History can be an unstable basis for denominational unity, writes Dr. David W. Scott. Shared history can create pride in identity or it can emphasize the differences between supposed group-mates.
This is the second in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.
Last week, I began looking at the question of what constitutes the basis of unity for The United Methodist Church. I examined whether theology could serve as a useful basis for unity and concluded it couldn’t. This week, I’d like to examine another answer which serves better than theology but ends up coming up a little short itself; that answer is history.
As a church historian, let me be the first to affirm that denominations arise out of particular historical contexts and that their present shapes are the result of historical processes that have operated on them since their formation. The United Methodist Church has a historical past that includes John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Philip Otterbein, Jacob Albrecht, the circuit riders, various schisms over race and holiness, James Thoburn, the Central Jurisdiction, commitment to temperance, and a whole host of other characters and movements.
We may be prouder of some of the pieces of our past (John Wesley’s opposition to slavery, perhaps), and we may be less proud of some of them (the racism of creating a segregated Central Jurisdiction). Some of them may resonate with us better (Charles Wesley’s hymns), and some of them may resonate with us less well (who is James Thoburn, anyway?). But to be a United Methodist is to share, in some way, this past or heritage.
There’s a difference, though, between saying denominations are historical creatures and saying history is a sufficient basis for denominational unity. To see why, imagine two high school reunions. At the first, the alum goes and has a great time. She or he enjoys seeing old friends, catching up, and reliving the glory days of their time together. The party goes long into the night.
At the second high school reunion, the alum goes, but doesn’t have a good time. He or she talks to friends from high school, but realizes after exchanging a few stories about the past that he or she no longer has anything in common with these people other than those stories about the past. She or he feels uncomfortable and leaves soon.
That’s the same way history works for denominations. In some cases, it can really make you happy with and proud of your identity as a member of a group. In other cases, it just emphasizes the differences between you and your supposed group-mates, and you leave anyway.
What makes the difference between the two cases? First, you need to identify enough with that past for it to mean something to you. If you didn’t like your high school experience, then you won’t even go to the reunion. If the past doesn’t mean anything to the people in the pews or they don’t know it, then it’s not going to further denominational unity.
The key, though, to both having the past mean something to people and to having it be a source of unity (like in the good high school reunion) is that the past can’t just be the past. It must be connected to the present. Unless we recognize who we were in high school as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find we have nothing in common with people at a reunion. Unless we recognize who we were as a denomination in the past as connected to who we are today, we are likely to find our history to be just boring stories about dead people who lived long ago.
Thus, history in and of itself is insufficient grounds for denominational unity. It doesn’t work to say, “We’re a denomination because we were a denomination in the past.” Inertia is a great force in church life, and so the answer of “we’ve always done it that way in the past” will carry you a certain distance, but it doesn’t ultimately make for vitality or the ability to move forward.
History can, however, be used as a tool to aid in the creation of denominational identity in two ways. First, examining our past can be a good source of ideas when we’re casting around to figure out what exactly it is that constitutes denominational identity. Second, telling ourselves stories about our shared past can reinforce that sense of common identity once we’ve identified what it is.
Yet we must choose that identity in the here and now. It isn’t automatically given to us by history, and the effective telling of history to create denominational unity requires a preexisting notion of common identity.
Thus, history may end up being an effective vehicle for conveying unity. Nevertheless, history must be used intentionally to create unity. Relying on unreflective notions of “how it’s always been” just isn’t good enough.
Christians are once again in the midst of the Season of Creation, a month-long focus by Christians from many traditions around the world on the Church’s role in caring for God’s creation. In light of this month’s focus, here is a rundown of some creati…
This is the first in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.
Starting this week, and for the next several weeks, I’d like to look at the question of the basis of unity in The United Methodist Church.
I think a lot of Christians, especially those from creedal traditions, assume that the basis for unity should be theology or belief. I don’t think this works for United Methodism, though, and I’m not sure how well it works for any non-creedal tradition (or creedal tradition, for that matter).
Before I explain, let me make a disclaimer: I’m not saying in this post that theology doesn’t matter or that people should be able to believe anything they want and still call themselves a Christian or a United Methodist. I think theology does matter. I personally believe a number of things quite fervently and hope others do, too. I even think belief is something that’s worth arguing about at times. So, I’m not saying in this post that belief is unimportant. I’m saying that theology can’t serve as a good basis for unity in The United Methodist Church.
The first reason why theology is an insufficient basis for unity is that, if we look at the church today, it is not a current source of unity. In fact, it’s often a source of division within the church. Liberals and conservatives fight like weasels (a phrase I once heard a United Methodist layperson use to describe General Conference) over theological issues. In order to go from where we are now to a place where theology is the basis for United Methodist unity, either someone would have to persuade a whole lot of people or kick a whole lot of people out of the church. The first seems unrealistic, the latter unacceptable.
Second, it’s not really clear what theological pieces we would set up as the basis for United Methodist unity, were we to try to go that route. Most of what either evangelical or liberal United Methodists would like to get everyone to believe isn’t distinctively United Methodist but is tied into larger theological currents in the U.S. that cut across denominations, so in many cases, neither side is really presenting a distinctively Methodist vision of theological unity.
We could, then, turn to the Book of Discipline to see what it has to say about the doctrinal basis for Methodist unity. But it turns out the Book of Discipline is not very helpful in this regard. It states that the 25 Articles (John Wesley’s condensation/reduction of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Faith) and John Wesley’s sermons shall be the standards of Methodist theology. Added to that are the EUB Confession of Faith.
But that’s such a large body of works that it’s not really useful in defining standards of United Methodist theology to serve as a basis for unity. It’s certainly no five point creed. There are many strands within the Sermons, Articles, and Confession on which to draw. Plus, how many people are you going to get to read even the 25 Articles and Confession, let alone all of Wesley’s sermons (which even most Methodist seminarians don’t read in their entirety)?
If we can’t use these textual resources for unity, perhaps we could identify a couple of historically distinctive doctrines as the theological basis for United Methodist unity. Here, two of the most distinctive Methodist doctrines have been an Arminian approach to salvation and the doctrine of sanctification. Arminianism states that God offers God’s grace freely to all, enabling humans to respond by accepting that grace. The doctrine of sanctification states that God is capable of making humans perfect in love while we are yet alive, and we should all be striving for that.
The problem with Arminianism, though, is that it’s been so widely successful as a theology in the United States that it’s no longer distinctively Methodist. The emphasis within a lot of Arminianism has shifted from free grace to free will, and almost everyone wants to believe in free will in this country. Even a lot of Calvinists or people from Calvinist traditions have become Arminians. Hence, saying that United Methodists are going to be known as the people who believe in free grace and free will Arminianism is like saying Burger King is going to be known as the fast food place that serves burgers. It’s true, but it’s not like there aren’t others making burgers, so it’s not really something that would set them apart.
Which leaves us with sanctification. The problem with trying to make sanctification the theological basis for United Methodist unity is that so few United Methodist actually know what the doctrine is and know that it’s a traditional Methodist doctrine. Of those who do, probably even a smaller number actually believe in the possibility of entire sanctification in this life. I think it’s sad, but nonetheless true, that Methodists have lost touch with the doctrine of sanctification. Given that that’s true, though, it seems like it would be a lot of work to try to reclaim sanctification as the basis of theological unity in the church.
Therefore, I don’t think theology works as the basis for unity in The United Methodist Church. That may make some upset or uneasy, but I don’t think that means there aren’t other possible bases for unity. Agreement on a set list of beliefs is not the basis of unity for families, the Army, knitting groups, or Phish fans, yet there is something which holds each of these groups together. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue to look at some of these other possible grounds for Methodist unity.
Readers of this blog will be interested to learn of a series of projects and events over the next couple of years celebrating the bicentennial of Methodist mission. The text for an announcement from Global Ministries about that bicentennial follows. More information about the bicentennial can be found at www.methodistmission200.org.
“Over the next two years a series of celebrations will recognize Methodism’s bicentennial of mission, which will occur in 2019 in accord with the 1819 founding of the Missionary Society by the Methodist Episcopal Church, a forerunner to The United Methodist Church. It is exciting that the year 2019 will also recognize the 150th anniversary of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, also of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
“This will be a celebratory time not only for honoring mission in the life of the church, but also for drawing the church further into God’s mission. It will be a time to reflect on the practice of mission, within local churches, annual conferences, and throughout the Methodist family. What have Methodists learned from our past in mission? How is God moving among Methodists today? Where is God calling Methodists to go in mission in the future?
“From its beginning, inspired by lay persons, teachers, church leaders, and clergy in annual conferences, mission has grown to include evangelizing; starting new churches; alleviating suffering; building peace; empowering women; working for justice; training leaders in society; conducting medical missions; starting new schools, hospitals, clinics, and printing presses; and witnessing to the kingdom of God!
“For the celebrations over the next two years, there will be two key components.
“One component will be the collection of stories of Methodists in mission, especially from annual conferences and autonomous Methodist churches. Methodist around the world have stories about their historic participation and current work in mission. Methodist scholars and students, annual conference and autonomous church leaders, and clergy and laity engaged in mission are invited to submit their stories. Collecting and celebrating these stories will be an important means of understanding the many faces of Methodist mission. A website, www.methodistmission200.org, will gather and share these stories.
“The bicentennial will also include a world conference of mission leaders and scholars. Sponsored by Global Ministries, in collaboration with Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, GA, USA, the conference will be called “Answering the Call: Hearing God’s Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present, and Future.” It will be held in Atlanta, GA, USA, at the Emory University Conference Center Hotel, April 8-10, 2019. The conference will celebrate Methodism’s mission heritage and look to the future of mission. A call for papers is available at http://bit.ly/2rAMEQw
“The dates for the conference were chosen to coincide closely with the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Society on April 5, 1819, formed to support the work of John Stewart, a free African-American, among the Wyandotte Native American people of Ohio.
“Questions about the bicentennial may be sent to Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology, Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, [and blogmaster for this site] at dscott (at) umcmission.org.”
Lloyd Narota, a United Methodist pastor originally from Zimbabwe but serving a Zimbabwean immigrant congregation in Canada, has recently published an opinion piece on UM Insight on how The United Methodist Church should proceed in its global restr…
With the Commission on A Way Forward looking at “loosening” the United Methodist connectional structure, Dr. David W. Scott examines the identity of the Central Conferences around the world.
As the Commission on a Way Forward talks about “loosening” the United Methodist connectional system, Dr. David W. Scott looks at the identities of each Central Conference around the world.
The Commission on a Way Forward has been worked to develop plans for a new way of structuring The United Methodist Church to preserve some degree of connection and shared ministry while accommodating different and at times fundamentally opposed views of homosexuality. The commission has indicated that their plan will likely entail a “loosening” of the current UMC connection. If the connection will change, it’s worthwhile to carefully examine the question of what the various central conferences might do in such a loosening of the connection. A previous piece looked at how these issues might play out in Europe and the Philippines. This piece looks at the three African central conferences.
Congo Central Conference
The Congo Central Conference is the largest, fastest-growing, and most cohesive of the central conferences in Africa. It contains the largest annual conference in the denomination (North Katanga). The Congo Central Conference has more members than the Southeast Jurisdiction and thus potentially has significant clout at General Conference. As with the Philippines, national boundaries and ecclesiastical boundaries largely overlap (though Zambia and Tanzania are also part of the Congo Central Conference), thus reinforcing a sense of shared identity, despite at times violent differences between ethnic and linguistic groups.
In general, Africans have one of the most conservative sets of views about homosexuality of any group globally. That does not, however, mean they are monolithically opposed to homosexuality, nor does it mean that this issue is the most important in the African context. Often, overwhelming opposition actually means that the issue is not important in the day-to-day life of the church in Africa, since such opposition can just be assumed without reinforcement. This is largely true in the Congo.
Often in recent years, the Congolese have voted at General Conference with conservative leaders from the Southeast Jurisdiction. This connection, however, goes back before recent debates about sexuality and other American culture war issues. Half of the Congolese church stems from mission work of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and thus there has been a close connection between Congolese and Southern US-Americans since the start of Methodism in the Congo. That relationship continues today. For example, newly elected bishop Kasap Owan is close friends with conservative North Georgia leader Joe Kilpatrick. Whatever their connections to the SEJ, though, the Congolese are their own people with their own interests and agendas, and it is an unhelpful stereotype to simply assume that they will support a plan simply because the SEJ wants them to.
One of the agendas for the Congolese UMC is continued financial support from the US. The Democratic Republic of Congo is an extremely poor country (perhaps the poorest in the world), and US money pays for churches, schools, hospitals, and even pastors’ salaries. The Congolese UMC is capable of raising their own money at times – they built a $2 million cathedral in Lubumbashi with their own money – and attitudes about dependency are beginning to change. Nevertheless, the Congolese church as a whole would be hurt if they lost funding from the US.
Moreover, the SEJ is not the only region to have close relations with Congolese United Methodists. The West Ohio Annual Conference, for instance, also has a close relationship, especially with North Katanga. West Ohio has, for instance, sponsored the critically important Wings of the Morning aviation ministry in North Katanga, along with Greater New Jersey.
Thus, it is reasonable to expect the Congo to continue as a unit, with the possible exception of its English-speaking annual conferences in Zambia and Tanzania. It is unlikely that the Congolese would support a plan to change standards on homosexuality for the denomination as a whole. Nevertheless, the Congolese might support some sort of plan that would change the denomination if it allowed them to continue to collaborate in mission with a variety of annual conferences across the US. Thus, the Congolese might be receptive to a multiple US denominations approach if it left their relations with the rest of the denomination relatively intact.
Retired Congolese bishop David Yemba’s role as a moderator of the Commission on a Way Forward and Congolese bishop Mande Muyombo’s and Wings of Caring pilot Jacques Umembudi’s role as members of the Commission on a Way Forward will carry significant weight in promoting the plan to their fellow Congolese United Methodists. In the Congo, as in much of Africa, United Methodists generally follow their bishop’s leadership. Hence, Congolese (and other African) support will depend on whether their bishops see such a plan as beneficial to them and their regions.
West Africa Central Conference
The West Africa Central Conference contains United Methodists in four main countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire – along with smaller mission work in Senegal and the Gambia. Three of the countries in West Africa are English-speaking, while Cote d’Ivoire is primarily French-speaking and was not part of the denomination prior to 2008.
While relations between United Methodists in Liberia and Sierra Leone are often tight, connections among Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and the other two countries are less robust. The West Africa Central Conference does not collaborate much beyond its quadrennial meetings. National branches have a degree of leeway in selecting their own bishops, reinforcing a national-level sense of identity. There have, however, been instances in which the WACC has disregarded national-level opinions in episcopal elections, which has only served to create tensions amongst the national branches.
Civil wars and unrest in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have left churches there reliant on international economic assistance to rebuild damaged infrastructure, though the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences in particular have shown an interest in achieving greater self-sufficiency, meaning they are perhaps less threatened by the economic ramifications of a loosening of the connection than the Congolese might.
In general, views on homosexuality are conservative, as in the rest of Africa. Jerry Kulah, one of leaders of the Africa Initiative and an outspoken voice for maintaining strong opposition to homosexuality in the UMC, is from Liberia. Nevertheless, views are not monolithic. Reconciling Ministries has had productive visits to Liberia.
Still, it is unlikely that West Africans would vote to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. West Africans, however, might be willing to go along with a plan for several denominations under an umbrella of the UMC. There are no Liberians or Sierra Leoneans on the Commission on a Way Forward, which could hurt the plan’s chances in West Africa, especially if Jerry Kulah comes out in opposition to it. Bishop John Wesley Johanna’s membership on the Commission will help the plan’s fate in Nigeria.
What will also be interesting to see is whether the West Africa Central Conference would continue to exist in its present formation in a new UMC. The Central Conference is not plagued by the same tensions as the Africa Central Conference (see below), so inertia might be enough to carry it forward. Yet if things are changing in the UMC, it may be a chance for national branches of the UMC in West Africa to reassess the value to them of collaborating through a common central conference. Such reassessment is more likely if they are asked to write a common Book of Discipline. National differences may yield little interest in such a common Book of Discipline.
Africa Central Conference
The Africa Central Conference is the least cohesive of all the central conferences. It contains three lingua francas, five episcopal areas, ten or more different countries, and dozens of ethnic groups and local languages. All this diversity yields a central conference that, quite frankly, has little in common amongst itself. The quadrennial meetings of the central conference are often marked with difficulties regarding language, meeting location, and procedural questions, and the central conference as such has no existence beyond these meetings in the form of joint ministry.
As with most of the rest of Africa, views on homosexuality tend to be conservative, though South Africa, which has relatively liberal views on homosexuality is in this region, too. Forbes Matonga from the Africa Initiative is from Zimbabwe, though the issue of sexuality is not a top priority for most in the region.
Annual conferences here are less likely to be in close relationship with the Southeast Jurisdiction. ACC annual conferences partner with a variety of American annual conferences. For example, the Mozambique Episcopal Area has a close relationship with Missouri. Moreover, for Portuguese-speaking annual conferences, connections to the autonomous Methodist Church in Brazil are important along with UMC connections.
The episcopal areas are also varying degrees of economically self-sufficient. All countries still have economic struggles and benefit from US support, especially for medical infrastructure, but the basic operations of the annual conferences (pastors’ salaries and theological education) are not as heavily subsidized by the US as elsewhere in Africa. The East Africa Episcopal Area has been operating without much US funds for the last several years because of financial disputes between Global Ministries and US annual conferences on the one hand and Bishop Daniel Wandabula on the other.
Thus, the Africa Central Conference might be quite open to a loosening of the connection, not only with United Methodists elsewhere, but amongst itself, especially if that yields more autonomy for national or regional level groups. Even before the Commission on a Way Forward, there were proposals to split the Africa Central Conference into four. If the Commission proposes an approach that allows sub-units of the UMC to craft their own Books of Discipline, there is no reason to expect that the Africa Central Conference would try to do that together. Instead, look for up to four separate Books of Discipline for this region – Angola, Zimbabwe, Southeast Africa, and East Africa.
As stated in the introduction, the debate over homosexuality might be primarily American, but if the church is revamping its structures, that process can play out in different ways around the globe. It would be wrong to think that changes in the structure of the church in the US will not lead to any changes in the structure of the church elsewhere.
In summary, look for Europeans to strengthen their connections to each other while connections loosen elsewhere, perhaps implementing a local option to accommodate differences over homosexuality among themselves. Look for the Philippines to continue as is in terms of structure and stance on homosexuality or possibly to seek full autonomy from the denomination. Look for the map of African Central Conferences to be reshaped, especially in the south and east, while all branches uphold current teachings on sexuality.
The Commission on a Way Forward has been worked to develop plans for a new way of structuring The United Methodist Church to preserve some degree of connection and shared ministry while accommodating different and at times fundamentally opposed views of homosexuality. The commission has indicated that their plan will likely entail a “loosening” of the current UMC connection.
Generally, this “loosening” of the connection has been assumed to imply separate groups (mini-denominations? semi-denominations?) in the United States under some sort of common umbrella. Chris Ritter has provided an analysis of what such a scenario could look like in the United States. Part of the debate currently seems to be over whether there will be two (conservative and progressive) or three (conservative, moderate, and progressive) such denominations.
All discussions that I have seen so far either ignore the question of what will happen to the Central Conferences under such a scenario or assume that the Central Conferences will continue as they currently exist while the US church splits apart (Chris’s piece, for instance, makes this assumption). Nevertheless, if the connection will change, it’s worthwhile to carefully examine the question of what the various central conferences might do in such a loosening of the connection.
This question of the impact of the Commission’s work on the central conferences includes not just the question of where various parts of the UMC stand on issues of sexuality, but also what sorts of changes in structure might be prompted globally by a period in which United Methodists are rethinking the nature of their connections to one another. The debate over homosexuality might be primarily American, but if the church is revamping its structures, that process can play out in different ways around the globe. It would be wrong to think that changes in the structure of the church in the US will not lead to any changes in the structure of the church elsewhere.
This post and a following one will give my attempt to analyze the possibilities. This post will examine Europe and the Philippines, while the following one will examine the three African central conferences.
Many assume that on the issue of sexuality, Europeans are progressive. This is because when Americans think of Europe, they tend to think of Western Europe and assume that the church has the same progressive views on sexuality as the majority of Western Europeans do. Both parts of this assumption, however, are not fully accurate.
It is true that some European Annual Conferences have progressive views on sexuality. The Denmark Annual Conference was one of two challenging the constitutionality of the Book of Disciple language on homosexuality. Yet, I have seen indications that French United Methodists are more conservative on this question than French society as a whole.
Moreover, within Europe, there is a significant divide between Western European and Eastern European views on homosexuality, both within society and within the church. The Estonia Annual Conference passed a resolution affirming marriage as between one man and one woman. Denmark and Estonia are in the same central conference and even the same episcopal area. Hence, significant differences of opinion on sexuality exist within Europe.
Yet to assume that homosexuality is the most pressing issue for the churches in Europe is to misunderstand them on a more fundamental level. The branches of the UMC in Europe are small and exist precariously in the shadow of various state churches. Connections to international United Methodists elsewhere are crucial for European UMs to legitimize their existence in their home contexts.
Because there are three central conferences in Europe, not all European United Methodists need take the same option. Nevertheless, connections amongst European United Methodists tend to be tight, especially between those from the Germany and Central and Southern Europe Central Conferences. Because of the importance of international connection for all European United Methodists, it is reasonable to expect the European Central Conferences to all choose a common path.
That path could, therefore, be the status quo. It could, however, also include the adoption of some sort of local option in Europe that would accommodate the differences of opinion that exist there. It could also include the formation of some sort of regional body that would unite the separate central conferences. Especially if their ties to the US and Africa are loosened, it may be more important for Europeans to strengthen ties with one another. Another version of this possibility would be for European United Methodists to strengthen ties with other European Methodists (British, Irish, Italian, etc.) to compensate for loosened ties with United Methodists elsewhere. Full union with other Methodist churches in Europe would be unlikely because of the amount of work involved, but there might be other forms of possible closer ties.
The Philippines are a single Central Conference with a great deal of cohesion as a central conference. The overlap between national and ecclesiastical borders reinforces a sense of Filipino United Methodism. There are several shared institutions and agencies that serve all parts of Filipino United Methodism. While in the US, it can be argued that annual conferences are the basic level of polity, in the Philippines, most of the programmatic activities of the church, which would be annual conference-level programs in the US, are organized at the episcopal area or central conference level. Certainly, there are ethnic and language differences among different groups of Filipino United Methodists, but the sense of solidarity among Filipino United Methodists is fairly high.
The majority of Filipinos are still generally conservative on the issue of homosexuality, but the Philippines has been willing to hold conversations about sexuality at which a range of viewpoints are represent. I don’t expect the Philippines to press for radical change in their own or any other United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality, but neither is homosexuality the presenting issue for debates about orthodoxy in the Philippines. United Methodism in the Philippines largely preserves an older strain of Methodism in which traditional theology with a revivalist twist goes hand in hand with a progressive stance on social issues such as poverty, indigenous rights, and the climate. Filipino United Methodism doesn’t experience the same sort of culture wars and theological wars that the US does.
Thus, the Philippines could likely be willing to continue on in their current arrangement as a central conference with the current BOD restrictions on sexuality. Another possibility, however, would be that a loosening of UMC connections might prompt the Philippines to become autonomous. The Philippines were the only branch of Asian Methodism that did not elect to become autonomous between 1964 and 1972. There have occasionally been pushes for autonomy since then, though they have never resulted in a vote in favor of autonomy. Nevertheless, if the UMC is rethinking its structure, that may present an occasion for Filipino Methodists to rethink their relation to the UMC.