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Second webcast explores global nature of church

7/10/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By Tom McAnally*

United Methodist leaders from around the world affirmed the global nature of the denomination during a two-hour webcast July 8, but they acknowledged some impediments and challenges must be faced.

The second "Forum on the Future" webcast, focusing on "Strengthening our Global Connection and Ecumenical Relationships," originated from Dearborn, Mich., during a meeting of the Servant Leadership Team of the church's General Council on Ministries. Some team members participated online, while others participated by phone.

The first webcast, originating from United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 26, sought participation primarily from within the United States. The July 8 webcast encouraged participation from the church's central conferences - regions outside the United States. Individuals could send questions or comments by phone or e-mail during the webcast. An estimated 551 people logged on to the second webcast, according to UMCom figures.

The GCOM, in cooperation with the Inter-Agency Research Task Force, hosted the Internet conversations. Host was Bryan Cottingham of Nashville.

Near the close of the July 8 conversations, GCOM member Oyvind Helliesen of Norway made a plea for strengthening the church's global connections. "It is important that the United Methodist Church be a global church," he said. "We (central conferences) would be poorer if we lose the United States, and I also think you would be poorer without us. I think we need each other. … We need to share resources, opinions, how we can see Christ and how we can present Christ in our different circumstances."

Critics sometimes say that the United Methodist Church, with more than 80 percent of its members in the United States, is really an American church with appendages in other countries. Speaking from Dearborn, Zimbabwean Solomon Chiripasi strongly disagreed. "I belong to the United Methodist Church, which is a global connection. I am a member of the connection wherever I am. ... We might have differences, but we have more in common."

Helliesen, also in Dearborn, concurred. "We are brothers and sisters. We are Christians. We have a common history. … We belong to a connection. We depend on the connection. We don't depend on the United States but on the connection. … Some of us can give, some can receive. One time I give and others receive; sometimes I receive and others give."

Jan Love, a United Methodist widely known for her work in worldwide ecumenical circles, spoke from her home in Columbia, S.C. She said it is relatively easy for people to come together in a global arena to deal with mission, ministry, liturgy and worship, "but when it comes to government and this big event we have every four years called General Conference, that's a particular forum and style that is, in my view, very American. It doesn't have a lot to do with the way the culture and decision making takes place in places like Zimbabwe.

"When we start deciding on matters that we care about very passionately in an arena that unites our religion with our politics, I think you then begin to see much more heightened cultural differences than one might see in worship styles or the styles of outreach to those who are unchurched."

The General Conference meets every four years and sets policy for the entire church. The number of delegates is based on membership in the regional units. Of the 994 delegates coming to the next conference in 2004, about 800 will be from the United States.

Homosexuality has been a hot-button issue for delegates to every General Conference since 1972, and Chiripasi said homosexuality is basically a U.S. problem, not a problem for the Zimbabwean church. While it may be appropriate to discuss the issue, he said it should not dominate the General Conference agenda. He suggested delegates spend more time sharing and learning from each other on such matters as church growth.

In a recorded message, Emma Cantor, GCOM member from the Philippines, said the church should not hesitate to challenge cultural values. Citing the church's role in the emancipation of women, she observed, "Opposing what is culturally practiced is a long, long struggle."

Helliesen affirmed the importance of the church taking positions on social issues, even if those stands conflict with practices or beliefs of a particular culture. Pointing to the church's opposition to the death penalty, he said, "I'm happy the church has a clear stand on that question."

Love said there is creative excitement when diverse people come together, but when it comes to theological diversity, "we don't have a handle on that yet."

People in the United States are hungry for alternative, less-adversarial styles of deliberation and decision making, she observed. "Many people in America would like to find a more civil type of deliberative system where many more options are available." She said the World Council of Churches, of which she is an elected leader, has replaced the traditional Robert's Rules of Order with a consensus style.

More important than deliberative style is what is on the agenda, Love said. "The American segment of the United Methodist Church has an agenda that may not be what the Zimbabwe church wants to focus on or what the Filipino church wants to focus on. … I think we may need to find a new organizational style. I don't want any piece of the body of Christ to have to give up its burning issues, but on the other hand, we must find a way in international arenas to speak about our burning passions in the body of Christ in a way that translates appropriately to people who come from very different situations."

Speaking by phone from Austria, GCOM member Roland Siegrist said it is important for U.S. members to understand that United Methodist churches overseas are making an important witness in societies where they are overshadowed by Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran churches.

Because of his work with the GCOM and other churchwide efforts, Siegrist said he has developed a broader view of what it means to be a United Methodist. "I see that we are not a small church. … It helped me not to have a typical inferiority complex that quite often a minority church develops. I felt … imbedded in a bigger movement and tradition. This influenced my perspective of the church, my church."

Chiripasi also spoke of his sense of being part of a larger movement. "I feel like a member of the family. There is no question if the United Methodist Church is a global church or not. No superior or inferior complex."

The Rev. Ben Silva-Netto, a GCOM staff member and Filipino-American, said the desire of some central conferences to become autonomous is forcing the church to "redefine our connectionalism." A strong pro-autonomy movement is under way in the Philippines, where the church has grown rapidly in recent years. While United Methodism has units in Africa, Europe and Asia, Methodist bodies are autonomous in many parts of the world, including England, Korea, India and countries throughout Latin and South America.

The desire for empowerment is one reason some are pushing for autonomy, according to Helliesen. "That is the challenge. We have to find ways to empower different churches in the connection outside the United States." Already, central conferences are allowed to adapt portions of the church's Book of Discipline to fit their unique needs.

GCOM member Jay Williams, a recent Harvard graduate who has been a leader in the anti-slavery movement in the Sudan, joined the conversations by phone. People outside the United States often have a more profound sense of what it means to be part of a global community, he observed. "America is the architect of globalization, but we as Americans are not global ourselves."

People in the United States normally speak only one language, read one newspaper and know little of what is going on in other parts of the world, Williams said. "The challenge for the church, especially for American United Methodists, would be to live outside of that mode of what Americans are and really try to envision and live out something that is new."

Betty Jane and Martin Bailey, co-authors of Who are the Christians of the Middle East?, spoke by phone about the influence of the United Methodists in that volatile region of the world. They applauded the ministry of the Rev. Sandra Olewine, whose work in Jerusalem is supported by the church through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Speaking by phone, the Rev. Bruce Robbins said the church in the future will require greater sharing of ecumenical resources. "What does it mean for us to be wealthy when other parts of our body are desperately poor and dying of starvation?" he asked. "How do we challenge ourselves to act out of that rather than to talk about it constantly? That is a huge issue that will only increase in the future." Robbins is top staff executive of the church's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns in New York.

Speaking from Dearborn, Bishop Edward Paup, president of the GCOM, said the Council of Bishops, like the whole church, is learning to live out what it means to be a global church. "As we ground our life together in covenant in times of scripture, prayer, study, reflection, theological dialogue, etc., that then sets the stage for us to also be able to deal with difficult issues together as well. We are already in many ways living it, but we pray by God's grace we can live it more effectively."

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*McAnally is the retired director of United Methodist News Service.

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