Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Re-Structuring the Global Church

Last week a report was issued from a General Conference task force that would create a new central or regional conference in the United States. The interim report from the Global Nature of the Church Committee to General Conference proposes legislation that would extend the study time for this task force to 2012 at which point they envision a new structuring of the Church in which the United States becomes a central or regional conference.

While the proposal would not change the number, purpose and function of jurisdictional conferences; the way bishops are elected or assigned; the purpose or mission of any church wide agency; the size or power of General Conference; the way the Social Principles are decided upon or amended; or the apportionment formulas and allocations, it would strike all the references to central conferences as only outside of the US and replace the language of "central" conferences with "regional" conferences in order to move away from the racist past of central jurisdictions in the US. This would in essence allow the US to become its own regional conference.

These proposals stem from a desire to embody the denomination's theological commitment to being a global Church. The report notes the undue influence of the United States in church wide governance as evident in the Book of Resolutions, stating,"It disempowers central conferences from being fully actualized within the body and allows the church in the United States to escape responsibility from dealing with its internal issues." This imbalance in perspective threatens the Church's ability to be whole. The document goes on to say, "To be whole is to value all. Our structure must reflect this value and prompt us to ever-greater degrees of responsibility for reflecting God's reign in the church and the world."

Yet, while the intent behind the proposal is important, I am left to wonder how effective this structural change would be for the Church as a whole.

For those seeking a dismantling of colonial hierarchy, this proposal seems to do little to address the economic imbalance between the United States and other central or regional conferences. Although the US would in theory be equal to all others, in reality the US regional conference would still hold the purse strings to the bulk of wealth and resources within our global denomination. These changes seem to only create a balance in the Book of Resolutions, which while significant, is in reality rarely employed in the daily life of our denomination.

Likewise, for those seeking to contextualize Church polity, this proposal does nothing to address the differences in theology, culture and religious life among our global Church partners. The design of the General Conference would remain the same with power to change the Book of Discipline still in the hands of a diverse conference representing divergent social, theological and political realities.

I have heard many speak of this proposal as the solution to our current debate around sexuality. Some believe that if the US were to become its own regional conference, we like central conferences, could legislate our own Book of Discipline with more progressive understandings of sexuality. But this is simply not the case with this proposal as it currently stands. This proposal does nothing to alter the US Social Principles or the composition and functioning of the General Conference.

If our denomination is serious about contextualization and diversity in our Church, we must acknowledge that it is impossible to foster such a community through the imposition of a central, uniform set of social and theological values imposed on all regardless of their differences. We must listen to the voices of all and allow room at the table for a rainbow array of theological, social, cultural and political realities. By preserving one, uniform set of Social Principles, are we truly moving away from the colonial mindset of past missionaries or simply painting over the deep fissures to create a facade of unity?

As a global Church, we must create structures that facilitate the embodiment of our theological convictions. Yet, as we move toward a better and more equitable Church, we must be careful that the change we seek can truly be accomplished by administrative means.


John Meunier said...

Thanks for such an engaged post about this topic.

I'm not sure what you would prefer to see, however. If you were rewriting and rebuilding the structure, what would it look like?

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

That is a good question. I'm not sure I have a plan, but I would want any plan to take seriously both our post-colonial reality and the contexualization of the Church across cultures.

This would mean that we would need to learn to share our economic resources equitably...without the colonial strings of dependency.

It would also mean that we would need to de-centralize our doctrinal and polity statements to allow for a authentically contextualized ecclesial community. Each regional conference would need to be allowed to contextualize their own distinct Book of Disicpline, including the Social Principles.

Kirk said...

It is a good post and a critical issue for the UMC should it wish to become truly global in nature.

The freedom for regional structures to determine their own variations on polity and what Wesley would call the "non-essentials" has long been honored by the General Conference toward the Central Conferences. The global tensions over GLBT inclusion run somewhat parallel to those experienced by the Anglican communion as well.

However Tiffany, I'm not sure creating a "Central Conference" or "Regional Conference" out of the US/North America would structurally make a format for progress for inclusion for GLBT people. The experience of the Episcopal USA church within the Anglican communion is a prime example of that not working too effectively.

You are correct to note that the colonialism of our dollars must cease if a truly equitable polity is to succeed in its goals. Providing money with strings is not mission. The General Board of Global Ministries has a fairly stringent adoption of that principle in place as an operating practice after the "call for a moratorium on missions" that was made in Africa in the late 70's/early 80's. This call was aimed at ceasing "dependency dollars" and forcibly making African churches "self funding." It was a call from the African churches themselves who notice the pervasive dependency created by mission money. While not adopted as rigidly as proposed, most mainline churches have put into place a practice of "no strings." Inasmuch as you can't necessarily 'control' the money you send in mission. You have to allow local churches to appropriate the money and employ it in ministry as they see fit. That of course, entails risk. The US doesn't like seeing their mission money misappropriated as it happens at times. But to micromanage money that is sent over is paternalistic and creates a dependency that is unwanted by all.

The more I think about the need for a global church an allowing for the freedoms to contextualize into various local cultures is the single most vexing issue of polity v. theology facing Christianity. Whether it be the controversies over adopting traditional African rites that have been "Christianized", allowing for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts where it is legally and theologically supported, or permitting shamanistic traditions in Korea to co-exist inside Christian churches, a way needs to be found for local theology to thrive and keep the Church relevant in the lives of people as they self-theologize.

The crux of the problem I see is our episcopal polity. "Rule from above" whether that be a Bishop for life or a General Conference can cause a tyranny of the majority or a tyranny of the minority over local theologies that keep Christian faith relevant to people. So should we jettison the episcopal polity and go congregational? Then we risk losing one of our "marks of methodism" -- connectionalism. This would be a tragic and perhaps fatal loss to the UMC as connectionalism is what enables our missional efforts to happen. There would be virtually no UMC outreach to the Global South without connectional dollars in place to ensure that these ministries could happen. Expecting local churches to "pick up the cost" and directly contribute to connectional ministries instead of paying their apportionments is naive at best. Most of our congregations are intensely "inward looking" seeking to find what their money can do for "them" as a community of faith in new building efforts, services, etc. Although its done under the guise of "reaching out to others" or "making ourselves more attractive to new members." These "new members" often don't materialize or are people that are "just like us" rather than a mission across cultural/ethnic/national/economic boundaries. To jettison connectionalism or significantly weaken it would bring an end to Deaf ministries, conference wide youth programs, programs that bring young people together to explore ordained ministry, campus ministries, new church starts among minority populations, etc. They simply would not happen.

So where do we look? Perhaps its time to revive the Methodist Protestant Church model again. Prior to the famed 1844 split between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South over slavery and whether the General Conference had the right to order a Bishop to give freedom to human beings he owned as chattel property in the south, there was a prior split within the Methodist family. This created the Methodist Protestant Church in 1828. This was a reform movement to break the stranglehold that clergy had on matters of church governance and polity rather than doctrine. Clergy and Laity representation on all official bodies was balanced. There were no district superintendents but rather "presiding Elders" who were minimal in their leadership for other pastors as they also had a congregation of their own. Likewise Bishops were elected for terms then returned to the pulpit or other ministries. This ensured that a Bishop would remain accountable to the connection rather than becoming removed and immune and only accountable via a vague expectation for them to adopt a sense of "responsibility' -- which smacks of paternalism itself. Bishops also did not make appointments. This was a function of the president of the conference, who was elected and accountable to both clergy and laity.

The MPC was merged back into the Methodist Church with the 1939 merger between the North and South. The very merger that created the Central Jurisdiction and its racist legacy in the UMC. The only concession the MPC gained from this merger was equalization between laity and clergy delegates at conferences. The balance between connectionalism and congregationalism that was created in this denomination was by and large lost. A remnant of the MPC rejected the merger terms and remained independent with a smattering of churches through Mississippi and the south. These churches pooled their resources and formed a mission in Belize that ultimately gave rise to a self-supporting MPC in Belize as well.

Would a revival of the MPC provide what we're looking for? Perhaps not. But a re-examination of the issues that led to the MPC and a look at how it balances connectionalism and congregational polity might yield some solutions for allowing local theology while maintaining unity.