Christian Unity directors explore church's global nature
- CALLED OUT
From United Methodist News Service
Monday, September 30, 2002
Christian Unity directors explore church's global nature
By Linda Bloom*
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (UMNS) � The challenge of what it means to be a
global denomination has become part of a continuing discussion within
the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious
During its Sept. 26-29 annual meeting in Daytona Beach, the
commission considered its connections with United Methodists
elsewhere, other Methodist bodies, and ecumenical and interfaith
As part of its effort to reach out internationally, the commission is
dispatching directors to visit United Methodists outside the United
States. A small group of directors met in September with United
Methodists and members of the ecumenical community in Norway. Other
directors will visit Nigeria, Russia, Switzerland and the Philippines
within the next year.
In a draft version of a paper on the global nature of the church
given to directors, the Rev. Bruce Robbins, the commission�s chief
executive, provided an outline for the discussion. He noted that
between 1 and 3 million United Methodists live outside the United
States, and that Methodism worldwide is about four times greater in
membership than United Methodism. In addition, partner church
arrangements with other denominations have existed in various
countries around the world.
As U.S. United Methodists increase their contact with those in the
church's central conferences (regional units) elsewhere, they find
differences. "Nearly everyone in the church believes that the present
structure is inadequate. It assumes an equality and justice among all
United Methodists and it does not exist," Robbins wrote. "For reasons
of history, geography and social context, the central conferences �
and their place and role within the UMC � shall be a significant
focus of the 2004 General Conference."
Other challenges arise when the circle is widened to include other
Methodist bodies and ecumenical partners from, say, the World Council
of Churches. "Historically, it is difficult to draw a doctrinal or
theological line firmly around United Methodists," he continued.
"However, it may be more theologically sound to draw the line around
Methodists worldwide. There, the 'distinctives' of the tradition are
more obvious; that which sets us apart from other families of the
Christian community is simpler to articulate."
As part of a response to Robbins' paper, Bishop Walter Klaiber of
Germany told directors he sees two compelling issues forcing the
church into being as "catholic" � meaning universal � as possible.
One issue is to express the universality of the church and the other
issue is to function ecumenically at the local level.
He noted that the Roman Catholic Church is the most impressive
example of how a church can be truly global but also connected
locally. A Protestant model, he added, is the Lutheran World
Federation, in which national churches come together in a global
A current problem among Methodists is the separation of bodies
emerging from the British Methodist Church and the United Methodist
Church. "Methodists are competing in some regions more than some
(different) denominations do," Klaiber said.
Acting on behalf of the European Methodist Council, Klaiber raised
that concern at the 2001 World Methodist Conference in Brighton,
England, asking that a "manual of etiquette" among Methodist bodies
be developed. When the World Methodist Council Executive Committee
met in Norway in September, it unanimously adopted a resolution
offering "Guidelines for the Mission and Ministry of Member Churches
of the World Methodist Council Working in the Same Area."
According to the guidelines, Methodist churches planning new work in
a region should notify other council members and try to minimize or
prevent duplication of resources. Where member churches already work
alongside each other, they should "be encouraged to join together or
at least to work in a spirit of consultation and cooperation." The
different Methodist traditions also should communicate fully, sharing
their "resources and experiences for the furtherance of God's
Klaiber, who serves on the presidium of the World Methodist Council,
believes the council could be strengthened to become "a real
connection" for Methodist bodies on a global level.
Within the United Methodist Church, other agencies, such as the
General Council on Ministries, continue to explore the "global
nature" concept. A major issue, according to Don Hayashi, a council
staff executive, is whether the denomination is willing to be
transformed into a "servant body" rather than hold on to its power
Bishop Melvin Talbert reminded commission directors that the
denomination�s Council of Bishops had taken up the "global nature"
issue during the 1988-92 quadrennium and added that the bishops'
report had stressed the importance of discussing the concept with
Methodists worldwide "before we start putting something on paper."
Talbert, who serves as the bishops' ecumenical officer, said he
thinks the council and Commission on Christian Unity and
Interreligious Concerns should continue to pursue the issue together.
In other business, commission members received a report from a newly
formed search committee charged with finding a successor to Robbins,
who will complete a 12-year tenure as general secretary this year.
Bishop Fritz Mutti, commission president, had written last fall to
the General Council on Ministries � which elects general secretaries
� asking that Robbins be allowed to continue in his post until July
2004. In his Sept. 20, 2001, letter, Mutti, who also leads the search
committee, cited the commission�s demanding responsibilities from
General Conference, touching on the issues of racism and
homosexuality, as reasons for the extension.
Mutti reported that he expects the General Council on Ministries to
act on the request at its meeting this October. The search committee
will proceed in its work once a response is given.
The commission is continuing to schedule "listening events" as part
of its mandate from the 2000 General Conference to encourage broader
participation on issues related to homosexuality and the unity of the
So far, such events have been held in the North Central, South
Central and Northeast jurisdictions; within one central conference
(Northern Europe); with one general church body, the Council of
Bishops; and with representatives of unofficial caucuses of United
The Rev. Greg Stover, who leads the commission's task force on
homosexuality and unity with Jan Love, reported that the next
listening event is set with the General Council on Ministries on Oct.
25, and another will follow Dec. 11-12 in the Western Jurisdiction.
The team designing an event with ethnic groups will meet Dec. 5.
Still to be scheduled are listening events with youth and church
members in the Southeast.
"We�re making significant progress on a rather ambitious agenda for
this quadrennium," Stover said.
Offering personal observations about the process, he noted a
"reticence" on the part of many United Methodists to speak publicly
on the issue of homosexuality. Some bishops, for example, are
reluctant to make comments for fear of being "labeled" or seen as
"divisive" within the church.
Another issue is whether the discussions should even continue. "There
are a number of persons that think the dialogue is over," Stover
explained, either because they believe General Conference already has
settled the matter or because they believe that dialogue just delays
any real change in the church.
The task force will make an analysis of the listening events once all
are complete, and it hopes to prepare resource materials eventually.
Directors adopted program priorities for 2003-2006, setting goals for
the areas of interreligious concerns, the nature of the church,
Christian unity, Christian/ecumenical formation, the Wesleyan
tradition and emerging opportunities.
Top priorities within those categories include:
� Exploring relations with people of other faith traditions.
� Recognizing the church�s common humanity with Muslim people while
exploring a deeper understanding of Islam.
� Working toward eradicating racism in the church.
� Continuing to develop opportunities for dialogue around issues
related to theological diversity in the church.
� Examining the ecumenical and interreligious dimensions "of what it
means to make disciples of Christ."
� Providing leadership to the denomination in understanding relations
with other Christian denominations and bodies.
� Continuing existing bilateral dialogues and responding to new
opportunities for dialogue.
� Strengthening the commission�s communications with annual
conferences, districts and local congregations.
� Making training and resources available.
� Promoting understanding among seminary students of the
Wesleyan-United Methodist heritage.
� Continuing pan-Methodist discussion through the Commission on Pan
Methodist Cooperation and Union, which includes members of the
historically black African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist
Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations in
addition to United Methodists.
� Continuing to address the impact of racism and seek avenues for
healing, reconciliation and justice for "those who left" the church
and "those who stayed" � African Americans who belong to one of the
historically black denominations as well as those in United
*Bloom is news director in United Methodist News Service�s New York
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