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Matthew J. TuiningaOctober 10, 2012
The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is working hard to persuade future Methodist pastors that its political activism is an extension of the work of the local church and an expression of United Methodist connectionalism. As Emory University's Steven Tipton demonstrated in his 2007 book Public Pulpits, the GBCS's track record of support for liberal political causes has estranged it from many rank and file United Methodists, the balance of whom range from moderate to conservative in their political orientation. The growing perception has been that while the GBCS claims to speak for the UMC, it does not, in fact, represent the convictions of most Methodists.
In a presentation to United Methodist seminary students at Emory's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GBCS representatives Rev. Neal Christie and Rev. Julie Wilson maintained that the GBCS is changing its approach. To be sure, it continues to focus on seeking the implementation of the Social Principles of the Methodist Church in places of power. The GBCS operates out of the only non-government office building on the crest of Capitol Hill, what Christie called “Ground Zero,” the focal point of “public consciousness.” It is here where the United Methodist Church finds a point of “access” to power, “where people use power and privilege for good or for ill. The reality is you cannot ignore that, and so our ministry of course [is] located on Capitol Hill, where decisions revolving around power are negotiated, where interests are negotiated.”
But Christie went on to insist that Capitol Hill is “not where the ministry takes place solely.” The work performed by the GBCS is “from the bottom up trying to influence pieces of legislation and public policy.” Its perspective “is being formed ... not only by the General Conference, but at the grass roots of our church.” The GBCS is therefore “truly an extension of the local church,” an expression of the Methodist commitment to connectionalism. Christie suggested that in his work for mercy and for justice he is simply doing the sort of itinerant work that Wesley implored pastors to do.
Yet Christie admitted that boards, committees, and the academy have become distant from the local church. He also warned that despite impressive growth overseas, particularly in Africa, the Methodist Church in the U.S. is dying. Christie quoted from an article describing some of the possible reasons why the United Methodist Church might be in decline: 1) “the message seems to be more about politics, ideology or culture wars than the gospel of Jesus Christ;” 2) parishioners are told from the pulpit that “there is only one way to interpret Scripture;” 3) pastors focus too much on “the latest verdict of who is saved who is not;” 4) Christians are getting the impression that “you are not allowed to embrace your faith with a modern scientific perspective;” 5) church feels “more like social club than a faith community;” and 6) the services and sermons are “boring” and “irrelevant.”
Although Christie's audience seemed to resonate in particular with the charge that the church has been too focused on politics and the culture wars, Christie declared that, of the six reasons provided for the church's decline, this was the one he found most problematic. There is a proper separation between the church and the state, he insisted, but there is no real distinction between faith and politics. “Jesus was not partisan but he was entirely political.”
Fundamental to implementing the Social Principles of the Methodist Church therefore is not simply the practice of mercy, but the achievement of justice, Christie said. Many churches are good at showing mercy to the needy, he argued, but they fail to connect mercy to justice. “It is not enough to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick,” he said. “We must also ask why people are sick, why people are [needy], and how do we liberate them.”
Christie and Wilson went on to describe the “community organizing” the GBCS is seeking to implement both in the United States and in Africa. They emphasized local initiatives to eliminate malaria and to prevent violence against women and children. They described efforts to promote awareness about addiction, sex trafficking, justice for workers, and criminal justice. All of this, they suggested, is forging bringing the board and the churches together in a new connectionalism.
But one of the most striking omissions in the GBCS presentation was any discussion of the content of the Gospel or of how that Gospel relates to the church's social engagement. Perhaps the speakers simply assumed that their hearers – students at a United Methodist seminary – understood this basic foundation to Christian social thought. But in the question and answer period Christie described the Social Principles rather than the Gospel as the glue that holds United Methodists together.
“The Social Principles are a way for us not to kill each other. We don't talk about it that way, but that's what they are. We see churches divide … we see churches split. In the United Methodist church we don't sing the same hymns, we don't read the Scriptures and the canon in the same way. We speak many, many different languages … but we have one set of social principles.”
For all their emphasis on connectionalism and the local church therefore, Christie and Wilson's presentation begs the question, is social activism really what holds the church together and fills the pews? If the Methodist Church is to revive its future and avoid the “slow death” that Christie fears I suspect that result will owe itself not to a recommitment of Methodist activists to a set of Social Principles, but rather to a recommitment to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in whom Methodist believers have placed their hope.
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