorts of ministries the church is and is not able to do.
Both collections include discussion questions for reflection on the included pieces. In both cases, these discussion questions are intended to help students, annual conference leaders, General Conference delegates, local church leaders, and others to think wisely about how our money does and should shape our mission.
Friday, September 18, 2020
Together, they have launched a new podcast: "Without Borders with Collins and Wes."
The focus of the podcast is "ministry, politics, colonization, and mission hijinks." Episodes come out about once a week, and several episodes have already been posted at the time of this writing, covering issues such as funerals, culture shock, race, and missionary training. This podcast from these two faithful and thoughtful mission practitioners is well worth a listen.
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
September is Healthy Aging Month. Search for "healthy" aging online, and you will get a number of results on how to maintain health as one ages through efforts such as diet and exercise. These are good practices and certainly to be recommended.
Yet despite the best of efforts, the process of aging usually involves some degree of decline in physical and mental abilities. That is why the World Health Organization defines healthy aging in terms of "functional ability." It states, "Functional ability is made up of the intrinsic capacity of the individual, relevant environmental characteristics and the interaction between them." Thus, healthy aging is not just about an individual's abilities but about how those abilities fit with her or his environment. Difficulty going up steps is much more of a hindrance to one's daily routines if one has a second-story bedroom than if one lives on a single floor
Another aspect of healthy aging is pyschosocial. Aging and the physical and mental changes associated with it can create emotional and mental health challenges as individuals mourn the loss of previous capacities and the loss of friends and family who have died. Healthy aging, thus, involves redefining one's sense of self and purpose, and it involves maintaining and cultivating social connections. Although retirement, for instance, may come with a loss of one's sense of self as worker, it can also open up new opportunities to develop a new sense of sense as a volunteer and community resource. Engagement with the community can also be a way to practice relationship and avoid isolation.
While there is not a complete parallel, I believe thinking about the principles of healthy aging is helpful as The United Methodist Church considers its own diminishing capacities, especially in the United States. The church has experienced diminished US membership for decades, and as recent UMNS reports make clear, it is experiencing significantly reduced financial capacities, impacting the capacity for shared denominational ministries. There are a variety of reasons for these diminished capacities--long-term trends of the aging of US membership, denominational strife, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic among them. It is highly likely that these trends towards diminished capacities, however, will continue for the foreseeable future.
The question for the UMC, then, is how it responds to its diminished capacities, just as the question for individuals experiencing diminished capacities from aging is how they will respond. Yes, in the case of both the denomination and aging individuals, there are practices that can help maintain health, but the long-term situation still presents a need to confront the issue of diminished capacities.
Unhealthy responses by the UMC include continuing to try to live in the same environment it had when its capacities were greater, becoming absorbed in a sense of loss over previous abilities, and becoming isolated by focusing solely internally and withdrawing from other members of the body of Christ.
Healthier responses would include a process of redefining a sense of denominational identity and purpose that befits what the denomination is now (or will be two years from now), not what the denomination was in decades past; adjusting the structures in which the denomination lives (agencies, policies, organizational arrangements, etc.) so that those structures fit and support the abilities of the denomination now; and maintaining relationships with God, with other Christian bodies, and among parts of the UMC.
US culture is fairly youth-obsessed and does not place much value on the process of aging. But that is not true in cultures around the world and throughout time. In many cultures, the elderly are honored and revered as sources of wisdom. The Bible even says, "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life" (Proverbs 16:31).
In old Methodist biographies, middle age, the prime of people's lives, was regarded as a relatively boring time, often not worth writing about. What was interesting for these early Methodist biographers was one's conversion story and one's death narrative. How did you come to know God, and how did you testify God when facing the ultimate difficulty in this life?
The United Methodist Church is not at death's door, but we do need to be reminded that God is not only with us when we are strong and successful. Moreover, decreased abilities can be an opportunity--an opportunity to find new purpose and meaning, an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of connection, and an opportunity to testify to the faithfulness of God, even amidst difficulties. May we take the opportunities that lie before us as a denomination.
Monday, September 14, 2020
"I believe that the compilation issued by UM & Global will benefit both The United Methodist Church and the hurting world it seeks to serve. These days the UMC needs grace as much (if not more) as the world around it. We need to be reminded of who we are as people wooed to faith by grace, convinced of our need for God by grace, and continuously refined to embody grace so that the world might believe."
UM & Global and I (David Scott) are grateful for this piece by Astle, for her commendation of Grace Upon Grace and our series of comments on it, and for her long-time support of the work of this blog.
Friday, September 11, 2020
The next episode of this series, featuring Dr. David W. Scott facilitating a conversation with Rev. Dr. Grace Pak, Rev. Dr. Eleazar Fernandez, and Rev. Dr. Roger S. Nam, on "Asian Americans, COVID-19, and Race" will happen at 10:00am EDT next Thursday, September 17th. Those interested may register in advance for the webinar. A fuller description is below:
Asian Americans, COVID-19, and Race
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been associated with an increase in discrimination against Asian Americans. How is the church responding to this form of racism? How do these anti-racist efforts intersect with the anti-racist efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement? What have been other significant features of the Asian American community’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic? How have these experiences been shaped by differences within the Asian American community, such as ethnic background, language, economics, and immigrant status?
Thursday, September 17, 2020 at 10:00 am EDT
Rev. Dr. Grace Pak, Consultant on Inclusion and Diversity
Rev. Dr. Eleazar Fernandez, Professor of Constructive Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
Rev. Dr. Roger S. Nam, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Candler School of Theology
Dr. David W. Scott, mission theologian, Global Ministries
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Here is the link to the file: Grace Upon Grace Commentary
Friday, September 4, 2020
For a short list of the webinar topics and dates, see here.
For a fuller description of the webinars and instructors, see here.
For a registration link, see here.
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
UMVIM & Short-Term Mission
The PDF for this Collection includes a table of contents; the posts, including the original URL, date published, title, attribution, content, and tags; and some discussion questions about the Collection as a whole. Other than reformatting hyperlinks and a typographical correction here or there, the posts are not edited from their original format. This Collection is just under 40 pages.
In the coming weeks, additional collections will be posted on commentaries on the UMC's official mission document, Grace Upon Grace; UMC assets; the global nature of the UMC; and other topics. If there are specific topics that you would find helpful in your teaching or church work, please note them in the comments below, and I (David) will try to prioritize these as I put together future Collections.