Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Bayanihan and Connectionalism

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.

The United Methodist leaders from Asia, Africa, and Europe behind the Christmas Covenant, the first major piece of UMC legislation from outside the United States, have identified three guiding principles behind that legislation: We are all children of God, ubuntu, and bayanihan. Two of these principles are notable in drawing on non-Western cultural concepts.

In the spirit of cross-cultural dialogue, I will treat the statement of these principles as an invitation to the whole church to engage in theological reflection on ubuntu and bayanihan and consider how these concepts can contain lessons for Methodist/Wesleyan theological thinking in other contexts as well. In this post, I will reflect on the connection between bayanihan and connectionalism. In a previous post, I reflected on the connection between ubuntu and sanctification.

The description of bayanihan offered by the Christmas Covenant reads as follows:

Bayanihan is a cherished ancient Filipino concept of community spirit and cooperation to achieve communal goals. Rooted in the word bayan, which means nation or community, bayanihan has been traditionally expressed through concrete community support for families that need to relocate. The able- bodied persons of the barrio carry the entire wood and bamboo house and transfers it to a new location, especially in anticipation of typhoons, floods, and landslides. This might be rare in these modern times, but the spirit of bayanihan is alive in the hearts of Filipinos when they act as one community in support of one another in times of need, even when it is deemed impossible to do so.

This description of cooperation towards communal goals made me think about connectionalism.

When I think about connectionalism, I tend to think about it both as an ecclesiology and as a practice. As an ecclesiology, connectionalism refers to the belief that the nature of the church is located in the connections among local congregations. In that sense, it is a counter to congregationalism, which proclaims that a local congregation is fully the church by itself. Connectionalism as an ecclesiology says (in perhaps an ubuntu sort of way) that local congregations can only be the church in connection with one another.

As a practice, connectionalism refers to the ways in which congregations and other denominational entities (annual, central, and jurisdictional conferences; boards and agencies; committees and commissions; etc.) collaborate in mission and ministry. Here, I tend to think of connectionalism as expressing a "we can do more together" sentiment.

The parallels between bayanihan and connectionalism as a practice are perhaps easy to see. Both refer to collective action, to mutual ministry carried out in cooperation.

But thinking about connectionalism through the lens of bayanihan highlighted two dimensions of connectionalism that I had not given full attention to previously.

First, bayanihan really connects the ecclesiological and the practical elements of connectionalism. Bayan means community, and so the practice of bayanihan is rooted in a sense of shared communal identity. That shared communal identity is perhaps analogous to the ecclesiological understanding of connectionalism: We are the church together. And it is that shared bayan communal identity that makes the practice of bayanihan cooperation possible. We can practice connectionalism when we believe we are a connection.

Second, bayanihan highlights for me the reciprocity in connectionalism. Bayanihan is about each member of the community contributing to communal projects, but it is also about potentially any member of the community who happens to be in need (because their house has been endangered) being able to receive help from the community. It is about "support of one another" in a mutual give and take.

I think that view helps resolve a debate among US United Methodists about whether connectional institutions exist to serve congregations or to allow congregations to serve in broader ways. This debate is expressed through criticisms of agencies as too top-down or of congregations as always wanting to do their own thing regardless of where the rest of the church is focused.

A bayanihan understanding of connectionalism suggests that connectionalism exists both to serve congregations and to allow congregations to serve. The principle of bayanihan suggests that connectionalism exists to allow congregations to support one another in their ministry. Sometimes that means the congregations are willing to contribute work and resources towards goals that the entire group has identified (probably through conference structures). Sometimes that means that the entire group works to support individual congregations that are struggling or negatively impacted by significant events. Connectionalism goes both ways.

I have intended these two pieces reflecting on principles from the Christmas Covenant to model intercultural theological reflection and an openness to learn from concepts from other cultural backgrounds. I hope these examples inspire more such dialogue in our connection.

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