Trash to Treasure

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I have been in the Philippines for about two weeks with a meeting of the Worldwide UMC Study Committee and the Connectional Table. It was powerful to gain the perspective of the the Philipino UMC members. We heard two days of testimony from them about their desire to be autonomous from the UMC. Before they were conquered by the Spanish 400 years ago, the Philippines were Muslim. Then the Roman Catholic Church and the state combined to oppress the people in every way imaginable. In 1896 they revolted, then the US had its war with Spain and we took over until after WWII. At first we treated them about as badly as the Spanish. Our saving grace was liberating the Philippines from the Japanese.
UMC missions began in the Philippines around the same time as the US occupation. The country was divided up among US denominations. The UMC’s in the Philippines were enculturated with US church polity, and their has been tension ever since. There are around 228,000 UM’s there now; in 24 annual conferences. The overwhelming desire that I heard was for independence to form their own church and not be so US-centric. They need the money the US UMC provides but want to go their own way.
I don’t blame them. I’m happy that we have been able to facilitate ministry there. It’s a powerful ministry and we saw it first-hand. The worship service I attended at Puno UMC was fantastic. We were there for hours, but it seemed much shorter. The church was filled with young people and was Spirit-filled! That kind of vibrancy is something I would hate to miss if the Philipino UMC becomes autonomous. There is so much that we can learn from indigenous churches!
At the Worldwide UMC Study Committee we spent hours debating issues and finally came to the decision that whether or not the constitutional amendments are passed as the vote is announced next week at the Council of Bishops, we do not want to resubmit them to General Conference. Of course, that opinion may change, but I think there are other legislative ways to protect both local freedom and connectionalism. We must remain a connectional church. It would be much easier, in my opinion, to call all UM Central Conferences “Jusrisdictions” outside the US, and keep the 5 current jursidictions in the US. One of the biggest developments was our vote of 12-1 to keep the Social Principles and all issues about Human Sexuality at the General Conference level. This includes all of Par. 304 about minimum ministerial credentialing. I am very pleased with this vote.
We must uphold our polity and not let money or sexuality issues drive our ecclesiology. I will say more about my Philipino experience as I recover from jet-lag, introductory visits, and our Cabinet meeting today. Visiting the UM mission at the Payatas trash dump is something you have got to hear about. Jesus was crucified on a trash dump, and at Payatas we saw his resurrection in the midst of garbage. Such is our shared ministry, to bring good from bad; and unashamedly take Christ to a hurting world.

Core Principles of the UMC – MD4C

Many of you know that I’m on the Worldwide UMC Study Committee. There are 20 of us who are trying to discern the direction and shape of our denomination across the world. We are progressing with our work by beginning with a very important question: What are the core principles of the United Methodist Church?

I can think of many such as connectionalism, the constitutive principles of conference and general superintendency, personal & social holiness – sanctification in personal life and justice ministries in the world, evangelical witness (Making disciples for Jesus Christ/MD4C), Wesley’s Scripture Way of Salvation (Stages of Grace), the Quadrilateral as a means of doing theology, hymnody as a vehicle for doctrine, itenerancy and sent ministry, our Doctrinal Standards, the General Rules, minimum standards for credentialing clergy, accountability by local churches and clergy to our covenant community, inclusivity, gender equality, proportional representation, and multiculturalism. I know there are more core principles, but these are the ones that jump out at me.
The question posed to us that is also EXTREMELY important surrounds the reason we’re working on our ecclesiology. You may remember that this study committee arose from the constitutional amendments that were put before each annual conference over the past year. Those amendments would create one or more (Judicial Decision 1100) US regional conferences. The votes have not been certified by the Council of Bishops and won’t be until their May 2010 meeting. The last numbers that I heard were that they were failing by a huge majority.
There are those on the left (However you define such labels) who would love for the US to have the ability to adapt the Book of Discipline (Par. 543.7) as the Central Conferences outside the US do. The primary goal as stated by several members of our committee is so that a separate US regional conference would be able to change its position on self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Conservatives don’t mind the shift to regionalism for a much different reason: money. Right now the areas outside the US pay very little into apportioned general church funds; only a sliding scale amount into the Episcopal Fund. While conservatives would love to keep African votes on human sexuality, the economic downturn has made the price too steep. Unfortunately the same argument works even in the US. There are some from the US Jurisdictions that are larger who are tired of paying the freight for jurisdictions that are declining. Either way, and I KNOW that what I’m saying is overly simplistic, the rationales for moving away from our connectional polity are driven either by sexuality or money, AND THOSE ARE TERRIBLE REASONS TO CHANGE OUR ECCLESIOLOGY.
It seems to me that it would be more simple to change Par. 543.7 and be more clear about what is adaptable and what isn’t, and call all central conferences “jurisdictions.” I don’t want us to lose the non-negotiables of what I think are our denominational hallmarks/core principles at the expense of rearranging the deck chairs on the UMC Titanic, creating regional conferences that are antithetical to Wesley’s “The World is my Parish.” The bigger questions about all of this are “Why are we doing this? What is our vision why this will enhance the missional effectiveness of the UMC?” Duh?
But as quick as I am to pooh-pooh the whole effort, I have to admit how complex this is. Sure, we don’t need a US-centric hierarchy or focus; but I ask the question: Would we still legitimately be UNITED Methodists if we allowed too many regional permutations of who we are? What is unalterable and what is adaptable? What are our core principles that should remain intact. Help me out, weigh in!

The Journey of a Connectional People

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Well, one more day of the Worldwide UMC Study Commitee. I’m looking forward to driving home tomorrow. It’s been a good meeting. The right issues have been raised about what’s contextual around the Connection and what’s universal and holds us together. There seems to be consensus that we will retain our unity and not slip into an Anglican-style confederation that abrogates our connectional polity. The discourse has been an example of holy conferencing. We have heard from divergent segments of the church from traditional and progressive caucus groups, general agency representatives, and persons from the Central Conferences. I sincerely hope that the US will not fragment into one or more regional conferences. I promise to help craft the best legislation possible while retaining my commitment to our distinctive polity. This isn’t about human sexuality. This is about our structure expediting effective ministry. Form should follow function. The question must be answered as to what we value: special interests or the common good. The local church and the annual conferences are the locus of primary disciple-making. Whatever we do must support and empower laity and clergy on the local level. There is much to process from what I’ve heard. It is humbling to be part of this group. Each person plays a vital part. I, for one, promise to keep localism as a core value without allowing regionalism to trump our identity as a movement of God. We will meet in Manila in the Spring and Africa later in the summer. It will be good to hear from the people in the places where the church is growing.