Wednesday, March 31, 2021
As I argued in my previous piece, the cancelation of the proposed May 8 special General Conference is an indicator that General Conference may not pass major legislation when next it meets in person, currently scheduled for August 2022. In this piece, I would like to explore the implications for the denomination if that were to happen.
Before I do so, though, I should clarify what I mean by “pass major legislation.” Here I have in mind legislation that would significantly change the structures or operating procedures of The United Methodist Church. Such legislation includes the Protocol, the Christmas Covenant, changes to the Book of Discipline statues on gay marriage and gay ordination, reorganization of the boards and agencies, and approval of a Global Book of Discipline.
Although some would consider a budget for the church a major piece of legislation, I am considering that as routine legislation. General Conference always passes a budget; hence it is routine, even as it has major impact on the work of the church. The bar to passing routine legislation, even when that legislation is significant, is lower than the bar to passing legislation that would cause major changes in the denomination. Institutional inertia both discourages changes and encourages routine acts.
What, then, would the implications be for The United Methodist Church if it is unable to pass major legislation at the next General Conference? I suggest that it would leave a hollowed-out connectional system, in which connectional structures continue to exist, but without the significance, power, or meaning currently in them.
A General Conference that proves unable to pass major legislation at a critical point in the church’s history will show the failure of General Conference as a source for addressing the felt problems of the members and component organizations of the denomination. The bishops, who have already had a lot of criticism leveled at them, are likely to sustain more if General Conference is unable to act. Thus, the two main top-level authorities will be further undercut. To be sure, the denomination will continue to have future General Conferences and bishops, but fewer will look toward them as a means to solve the problems of the denomination. Instead, more people will look to more local levels of the church as a site for ministry initiatives, problem solving, and decision-making.
Without passage of the Protocol, the exit path for Traditionalists (and the much smaller group of Liberationists) is much steeper and more difficult. Some congregations, districts, and annual conferences that might otherwise want to leave may find themselves stuck within the UMC for financial and legal reasons while remaining connected to others who do leave to form the Global Methodist Church. This arrangement may mean that the WCA and similar organizations continue to exist to serve the remaining discontented Traditionalists within the UMC. It also means that episcopal areas, annual conferences, and districts will continue to be sites of conflict between unwillingly remaining Traditionalists and others happier to stay within the denomination. Thus, significant conflict within the church will continue, both at the General Conference level and at various regional levels.
It is almost certain that there will be less money within the connectional system. Any budget that does get passed as a piece of routine legislation will be smaller, and churches are less likely to be willing to pay apportionments into a system that they see as dysfunctional, conflict-ridden, and unable to produce results. This is likely true no matter what General Conference passes or does not. Yet without major legislation, it will be more difficult for boards, agencies, annual conferences, and other entities to do ministry in creative ways that could better leverage reduced funds. Instead, they will be forced to continue to serve current ends less effectively, given their reduced budgets.
Reduced denominational funds will have implications for United Methodism in the central conferences. In some places, The United Methodist Church is relatively self-sufficient and growing. There, it will continue to prosper, though with less emphasis on its worldwide connections and more emphasis on United Methodism as an identity within the local religious economy. Elsewhere, loss of funds and reduced connection to the worldwide church will diminish the reputation of the church as a source of good in society and/or deplete patronage resources available through the church. More church members will decamp for other denominations, perhaps one of the forms of pentecostalism that are currently making such significant inroads among Methodism around the world.
Congregations in the United states will continue to face headwinds in attracting and retaining members, both from the larger cultural environment and the specific problems associated with the United Methodist identity, to the extent that members or potential members are aware of that identity. Much of the successes within the United States will be at the local church level. Dynamic churches that have found a way to prosper within the current system of United Methodism are likely to be able to continue to do so, though they may use the term “United Methodist” to describe themselves less and less frequently. As in the central conferences, the emphasis will be less on worldwide connection and more on a congregation’s identity within the local religious economy. Struggling churches will continue to struggle and eventually close.
Almost all of what I have described above is continuations of current trends within the denomination. And that is really the danger of General Conference being unable to pass any major legislation. Things will continue as they have been, only more so. More top-level disfunction. More fighting at denominational meetings. More loss of membership in the United States. More challenges with financial sustainability in parts of the central conferences. More budget reductions and staff cuts at agencies. More nationalism in the central conferences and congregationalism in the United States.
The system of United Methodism will not collapse, but it will crumble. People will, however, continue to live and worship within that crumbling system. Some will leave, both in the United States and around the world, but many will stay. The groups that remain within the crumbling shell will have less to do with one another. There will continue to be spots of spiritual vitality, but there will also be a lot of people pining for the glory days of yesteryear, dreaming sad dreams of how the Spirit moved when they were young.
This is not an uplifting picture of the future, and I have been struggling to see where God will be at work in the midst of this system. I recognize, though, that God being at work does not mean a happy ending to all stories. Despite Americans’ relentless optimism and desire to focus on the good even amidst disasters, sometimes things end badly. When Jeremiah prophesied that God “will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals,” it was bad news for a city that very soon would see a significant portion of its population violently removed. Jerusalem did not completely collapse, but it certainly experienced some heavy crumbling.
Yet, Isaiah prophesied that even the jackals which Jeremiah foresaw taking over Jerusalem would honor God. And 70 years later, exiles would return to that crumbled city and rebuild it. Moreover, God had been with God’s people in other cities and would continue to do so.
The United Methodist Church may end up hollowed out. But God will still be in the world, including in the hollow and hurting places within the UMC. And perhaps in 70 years, the children or grandchildren of those who will go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy after all.
Monday, March 29, 2021
Watchers of The United Methodist Church were set awhirl last Monday by the announcement that the Council of Bishops was canceling a call for a special May 8 General Conference, less than four weeks after the call had been issued. Certainly, the sudden about face reflects the difficulties of operating in the context of the pandemic, but it also offers larger insights about the current state of The United Methodist Church.
This post will attempt to use what I have previously written about the major issues and variety of actors presently in the UMC to attempt to make sense of the controversy over the now canceled May 8 General Conference and what that means for the next time the General Conference does meet.
The Controversy over the May 8 General Conference
In issuing the call for a May 8 special General Conference, the bishops were operating out of what I have labeled an Institutionalist perspective. The very limited purpose of the May 8 session was to obtain permission to vote by mail on a list of actions that the bishops saw as necessary for maintaining the institutions of the church in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bishops determined what counted as critical maintenance for the church, so the list emphasized bishop-related concerns, as other commentators have pointed out, but the outlook was generally Institutionalist.
But almost as soon as the call was issued, it became clear that rather than simply enabling a straightforward procedure of institutional maintenance, the May 8 General Conference would be a Pandora’s box that would bring out the concerns of other parties within the denomination.
US Traditionalists were immediately unhappy that the May 8 session did not include their top issue: separation from the denomination through the Protocol. Some commentators began suggesting that the May 8 agenda could be modified by a 2/3rds majority to include the Protocol on the list of issues up for consideration.
US Progressives, on the other hand, critiqued the call both on procedural grounds (they saw the move as episcopal overreach) but also because it did not address what is shaping up to be a main Progressive concern: election by the current, Progressive-majority jurisdictional conference delegates of new bishops to replace retirees and new agency board members.
Especially once it became clear that the May 8 session would be more than a straight up-or-down on mail ballots, the Africa Initiative, voicing a Regionalist perspective from Africa, critiqued the call because of its disenfranchisement of African delegates without access to reliable internet service.
Thus facing criticism from three major blocs in the denomination, the bishops reversed course and canceled the May 8 session, promising “deeper listening” and “a possible need for a new timeline leading up to” the next scheduled in-person meeting of General Conference, in August 2022.
The failed May 8 General Conference is an instance in which one bloc within The United Methodist Church (the Institutionalist bishops) tried to act to accomplish one of its goals without giving other blocs an opportunity to accomplish any of their goals at the same time and seemingly without significant prior consultation with other blocs.
The Institutionalist bloc, however, needed the cooperation of other blocs to accomplish that goal. In response to the Institutionalist bishops’ actions, members of other blocs criticized the Institutionalist bishops not so much for the validity of their goals (though there was some of that by Progressives), but for the process by which they sought to achieve their goals.
Acknowledging that they needed but did not have the cooperation of other blocs, the bishops admitted defeat and abandoned this attempt to achieve their goals. It remains to be seen how the bishops and all other actors will now try to pursue their ends.
What Does This Episode Mean for the Future?
The criticism of process and the unwillingness to allow another bloc to accomplish its goals without one’s own bloc accomplishing any goals speak to the dearth of trust in the denomination. Fights about process indicate a lack of trust, since process is seen as giving benefits to one group that other groups fear will be used against them.
Moreover, whereas in a healthy system, groups might be willing to allow others to accomplish goals that do not directly negatively impact them, trusting that others will eventually return the favor, in a system lacking trust, no one is willing to let others act without receiving an immediate benefit in return. There is no credit without trust; everything must be bartered into direct exchanges of benefits.
As many others have observed, a lack of trust is endemic within the system of United Methodism and has been for some time. This will not change because the May 8 General Conference has been canceled. Indeed, the whole episode will instead increase distrust, as some have already indicated.
Thus, the same consequences of lack of trust that arose in this case and have arisen repeatedly in the past decade will likely reoccur. When they next meet in person for General Conference 2022, and in the meantime, United Methodists can be expected to spend a lot of time fighting about process, and no group is likely to want to allow another group to achieve its goals without achieving some of its own at the same time.
The upshot of this situation is that there is a high chance that, despite all of the pressure for General Conference 2022 to make major decisions for the future of the denomination, nothing major will actually come out of GC2022. This fits with a pattern of recent General Conferences, one that is likely to get worse rather than better because the underlying causes have only increased.
As the debate of Rule 44 in 2016 showed, procedural debates can eat up days of a short General Conference, limiting the ability of the General Conference to actually consider legislation. And changed rules from 2016 that require all legislation to be voted on in committee represent another instance in which it will be easy for the General Conference to get bogged down in procedure and squabbles over it, with the result being that little makes it to the plenary for consideration.
Then, even if legislation does make it to the plenary, there are significant issues around sequencing of legislation, given that blocs are unwilling to allow each other to achieve their goals first. Traditionalists, Progressives, Internationalists, Institutionalists, and Regionalists may all want their priorities voted on first and be unwilling to allow another groups’ priority to be voted on before their own. Thus, the plenary could fail to pass legislation not because of disagreement on the merits of the legislation but because of disagreement on the sequencing of the legislation.
One solution to the sequencing problem would be to vote on issues at the same time, as in the Alaska Omnibus Proposal (AOP). But at this time, it is not clear how much buy-in the AOP has from various groups, as the consultation that went into writing it seems to have been limited, and the Alaska Delegation has had little success in the past in forwarding its legislative proposals.
Another possibility is that deep listening, as called for by the Council of Bishops, and active coalition building over the next year and a half could yield enough trust to build a consensus around procedure and sequencing that would allow for major legislation to be passed. Bishop John Yambasu and mediator Kenneth Feinberg were able to accomplish this in leading parties to negotiate the Protocol. But the difficulty of that process indicates the challenges involved, and the death of Bishop Yambasu makes it unclear who would take up his mantle and lead such an effort.
Thus, there remains a significant chance that General Conference 2022 will not pass any major legislation. My next post will look at what that would mean for the church if it comes to pass.
Friday, March 26, 2021
AALM and the New Federation of Asian American United Methodists (NFAAUM) issued a statement condemning the rise of anti-Asian violence in the United States on March 16th, just hours before the shooting of six Asian American women and two others in Atlanta. This statement was signed by numerous prominent Asian American leaders in The United Methodist Church.
In February, AALM issued a statement condemning attacks on Asian American elderly persons, which have been on the rise.
Last summer, AALM issued a statement against racism in the wake of the George Floyd protests. AALM, NFAAUM, and Church and Society worked together to compile a video of young Asian American United Methodists reading the statement.
In addition to the linked PDF versions above, the latter two statements are also available in Word format on AALM's website.
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
For me, the past twelve months have been particularly challenging. Our nation has been grappling with the devastating impact of COVID-19, and 2020 saw multiple shootings of unarmed Black people. These two pandemics—one of COVID-19 and one of racism—at the same time have taken a heavy toll.
COVID-19 amplified healthcare disparities between White and non-White people. According to the APM Research Lab, people who identified as Native American/Indigenous, Black, or Pacific Islander had a higher mortality rate than those who identified as White. Now as vaccines are being made available, non-White people are being vaccinated at lower rates than White people. During the first month of the US vaccination program, 60.4% of those receiving the COVID-19 vaccine identified as White.
Between April 1 and May 25, 2020, the United States grappled publicly with the killings of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Arbery and Taylor died in February and March respectively, but their deaths did not gain widespread media coverage until months later. Arbery’s death was first reported by national media on April 1st. Taylor’s death was reported on May 13th. Two weeks later after Taylor’s death was reported by national media, George Floyd died on a Minneapolis sidewalk while in police custody. Taylor and Floyd’s cases caused outcry across the nation as two unarmed Black people died from the actions of police officers.
As a self-identified Black person, I was angry. I was angry that members of my collective Black community were dying at a higher rate due to COVID. I was angry that members of my community were being killed by those who had taken an oath to protect and serve. I didn’t feel safe.
Not only has the Black community been impacted by acts of racism, our Asian brothers and sisters have been subjected to an increase in racist attacks since the pandemic occurred. In the past year hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 150% in major US cities, and most of those acts were against women. Hate crimes against Hispanic and Latino communities continue to increase to an all-time high.
After the killings last summer, we saw multiple statements released by companies, organizations, and even The United Methodist Church condemning racism and acts of violence. Many annual conferences and even the Council of Bishops released statements condemning racism. Beautifully crafted statements are meaningless unless there are actions behind the words. In the Council of Bishops statement, they requested actions included asking “United Methodists to read all they can on the subject of anti-racism and engage in conversations with children, youth and adults” and to “join in prayer at 8:46 AM and PM for 8 minutes and 46 seconds for at least 30 days.”
As a denomination, we must move beyond surface-level actions of acknowledgement and begin to actively engage in mission in our local communities for change. We cannot continue to read books and have “uncomfortable conversations” without subsequent action or change in our communities.
Our local communities have mission opportunities to engage in mission with our non-White brothers and sisters. There are many communities that have immediate needs being overlooked. Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water. Water access to some parts of the Navajo Nation is nonexistent, and residents have to rely on a water truck to bring clean water each week. Food insecurity continues to be a pressing issue in many of our major cities, especially in non-White neighborhoods. Rising home and rent prices due to gentrification is making it increasingly difficult for families to find safe and affordable housing.
As part of the church’s missional response to these injustices, the Multiethnic Ministries Unit at Global Ministries connects and collaborates with US Annual Conferences and congregations for mission programs related to racial/ethnic ministries through various programs.
The Community Developers Program has been in ministry and mission with racial/ethnic congregations and communities since 1968. The Community Developers Program (CDP) is a network of racial-ethnic congregations and communities throughout the United States committed to advancing the church’s capacity to be in mission partnership with the communities where they are located. Work includes advocacy, economic development, youth organizing, addressing local needs, creating an awareness of national and international causes and effects. Currently, the CDP Network has 22 community sites in 16 states spanning all 5 jurisdictions. Our sites are engaged in advocacy work such as affordable housing, access to healthcare, and immigration concerns.
Last year, the Multiethnic Ministries Unit awarded dedicated grants to Black and Brown communities to assist in multitude of COVID-19 relief efforts. Grants were used to provide access to food, rental assistance, and healthcare assistance. The unit also awarded grants to congregations in the Minneapolis community to assist residents directly impacted by the social unrest after the killing of George Floyd. The grant was used to assist residents with access to medication, healthcare, food, and mental health support.
There is much more work to be done, though, in responding to the two pandemics affecting racial/ethnic communities. I encourage you to work with your local congregation, district, and/or annual conference to explore potential mission opportunities in racial/ethnic communities. It is time for The United Methodist Church to move beyond beautifully crafted statements and align our words with actions.
Monday, March 22, 2021
The world is now over a year into the coronavirus pandemic. While much remains uncertain about the future of the pandemic, leaders are beginning to feel confident enough in the future to begin talking about the "new normal" or "next normal" that will emerge after the pandemic. Questions about the next normal affect all aspects of life and church, and in this post, I will explore some of those questions as they apply to short-term mission.
First, a quick recap: Travel restrictions because of COVID-19 meant that short-term mission trips, both domestically and internationally, were largely cancelled last year. In some cases, they were replaced by other forms of engagement: virtual mission trips and online partnership building. In other cases, probably the majority of cases, US churches did not replace their short term trips with anything. For many partner organizations, the cancellation of short term mission trips represented the loss of a significant revenue stream, though it also meant more staff time to focus elsewhere. For more on the impact of COVID-19 on short term mission, see this series of UM & Global posts from last year: , , , , , and .
Many churches in the United States and around the world are still not meeting because of the pandemic. Nevertheless, reviewing news from US annual conferences indicates that US churches are beginning to contemplate the return of short term mission trips, at least in some form. At this point, plans are most likely to involve relatively local trips (within a few hours' drive), for a limited day (often day trips), doing work that can be done outside and with other precautions (outdoor VBS, certain construction, repair, and gardening projects, etc.). Longer trips and long-distance trips, including international trips, are mostly still on hold.
As they begin to resume their short term mission trips, here are some questions that churches would do well to reflect on:
What have we learned from the pandemic?
Many Christian writers have described the pandemic as an "apocalypse," not necessarily in the sense that it is the end of the world, but in the sense that it has unveiled or uncovered many things about ourselves, our churches, our society, and our world community. What has the pandemic uncovered about your church's participation in short term mission? What has it revealed about the sorts of partnerships forged? What has it revealed about the role of short term mission in your congregants' spiritual lives and the financial model of your church?
What have our partners learned from the pandemic? What are their hopes for the resumption of short term mission?
Just as we have been learning from the pandemic, so have our partners and hosts. They, too, have been learning about themselves, their communities, and the world. US churches' first impulse might be to look for new needs among their partners, but there are also likely new strengths that partners have discovered in themselves. World War II was a great disruption to mission in some regions. But one of the things that younger churches learned during that experience was that they could stand on their own, without the constant support of their mission partners from the West, even amid very difficult times. Whatever our partners have learned, the new normal of short term mission that we create must incorporate their learnings and their hopes for the new normal.
Are there aspects of our short term mission trips that should not come back?
The question of how to resume short term mission work is not just a question of what to start doing again. It is also a question of what not to do anymore. Perhaps we or our partners have learned that some aspect of that short term mission arrangement no longer serves a point or perhaps it is even detrimental to one group involved. The advantage of a pause in activity is that it makes it easier to let that activity or parts of that activity go. Again, the goal is not to get back to the old normal. It is to collaboratively build a new and better normal.
How can we (continue to) incorporate alternate forms of connection in our mission work?
Whether or not we have used Zoom to connect with mission partners, just about all churches in the United States have experimented with new forms of technologically-mediated connection, even if just to connect members of the congregation while it was not meeting. Rather than seeing these practices of connection as temporary measures that can now be laid aside, churches can see them as new skills that they can use to strengthen our short term mission partnerships, which are usually characterized by not being about to meet together on a regular basis.
The pandemic has been a great tragedy around the world. The resumption of short term mission after the pandemic is an opportunity born out of tragedy. It is both an opportunity to resume mission and also an opportunity to use the break from mission activities as an impetus to change and improve those activities.
Friday, March 19, 2021
The District Superintendent of the Metro Santiago District of the Northeast Philippines Annual Conference, part of the Baguio Episcopal Area led by Bishop Pete Torio, made a speech at the recent Northeast Philippines Annual Conference meeting in which he declared the intention of his district to secede from the UMC, organize themselves, and then join the new Traditionalist denomination. That move has been contested, but it is likely there are other similar groups in the Philippines making such plans.
Alternatively, the cabinet of the Manila Episcopal Area released a Statement of Unity on March 11th. The statement mentioned "confusions and threats happening both in the local and international panorama of discussions on the issue of separation and disaffiliation" and called out "any premature expressions of separation and disaffiliation." While they may or may not have had the Metro Santiago District specifically in mind, it is clear that they are responding to similar situations.
Of course, it remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome of the possibility of denominational division will be, in the Philippines and elsewhere. But it is clear that while the push for division has originated within the United States, it is now an international debate.
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Today is St. Patrick's Day, the celebration of Irish heritage. The day is scheduled on the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who is commemorated for bringing Christianity to Ireland. While many will use the day to reflect on what it means to be Irish, I want to use the day to reflect on what it means to be a missionary, like Patrick.
It's easy in contemporary times when thinking about Patrick to think about Patrick's centrality. As a recognized saint not only in Catholicism, but in Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism, too, he is a central figure in Christian history. As patron saint of Ireland, he is central to Irish Catholicism and to Irish identity, both in Ireland and throughout the world.
Yet at the beginning of his missionary labors, what would most have struck his contemporaries about Patrick was not his centrality but his marginality. First, he had a marginal status in Ireland. Patrick was a foreigner in Ireland, since he was born a Roman Briton. Worse still, he was a former slave to the Irish. His status as a foreigner and former slave and his refusal to participate in systems of Irish royal patronage left him with a margin legal and social status within the island, without many rights or protections.
Although he would eventually become a bishop, Patrick also held a marginal position in the church at the beginning of his mission. He was ordained and somewhat literate, but relative to other clergy of the time, he had held no prominent positions prior to his mission nor was he well-educated. The two documents he left behind are written in poor Latin. His return to Ireland as a missionary seems to have been a personal decision taken in response to a dream, not a commission by some central authority in the church. Palladius, a wealthy cleric from France, not Patrick, was the first bishop sent by the pope to the Irish to serve as the bishop of the Christians there.
Yet it was Patrick, despite his outsider status in Irish society and marginality within the church hierarchy, who would go on to become revered as the apostle to the Irish, forging Irish Christianity and Irish identity in the process.
Part of this transformation speaks to the process of hagiography and memory that happened after Patrick's death. Patrick's present centrality in tales of Irish nationalism and Irish Christianity speaks to the centuries of retelling and transforming of his story that have happened since his life.
But part of this transformation speaks to some deeper truth about mission. Viewed from a time after the heyday of Western imperialism and well after the founding of Christianity in new regions of the globe, it is easy to associate missionaries with power and prominence, both ecclesial and secular. And in some instances, missionaries did go out with the force of church structures and imperial powers behind them.
But looking carefully at the story of Patrick reminds us that just as often, this was not the case. Successful missionaries have often come, not from the centers of power in their time, but from the margins. They have succeeded in their mission despite and quite often because of their marginality, not their centrality in their contexts. They have embodied Paul's writing in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, being able to boast only in the Lord, not in their human status.
There is, however, a second takeaway from Patrick's story: the categories of center and margin are not absolute and immutable. Relative to Roman British society, Patrick had some prominence as a semi-literate cleric. But in Irish Celtic society, his status was much lower. Moreover, Patrick's relative marginality or centrality within Irish society changed over the course of his life as he won converts and became bishop and has certainly changed in the centuries since then.
So, the marginal may become those at the center and vice versa. This should not surprise those who proclaim a Messiah who preached that the last will become first and the first will become last. It is a reminder to all Christians that the places and persons where the Holy Spirit is working now and will prosper in the future are not the same as where the powers of the world are now seated. And it is a reminder that when we tell the story of those who brought the gospel to us, we must not let their successes make us forget their origins. Let those who boast, boast in the Lord. Slainte, and Amen!
Monday, March 15, 2021
Today's post is by Retired Bishop Walter Klaiber. This article originally appeared in German in unterwegs, the magazine of The United Methodist Church in Germany (called, in German, die Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (EmK)). It appears here by permission.
These days, the title of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez often comes to my mind. It is called: Love in the Time of Cholera. In reading it, I have of course discovered: There is a lot of talk in the book about love and relatively little about cholera. When it comes to faith, today it is more likely the other way around: The subject of coronavirus dominates everything; faith is seldom spoken of. Out of fifteen people who were asked in the Tübinger Zeitung what gives them support in difficult situations, only one woman mentioned her belief in God! What about faith in the time of coronavirus, and what does it have to say about what we are experiencing?
Many will feel like me: The intensity, the duration, and the appearance of new mutations have made the new wave much scarier than the first. We are thereby confronted with a double problem: There is the disease and its effects, and there are the measures to combat it, with their sometimes-dramatic effects. It is also irritating how little scientists seem to agree on what is the right way to go. Many of us are also concerned with the question: How will our congregations survive the long period of absence from personal encounters in church services and church fellowship groups?
Thinking about one’s own life
This all calls for a spiritual processing of the event. Some see the pandemic as a punishment from God or a sign of the end times, and often the question is asked: Why does God allow this? However, it is often asked by people who otherwise are not very much concerned about God. This is a bit reminiscent of the attitude of teenagers who expect their parents to grant them every freedom and yet to be there to help when things get dangerous.
A word from Jesus helps me here. He said it with regard to a disaster that happened in Jerusalem. A tower near the pool of Siloam had collapsed and buried eighteen people underneath it. And there were people who thought that their sudden death must be a punishment from God. But Jesus asks: “Do you really think that they were more guilty than all other inhabitants of Jerusalem? Definitely not!” And he also did not ask what the real cause was - maybe botched construction - and advocate stricter building regulations. He saw it as a signal to reflect on one's own life: "I tell you: you will all perish the same way if you do not repent" (Luke 13: 4f).
Jesus also did not say why God allowed the misfortune, and certainly not that God caused the tower to collapse in order to admonish people to repent. But the fact that it happened became an impulse to ask: Where is my life going? and to resolve to repent if it is not centered on God and God’s will. "To perish in the same way" certainly does not mean being slain by a toppling tower as well, but rather points to the danger of being torn from life unprepared and without being borne and held by God.
Living with danger
The Gospel of Luke describes a local accident, but Jesus' words also shed light on a global pandemic. Living in this world never means absolute security. Wherever absolute security is sought - for example with accordingly restrictive regulations - life threatens to suffocate. We have to live with dangers. Usually they are managable, but sometimes they seem almost overwhelmingly threatening. It is also part of life that we recognize dangers and can do something about them. But at the same time there is a call therein to examine what we build our lives on and what is important to us. This does not mean that God creates such threats to move us to repentance. But the fact that they are part of God’s creation becomes an impulse to rethink life and - if necessary - to change it. But today many see this is as an unacceptable challenge.
The Viennese philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann speaks in this context of an "offended society" - "offended" because our arrogance-prone self-esteem is considerably hurt by the threat of a danger that cannot be immediately controlled. But it would fit Jesus’ meaning precisely to accept this challenge and to realize: We are not the rulers of the universe and do not stand above all dangers. Not the feasibility of all things, but rather rooting in God is the foundation of our life. That insight could then also help us to be less impatient in the fight against the pandemic and less aggressive in disputes about the right measures to take and also to recognize in relation to one another what really matters. The fact that many new, dangerous viral diseases arise from crossing the animal-human barrier should also be an impetus to rethink our relationship with nature.
Faith in the time of coronavirus is not without questions, fears, and doubts. But it turns to God with all these and shelters itself in God and God's love. A strength of trust grows out of this, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described in prison in 1943: “I believe that God can and will create good out of everything, including the worst. For this God needs people who let all things be of service to the best. I believe that God wants to give us as much resilience as we need in any emergency. But he does not give it in advance so that we do not rely on ourselves but on him alone."
Hope in the times of coronavirus lives by this trust. It trusts that danger does not render us helpless. It sees the rapid development of effective vaccinations as a gift from God and not as proof that we can overcome anything with the help of science. And in times when we must speak of "excess mortality," the hope that death is not the final limit for God and for our fellowship with God becomes particularly important.
Love in the time of coronavirus proves itself through staying power. Instead of short-lived actions, there is a reliable caring for one another: not giving up contacts, but reliably maintaining them, allowing us to see what we really need and living for others. It is also important to remember that there are also people who must cope with completely different difficulties than COVID-19 and especially not to forget them! If we learn this in our churches, good things can come out of this difficult time too!
Friday, March 12, 2021
The Methodist Church in Britain's Evangelism and Growth Team is sponsoring a series of webinars this spring. On Thursday, March 25th, the team will sponsor a unique learning opportunity on "Green Evangelism," exploring the question, "What does climate justice have to do with sharing our faith?" The webinar will run from 7-8:30pm GMT (3-4:30pm EDT). Speakers include Elaine Heath, Jack Wakefield, and Phoebe Parkin. The webinar is free of charge.
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Dr. David Evans is associate professor of history and intercultural studies and the director of cross-cultural programs at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He is co-editor of Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity. David is a member of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, VA.
The chapel speaker slowly flipped the large poster board cards which declared the sins we were to avoid to enter the Kingdom of God: Greed. Wrath. Envy. Lust. Gluttony. Sloth. Pride.
I’d never thought much of sloth or gluttony. I’d need to do more reading to discover what those sins were about. I wanted to avoid sin as much as possible, given the sin-filled life I had lived prior to being born-again. Greed, envy, and lust I knew too well as one of four boys who felt like there was never enough food to satisfy the hunger of each of us. And as the third who was too small to contest the older two, nor given the same attention as the baby, I was aware what they had that I didn’t. I always wanted more.
But pride? A sin?
For as long as I could remember, pride was that thing that all of my elders told me I needed to have in my work, my dress, in my self… in my race. If I failed to turn in a homework assignment, my family told me, “Have some pride and follow through by turning in your work.” If I left the house looking disheveled, my grandmother, the only Black politician in a White town, would instruct me, “Take pride in how you look, you don’t just represent yourself, you are a Brown.” If I allowed my opponent to drive past me on the basketball court, my coach would say, “Take some pride in your defense and don’t allow him to turn the corner.” But of all the ways that I learned to value pride, racial pride superseded them all.
In the pages of my African American encyclopedia and literature about the history of African American people I learned that White society disrespected and devalued us. Toni Morrison said as much through one of her characters in Beloved, “Out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight.” She continued, “And O my people, So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.” It was up to us to believe in ourselves. It was up to us to love ourselves and hold our necks high with pride. Pride, as I understood it, was a matter of life and death—a matter to be embraced not rejected.
The command to reject pride put my teenage heart and mind in turmoil. Having only repented from a life of drugs and drinking a few weeks before this revival camp chapel in rural Michigan, I was aware that I didn’t know the rules of this Heavenly Kingdom well and I needed guidance. I had been to church my entire life, but these people were different. They were not different because they were white Christians, I’d been around white Christians at my home Lutheran church for a long time, but because they were white Christians who made me their mission project.
They wanted to save me, or get me saved, I was never sure if the distinction was significant. What I was certain of was that saving me meant conforming me to the likeness of their politics, which opposed abortion and argued ferociously for the death penalty. Saving me also meant that I had to agree to the commands of their Heavenly Kingdom, of which the two greatest commandments were: ask Jesus into your heart and deny the love of self. Up to that point, my grasp of politics and God’s commands hardly extended beyond the Martin Luther King Jr. lessons I’d learned at home: guns aren’t toys and love everybody.
I knew little of the intense scripture memorization that was necessary to succeed in this new revivalist environment. The passion which they held for saving people’s souls from hellfire and damnation was unrivaled by any passion I’d known before. I was enchanted by their fervor. And I found structure in the new Kingdom rules that gave me sufficient resolve to reject my old vices. But as I embraced their biblicism I felt my old and new Christian sensibilities at odds, almost at war—one that implored me to love myself and the other to despise myself.
I did not have the language of post-colonial mission to guide me through the conflict between Christian mission and cultural belonging. And as I marched boldly towards the kingdom that they preached, I often found myself drowning in a moat of missionary zeal that rebuked the lessons I’d learned growing up. These missionaries replaced those lessons with rules that saved me from the sometimes aimless wandering of my adolescence but also threatened to destroy my connection to my family, friends, and ancestors.
They were right that pride threatened my existence, but it was their pride in believing they knew what I needed, not my self-love. Their white missionary gaze looked upon me as an economically impoverished, single-parent, unchurched, Black, city kid. They never once asked me about my beliefs, values, church attendance, or family traditions. They took pride in assuming that they knew what I needed and that what I needed was to become more like them.
I became like them; they converted me. I assimilated to their white Christianity. I gained what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness”—the ability to see the world first through the eyes of others who looked upon me with “amused contempt and pity.” And I discovered that the more I conformed in my speech, dress, and values, the more distant I grew from myself, my family, and my friends.
Was that their mission, I wonder, to distance me from my self, my people, my ancestors?
Whether it was their intention or not, the impact of their work did just that. Thankfully, the foundations my family built endured their missionary enculturation. Through the perspectives of my intellectual ancestors, like DuBois, I now wonder what would have become of the Christian mission in the midwest revival camp if they gave up their pride and gained my perspective? What if they were to embrace a double-consciousness, that enabled them to see the world first through the eyes of others who look upon them as lacking perspective and community? What if they could see that Black boys from inner-cities had something to teach them and they replaced their acts of charity with solidarity?
That has become my mission. By reversing the gaze, I want to demonstrate that righteous Christian mission is that which is guided by the Spirit’s movement towards double-consciousness, seeing from the perspective of others, and solidarity, sharing with others in community. When we share perspectives with others, then our love for them and love for self will not be at odds with one another, but will be in harmony with God’s mission and vision for a new Heaven and a new Earth.
Monday, March 8, 2021
Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries. This post first appeared in Korean on United Methodist News Service on Jan. 6, 2021: https://www.umnews.org/ko/news/imagine-jubilee-for-the-mission-in-the-covid-19-era.
It is unlikely that the coronavirus pandemic will end easily. One out of thirteen people in the United States was or is infected with the virus. Some people share a gloomy estimate that in the worst-case scenario, 60% of the world population will be infected.
This time calls for sober reflections on what it means to participate in mission. Our situation reminds us of the time when the Roman Empire was in crisis due to the massive invasions from the northern people (c. 400-500). The difference is that we are receiving the attack from an invisible virus. While witnessing the empire at the brink of falling apart, which was something inconceivable, the Romans wondered whether their Roman gods were punishing them for replacing them with the One Christian God.
Augustine of Hippo, who felt the gravity of this question, reacted through his historical theological work, The City of God. Based on Hellenistic dualism, Augustine concluded that although the earthly city was temporal, the heavenly city was eternal. Unfortunately, his answer, without his intention, became a theoretical basis for the hegemony of kings and popes for the following millennium, known to us as the dark ages.
Some characteristics of the church’s mission during Augustine’s time were: (1) the further institutionalization of the church, (2) the church’s gain of sociopolitical influence through imperial backing, and (3) energetically practicing charity out of monastic spirituality. Although the church was given freedom and authority that was unimaginable when it had been under persecution, the paradigm of practicing charity continued.
What if Augustine had envisioned that the crisis could be an opportunity? What if he called the church that was given authority to a mission of proclaiming jubilee ("deror" in Hebrew, which means "liberty," involving cancelling debts, releasing the enslaved, and restoring patrimony, as Jesus preached in his inauguration sermon in Luke 4:18-19), not only helping the poor but also eradicating the cause of poverty, and not only pursuing personal monastic ideals but also transmitting the ascetic zeal toward collective social reform? Rather than a dark age, the church may have been a beacon for a more just society in the world.
Today, Christian mission is carried out institutionally through a myriad of ecumenical global networks and partnerships, and the church still has socioeconomic, political, and cultural potential and influence. The question is, where are we using God’s given power and resources, particularly during this crisis? The coronavirus has exposed the bare face of the world system that is tainted with structural injustices and exploitations.
If the church is waiting to resume its mission business as usual, while not discerning the signs of time, we could be conspirators in another dark age. It is time to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, jubilee.
The pandemic has been a time for the church to examine its mission. All Christians want the post-pandemic church mission to be a renewed pilgrimage towards Jesus’s mission of giving the world life and giving it to the full. I wish to reflect on three things about mission during these times.
First, mission is looking back to our past.
For so long, Christian mission has been entangled with the modern ideology of progress and growth. The church, after a long period of vigorous mission engagement, is now feeling fatigued while wrestling with rapid social changes and facing an uncertain future. Mission includes action and reflection. The pandemic has been a time to slow down and reflect for the church. It would be good to utilize this temporary period as a Sabbath to look back at our mission thus far. To stop never means to quit mission. It is time for self-reflection before standing up and walking with a new mind and a renewed commitment. Looking back is a vital component of mission.
Second, mission is looking into ourselves.
Mission is God’s mission. Christian tradition teaches that mission overflows from the inner agape relationship among the triune God, from the creation of life, to sustaining and saving life, to completing life. We often tend to make God’s mission our own enterprise. With the limited freedom during this pandemic, we are led to investigate our mission motives and put ourselves at the right place in God’s mission. The reason why the church is so beautiful and special is because God has called it to be active participants in God’s life-giving mission in history.
Third, mission is looking forward to our future with jubilee imagination.
This dangerous virus has magnified an intersectionality of the pandemic with the other social problems, like poverty, racism, and climate injustices. The pandemic has shifted people’s question beyond mere superficial phenomena to something fundamentally structural. Do we have the answer? The biblical jubilee provides a new mission imagination.
Leviticus chapter 25 specifies the four elements of jubilee as (1) canceling debts, (2) freeing slaves, (3) returning land to original owner, and (4) laying the land fallow. To sum up, jubilee aimed to secure clothing, food, and shelter for all people and sustain life to the full, generation after generation.
By resetting their society with the jubilee cycle every 50 year and thus periodically eradicating the causes of socioeconomic polarization and inequality, the ancient Israel manifested their mission of radiating God’s holiness to other nations. Jubilee was the central theme of the Hebrew prophets in their criticism of the social structures and their efforts to energize the people for a better society. In his inauguration sermon, Jesus made his mission clear by proclaiming jubilee (Luke 4:18-19). And later Jesus’s jubilee was fused into the early Christian mission community, the koinonia.
From the jubilee perspective, salvation is to solve the most universal and urgent problem of each age through God’s people with God’s hearts and ways. John Wesley was one of God’s great people of jubilee, who, in pursuit of personal holiness, annunciated the good news to the people, and who, with the vision of social holiness, denounced structural problems, for instance, the enclosure that drove countless English peasants off of the land and thus to pauperism. On this deathbed, the late Father Reuben Archer Torrey III, an Anglican missionary in Korea who is my missionary role model, left this final word of his, “Go up to the roof and preach jubilee.”
Many people are hopeful because the end of the pandemic is gradually visible with vaccines. But a mere return to the past will be both impossible and irresponsible while facing an uncertain future. I pray that this pandemic is a seminal moment of a new Christian mission by looking back our past, looking into ourselves, and looking forward to our future with Jesus and jubilee.
Friday, March 5, 2021
Sam Hodges of United Methodist News Service wrote a good summary of the numerous statements that have come out from various groups and individuals about the future of The United Methodist Church in the past several weeks, many of them from outside the United States. True, other groups (such as Reconciling Ministries Network) not covered in the post have also made comments in the past several weeks, and the rundown predates the announcement of the further delay in General Conference and the naming of the Global Methodist Church. Still, the statements Hodges covers will continue to carry weight in denominational discussions. His summary is a good route into seeing how United Methodists have articulated some of the various positions within church politics that I laid out in the last post.
Wednesday, March 3, 2021
As detailed in my last post, The United Methodist Church is entering a new era of politics, one in which old patterns are being disrupted, leading to fluidity and unpredictability. Four major issues will confront the church—sexuality, unity vs. division, regionalization, and denominational institutions—that cannot be reduced to one another. These different issues have varying significance for individual United Methodists, and individuals’ opinions on one issue are not necessarily good predictors of their opinions on the other issues.
Within that context, this post will try to identify some of the different parties or groups within the church based on the issue or issues they find most important and their stance on issues. There are eight such groups identified. These groups also overlap at points. This variety of overlapping and intersecting groups should underscore the complexity of UMC politics at the present moment.
Traditionalists have historically been defined by a traditional understanding of sexuality, though not all with a traditional understanding of sexuality count as members of the Traditionalist bloc. Rather, Traditionalists are those who have prioritized engaging in social issue and theological fights within the denomination. This is a significant bloc within the United States with allies in Eurasia, the Philippines, and Africa. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News Magazine, The Confessing Movement, the Africa Initiative, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy are just some of the organizations associated with the Traditionalist bloc.
While historically the Traditionalist bloc has been most concerned with the UMC’s stance on sexuality, a shift has occurred, and the top priority issue for Traditionalists is now passage of the Protocol, which would allow them to leave the denomination relatively easily with their properties and a $25 million payout. Traditionalists appear ambivalent or hostile to efforts to regionalize the church or reform denominational institutions.
At the other end of the theopolitical spectrum, but in some ways mirroring the Traditionalists, are Liberationists who are planning to exit the denomination. This is a fairly small group of US United Methodists, mostly associated with the Liberation Methodist Connexion, but a number serve as General Conference delegates, making it a notable position. Although the group is defined by its views on sexuality, like Traditionalists, Liberationists’ top issue is currently leaving the denomination. Unlike Traditionalists, however, they are less focused on the Protocol as a means to do so. Like Traditionalists, they are ambivalent or hostile to what happens to the denominational structures they are leaving.
Progressives and Remaining Liberationists
There are a significant bloc of United Methodists in the United States and Europe who plan to remain in the UMC and whose top priority remains changing UMC policy to allow for the ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals and gay marriages. Reconciling Ministries Network and The Liberation Project are expressions of this group, and Progressive concerns are also included in UMC Next and Out of Chaos: Creation, though these groups also contain other elements (as indicated below). For many Progressives, anti-racist work is also a significant issue, though for Progressives in the United States, racism is understood in predominantly US-centric rather than global terms. Progressives and remaining liberationists are open to other issues, and some individuals are also part of other groups advocating for institutional reform, unity, and/or regionalization. For many Progressives, though, these other issues continue to be interpreted through the lens of their impact on sexuality.
There is a significant group of United Methodists around the world who may best be characterized by their loyalty to the institutions of the church and their concern for the future of those institutions. This group includes many bishops, cabinets, and agency staff. Some members of UMC Next are primarily Institutionalists. I believe the term Institutionalist is more helpful than Centrist, since this group is not primarily defined by their position on questions of sexuality but rather by their attachment to the institution; attitudes to sexuality (and other issues) vary within this group, and thus it overlaps with other groups, especially the Progressives, Internationalists, Regionalists, and Localists.
The primary political goal of this group is to preserve the current structures of the UMC to the extent possible. However, the “to the extent possible” phrase indicates the difficulties in achieving this goal and the diversity of approaches toward that goal. There is internal conflict among Institutionalists over how best to preserve structures and how much to spend on this effort. Most Institutionalists, though, form their opinions in response to various official proposals (GCFA proposals, episcopal study committee recommendations, calls by the bishops, etc.).
There is another group that is also primarily defined by their views on the institutions of the UMC. However, rather than trying to preserve those institutions, this group sees the current moment in the church as an opportunity to make significant changes and reforms to those institutions. Many also support regionalization as part of those larger changes. There is diversity within this group over how best to innovate, with a variety of unique solutions set forward. This is a very small group of inside players, including some bishops, agency staff, and church planters, but because they are inside players, their views garner attention.
There is a significant minority of United Methodists throughout the world who are primarily characterized by their commitment to preserving some sort of organic connection between different regions of the UMC, that is, unity. This view is strongest in the central conferences and finds expression in groups like the Christmas Covenant, central conference bishops, Africa Voices of Unity, and Out of Chaos: Creation (though that last group also reflects Progressive views).
This group is generally supportive of regionalization as a means to preserve (and reform) international connectional structures. Many are critical of colonialism (and its associated racism) in the church as a hindrance to international connectional structure. Members of this group hold a variety of views on denominational institutions, but they generally recognize a need to make some changes and reforms. This group also holds a variety of views regarding sexuality, with those views mainly falling out along geographic lines. Nevertheless, they are generally willing to let that issue be decided locally.
While the groups mentioned thus far are primarily defined by their stance on denomination-wide issues, the last two groups are characterized by a more limited geographic focus. Regionalists are those United Methodists who are most concerned with the future of the UMC in their region, regardless of what happens to the rest of the denomination globally. This is a significant position in the Western Jurisdiction in the United States and throughout the central conferences.
Regionalists may be either progressive (e.g., the Western Jurisdiction, Germany) or traditionalist (e.g., Africa) on issues of sexuality, but are mostly focused on finding local solutions to conflicts over sexuality, regardless of the actions of the rest of the denomination. Regionalists are generally supportive of regionalization (e.g., through passing the Christmas Covenant) as a means to facilitate a primary focus on regional issues. There is a significant overlap with internationalists, though the two groups differ in the emphasis given to the two parts of the formula “unity through regionalization.”
It is easy for United Methodist insiders to forget that the single largest group of laity and one of the most significant groups of clergy around the world is primarily concerned not with denomination-wide issues, but with church, district, and annual conference issues. Such a focus is almost non-existent among US General Conference delegates because of the nationalization of politics within the United States, but Localists are still a notable group among African, Filipino, and Eastern European delegates. These delegates are elected to General Conference not because of their position on denominational issues but because of their prominence within the annual conference. Indeed, some Localist delegates may be relatively uninformed or not have strong opinions on many denomination-wide issues. Because of their geographic background, Localists tend to be traditionalist in their understanding of sexuality, but this position does not necessarily predict their position on other pressing issues such as the Protocol, Christmas Covenant, or reforming denominational institutions.
An Era of New Parties
As I hope the above makes clear, it is difficult to predict any given United Methodist’s stance on the whole range of issues before the church based on their stance on any one issue. There are differences both among and within parties on the salience of issues and the right solution to those issues. This means that there is both a significant amount of uncertainty around how the church will move forward on its most pressing issues and a significant opportunity for forging new coalitions between various groups. Indeed, the politics of the UMC going forward will be determined by what new coalitions arise and how strong those coalitions prove to be.
Monday, March 1, 2021
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.
For years now, if not for decades, politics in The United Methodist Church have reflected politics in the United States: they have been dominated by a conflict between traditional and progressive blocs over social issues. In the UMC, the most contentious such issues have been gay marriage and gay ordination.
Things, however, are changing. Under the impact of a variety of forces, a new set of issues will dominate The United Methodist Church in the next few years, bringing with them new coalitions of players. This post will examine the new issues and the forces leading to their prominence, while a subsequent post will examine the new array of parties within the church as defined by these new issues.
The Forces Reshaping the UMC
There are three main forces that have pushed the church into a new era of internal politics. The first of these is the breakdown of existing denominational structures’ ability to manage the conflict over sexuality.
As much as this conflict has characterized the church for forty years, for much of this time, the denominational system gave players on both sides enough hope that their position could prevail that they were motivated to stay involved, and the rest of the work of the denomination could continue despite the conflict.
Increasingly over the last decade, but especially since the called General Conference in February 2019, the denominational system has no longer been up to this task. Various players are no longer willing to stay engaged in the fight within the denomination, and the conflict has derailed much of the rest of the work of the denomination. This has happened despite the best efforts of the bishops and the General Conference to find solutions.
The second significant force reshaping the denomination is the increasing voice of non-US United Methodists in denominational affairs. While people around the world have views on issues of sexuality, the conflict over sexuality in the UMC has been a predominantly US-driven issue. Non-US United Methodists are now pushing agendas that they have defined, rather than just responding to issues originating in the United States.
The increased power of voices from outside the United States is the result both of demographic trends in the denomination (decline in US membership and growth in members in the Congo and elsewhere) and a consequence of denominational breakdown. As US church leadership and existing structures have proven unable to manage the denomination’s conflicts, it has emboldened leadership from outside the United States to set forward their own agendas for the church.
The third force is the financial realities brought about by US membership decline. Even independently of the fallout of GC 2019 or the coronavirus pandemic, the UMC would have reached peak apportionments within the last quadrennium, the point at which a rise in the wealth of the US membership (which is the source of 99% of denominational funds) could no longer make up for a decline in that membership. The exodus of members and congregations after GC 2019 and the financial fallout of the pandemic have, however, made the financial situation worse.
The New Issues
Shaped by these three forces, The United Methodist Church must now struggle with a variety of issues that include but go beyond its previous preoccupation with debates over gay marriage and gay ordination. These include gay marriage and ordination, denominational separation, regionalization, and denominational institutions.
Gay marriage and gay ordination, to be sure, do remain significant issues within the church. The United Methodist Church continues to include both people that are committed to ensure that the UMC minister with and through LGBTQ+ persons and people that are committed to ensuring that current prohibitions remain. Many of these people will remain within the denomination, regardless of what happens, and thus will continue to advocate around this issue one way or another. Still, it is worth noting that most major legislation coming before the next General Conference does not directly address the denomination’s stance on this issue.
Some with strong positions on gay marriage and gay ordination, though, have decided that they want to leave the denomination, either to ensure that they may fully include LGBTQ+ persons or to ensure that traditional understandings of sexuality are upheld. For these people, the primary question is no longer what the official position of the UMC will be, but what the terms will be under which they can exit the denomination. On the opposing side, there are those, especially from the central conferences, who feel it is very important to preserve denominational unity and are opposed to formal separation of the denomination. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is a major legislative proposal related to this issue, but the issue of separation is not limited to passage or rejection of the Protocol, and trickles down to annual conference politics as well.
Another issue on which United Methodists from the Central Conferences have been making their voices heard is the need for greater regionalization, contextualization, and equality across branches of the church. United Methodists from the central conferences have been interested in this issue for some time, and the current disfunction within the US UMC has given new impetus to press for changes to the denomination’s organization that would preserve connection but separate out predominantly US matters from denomination-wide discussions and give other areas of the world greater equality with the US branch of the church.
Since this sort of restructuring can only happen through act of the General Conference, this issue is particularly General Conference-focused. The major piece of legislation here is the Christmas Covenant, which was put forward by a coalition of United Methodists from outside the United States. These United Methodists will resist the framing of regionalization as a progressive/Traditionalist issue, a framing that contributed to the failure of previous attempts at regionalization, such as proposed 2008 amendments to the church’s constitution.
Finally, there are a set of issues related to the denominational institutions of the church that have taken on significance in light of the denomination’s financial situation and forecasted future. These include the questions of how much in apportionments to ask of (US) churches, how to respond to a shortfall in episcopal funding (including how many bishops to elect), how to carry forward the work of the boards and agencies with reduced funding, and how to respond to reduced budgets at the local and regional levels (including reductions in annual conference budgets and possible redrawing of annual conference lines). In essence, these questions can be boiled down to one: How much of the current denominational institutions can and should be preserved, given current financial realities?
While General Conference 2012’s Plan UMC debate is a predecessor to the current debates, today’s debates go beyond a focus on the general boards and agencies. These financial and structural concerns are in some ways more pressing in the United States, since they effect all levels of church budgets in the United States and since the boards and agencies are all based in the United States. Nevertheless, they have implications around the world, given how significant US funding is for the church globally.
These financial issues are unique in that the questions are not necessarily either/or (as in allow/disallow gay ordination, leave/stay in the denomination, and regionalize/continue current the structure). While there may be either/or elements to these questions (restructure agencies or not, for example), there are also questions of quantity (how many bishops to elect?) and quality (how much support of ministries should agencies provide?).
An Era of New Issues
Each of these four issues has implications for the others, but none of them can simply be reduced to a function of another. And in the same way, the positions that United Methodists are taking around these issues cannot be reduced to a simple progressive/traditionalist division. As I will detail in an upcoming post, there are now a host of parties within the UMC based on which issue is most important and positions on that issue.
Given the amount of change afoot, United Methodist politics are entering a period of fluidity and unpredictability, as old patterns are disrupted. Within that setting, those who continue to understand United Methodist politics primarily in the dualistic terms that have sufficed in recent years will fundamentally misunderstand what is happening in the denomination now.