Wednesday, January 25, 2023

5 UMC Story Lines for Spring 2023

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.

After the conclusion of episcopal elections in November and the focus on Advent and the Christmas season last month, United Methodists are now beginning to discern what 2023 has in store for them, individually and collectively.

Of course, the most important story lines in The United Methodist Church remain the routine, every day, often overlooked work in congregations and conferences around the world of making disciples for the transformation of the world. Such work doesn’t always garner headlines, but it remains the heart of United Methodism.

What follows is five story lines to watch this spring on a connectional level. That is, they are story lines that impact the sorts of relationships (United) Methodists have with one another and the conversations about being the church that occur within those relationships. There is one story for each of the four regions of the church, plus one world-wide story.

United States: How will disaffiliations play out?
Disaffiliation of local churches has been a phenomenon mostly limited to the United States. Book of Discipline Paragraph 2553 provides a path for congregations in the United States (but not elsewhere) to leave the denomination by the end of this year.

About 2,000 of the denomination’s 30,000 churches exercised that option in 2022, but it is unclear how many more will leave. Exiting Traditionalists have sought to take as many congregations as possible, while those remaining in the denomination have in some instances sought to make the process more difficult to retain as many churches as possible.

Those remaining in the UMC have some incentive to try to wrap up the disaffiliation process this year so that they can turn their energy into renovating the denomination that remains. Some annual conferences have already scheduled end-of-year meetings to finalize 2023 disaffiliations. However, recent developments such as a new process for disaffiliation in South Carolina and a pause on disaffiliations in North Georgia open the possibility for the process to drag out beyond 2023.

Africa: How will the bishops, the Africa Initiative, and other groups shape the future of the church?
The African bishops released a statement last September in which they pledged loyalty to the UMC and condemned advocacy groups such as the Africa Initiative and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. While the statement caught many in the United States by surprise, it merely brought into the light a long simmering and slowly growing conflict between the bishops and the Africa Initiative.

That conflict continues, and both groups will continue to use the resources at their command to push for their vision of the future of the church – in the case of the bishops, one in which the UMC in Africa remains a part of the worldwide connection, and in the case of the Africa Initiative, one in which the church in Africa considers other possibilities starting in 2024.

One factor that may add to how these debates shape up is the creation of a new group, the United Methodist Africa Forum, a group of Africans promoting loyalty to the UMC. It remains to be seen whether this new group (or other similar groups, like the Voice of Africa Unity) will become significant players in the debates about the future of The United Methodist Church in Africa.

Philippines: Can new bishops keep the church united?
Amidst conflict elsewhere, the recently retired Filipino bishops have been remarkably successful in holding the church in the Philippines together and focused on their common mission and ministry in the Filipino setting. Moreover, Filipino advocacy for the Christmas Covenant and the idea of regionalization more broadly has made a distinctive contribution to debates about the future of the worldwide connection.

Three new bishops are new serving in the Philippines as of the start of the month. Indications are that they intend to continue the approach of their predecessors, emphasizing Filipino unity and a regional focus on the church’s ministry in the Philippines.

However, they will need to nurture the relationships and spread the messages necessary to pull off such a vision while also learning the ropes of a new and multifaceted ministry role. Many Filipino annual conferences happen in the spring, so these annual conferences will be a chance for the bishops to establish themselves and to solidify their vision for the future of the church.

Europe: Can plans to maintain unity within diversity hold?
Europe received a lot of United Methodist attention in 2022 because it was the site of the first annual conference seeking to leave The United Methodist Church: the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference. Methodists in Estonia and the Slovak Republic have also indicated their desire to leave, and indications are that Methodists in the Eurasia Episcopal Area will follow suit.

Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about European Methodism is not that some are leaving but that many are staying, including those with differing views on sexuality, different theological emphases, different languages, and different cultures. Such unity has been forged by carefully negotiated compromises built on a long history of connectional relationships.

Yet such arrangements remain fragile and will require continued effort and goodwill to maintain. If Europeans succeed in this task, however, it will serve as an example to United Methodists elsewhere.

Worldwide: What will the focus of legislative conversations for 2024 be?
Because the 2024 General Conference is the delayed 2020 General Conference, all legislation initially submitted for 2020 remains in effect. Yet, much has changed in the 4-5 years since that legislation was written, and new, additional legislation may still be submitted. That means that the legislative priorities for General Conference 2024 remain very much up in the air.

On some level, it will be impossible to tell what the focus for General Conference 2024 will be until shortly before or even at the General Conference.

But on another level, groups wanting to shape the conversations leading into 2024 have an incentive to begin pushing their legislative packages (existing or to-be-submitted) much sooner. While there is the possibility of significant shifts in attention in the intervening months, the first group to really bring attention to a proposal can help set the terms of the debate. The supporters of the Christmas Covenant continue to advocate for that legislative package. Others may join the debate to promote their own hoped-for reforms later this spring.

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