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Presentation to the Study Committee

INTRODUCTION

Thank you for the invitation to address you, the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church. It is a privilege, an honor, and a rare opportunity to be with you and to work with you.

My name is Paul Stallsworth. An elder in the North Carolina Conference, I pastor St. Peter's United Methodist Church in Morehead City on the coast, serve as the president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, and edit the quarterly newsletter Lifewatch, which many of you receive.

The task before us, this afternoon, is great -- especially so soon after lunch. I trust that this presentation will not facilitate any early afternoon naps...

As you know well, the summer of 2008 placed a denominational- reorganizational plan -- in the form of twenty-three (23) constitutional amendments, pertaining to the worldwide nature of The United Methodist Church -- before all the Annual Conferences across the church. Based on the reported votes to date, that plan will apparently not be ratified.

It is important for you, the Study Committee, to step back, consider why the Annual Conferences voted as they apparently voted, gather additional information, and set out on a new course for denominational reorganization. In other words, this committee should not simply rewrite the constitutional amendments that were placed before the Annual Conferences in 2008. To simply edit the presumably rejected amendments, and return them to the 2012 General Conference and perhaps the Annual Conferences, would squander the attention, time, and money of The United Methodist Church. Something more faithful to God and the Gospel, more thoughtful, and more courageous is required of this Study Committee.

In what follows, I will: (I) place my proposal for this Study Committee on the table; (II) explain what, in The United Methodist Church, makes this proposal necessary; and (III) revisit the proposal.

(I) THE PROPOSAL

This Study Committee should initiate a study of ecclesiology, the goal of which would be to write a brief statement on ecclesiology for The United Methodist Church, laity and clergy. (Ecclesiology has traditionally covered both the nature of the Church and the mission of the Church. This proposed statement would focus mainly on the nature of the Church.) To accomplish this task, the Study Committee would secure the services of a few of Methodism's world-class theologians, who would act as consultants to the project and perhaps drafters of the statement. The major portion of the final, ecclesiological statement would concentrate on the Nicene Creed's article on the Church: "the one holy catholic and apostolic [C]hurch." Only after this study is completed, published, and distributed would the Study Committee, informed and guided by the newly minted statement and by the theological consultants, draft new constitutional amendments that would bring constructive changes to the polity of The United Methodist Church. The theological consultants would be active, throughout the process of drafting the constitutional amendments, to help the Study Committee to best reflect solid ecclesiology in its drafting of the constitutional amendments.

(II) WHAT MAKES THIS PROPOSAL NECESSARY

You, the Study Committee, must rightly and deeply understand ecclesiology -- The United Methodist Church as Church -- before you create a new reorganizational plan. Getting ecclesiology right at the beginning of the reorganizational process will help you to write and refine the constitutional amendments that will, in due course, be debated and approved (God willing) by General Conference and the Annual Conferences. On the other hand, if your denominational-reorganizational plan does not begin in the soil of ecclesiology, you, the Study Committee, though busy with organizational change, will most certainly misunderstand the true identity of our church, treat our church as just another voluntary organization, and arrive at a reorganizational plan that is guided by organizational, political, and business-management theories, not by Christian truth about the Christian Church.

The problem is that the doctrine of the Church, which is essential to the work of this Study Committee, is largely absent from The United Methodist Church today. Therefore, this Study Committee will need to dig deep into Biblical and Traditional sources and outline the United Methodist ecclesiology that is a part of the Church's faith and the Wesleyan heritage.

Again, the troubling reality is this: substantive ecclesiology is in very short supply in The United Methodist Church today. Ecclesiology is nearly nonexistent in contemporary United Methodism because of four (4) factors: (1) the nature of Protestantism, (2) the origins of Methodism, (3) the history of American Protestantism, and (4) the ways of ordering the church today.

First, the doctrine of the Church is thin in United Methodism, in part, because of the basic nature of Protestantism. As Protestantism developed over time, some Protestants defined themselves primarily by proving themselves not Roman Catholic. Adolf Von Harnack's book, The Essence of Christianity (1900), is a classic statement of this unashamedly non-Catholic Protestantism. Harnack understands Protestantism as "[(]non-dogmatic, non-ecclesiastical, non-sacramental, non-legalistic) Christianity." (Michael J. Hollerich, "Retrieving a Neglected Critique of Church, Theology and Secularization in Weimar Germany," Pro Ecclesia [Summer 1993], p. 312) Again, some of Protestantism, including some of Methodism, sought and seeks to be "non-ecclesiastical" -- that is, without ecclesiology -- in its faith, life, and work.

Second, United Methodism is short on ecclesiology because of our denomination's historical origins. Methodism began as a revivalistic movement within the Church of England. The brothers Wesley, busy about revival, assumed the ecclesiastical-sacramental structure provided by their Mother Church. However, when Methodism made the voyage across the Atlantic, much of the ecclesiology that the Wesleys took for granted did not make it to America. The ecclesiastical treasure that did reach America immediately lost its influence because of the rugged conditions of the New World. Methodism, especially in America, was so dedicated to revivalism -- to making disciples of Jesus Christ, one by one -- that insufficient attention was paid to the Church and its nature.

Third, the history of American Protestantism is another reason for the deficit in ecclesiology in American Methodism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reporting in August 1939 on his second and last visit to the United States, wrote a fascinating essay entitled "Protestantism without Reformation." In his essay's concluding paragraph, Bonhoeffer suggested much about American Methodism: "God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God..." (No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1928-1936 [Harper & Row, New York, 1965], p. 117, emphasis added) Here, Bonhoeffer implied that God employed American Methodism to make disciples of Jesus Christ; but God did not reform the Methodist Church in America. Therefore, ecclesiology took a back seat, if it got any seat at all, in Methodism.

And fourth, contemporary Protestants, United Methodists included, act as if the Church is theirs to order, structure, and direct, however they please. (For example, consider the "Rethink Church" program within United Methodism today.) Dr. Erik Peterson (1890-1960), a European professor of the New Testament and early Church, claimed there are three (3) options facing many churches today. Summarizing Peterson, Dr. Michael J. Hollerich writes: "Modern Protestantism had evolved three different ways to compensate for the loss of [the public reality of the Church]... One of those was the substitution of 'universal truths of reason' for pure doctrine... [Today, consider rationalistic religion that seems to follow cultural elites in the West.] A second alternative was mysticism, by which Peterson meant inwardness or spirituality. In modern Protestantism it was manifested as pietist regeneration, existentialist earnestness, and secular equivalents... [Today, consider the multiple spiritualities available at the local Barnes & Noble.] The third alternative was church activism, which sanctioned projects such as foreign missions and social service... [Today, consider the well intended political lobbying for social justice.]" (p. 327) Peterson himself wrote: "These were the three alternatives of a church and a theology in danger of losing their public character, and with it an essential component of the very concept of the church." ("Erik Peterson's Correspondence with Adolf Von Harnack and an Epilogue," translated by Michael J. Hollerich, Pro Ecclesia [Summer 1993], p. 343, emphasis added) This is a devastating critique of many modern Protestant churches, including The United Methodist Church, that have forgotten that they are, first and above all and always, the Church.

To be sure, United Methodism gets the Church's mission. As The Book of Discipline (2008) asserts: "The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" (Paragraph 120). This is the doing, the action, of the Church. However, what about the nature, the being, the character of the Church? On that, United Methodism has much less to offer. (It is no wonder that there are devout, intelligent United Methodists who, to this day, see our denomination as an evangelistic association more than a church!) Official United Methodist doctrine -- specifically, Article XIII of The Articles of Religion ("Of the Church") and Article V of The Confession of Faith ("The Church") -- provides beginning notions of the nature of the Church. However, more could, should, and must be said.

The United Methodist tradition contains the needed ecclesiological material to help restructure the church today. But that material must be reclaimed, formulated, deepened, declared, taught, and applied for the good of The United Methodist Church today.

(III) BACK TO THE PROPOSAL

United Methodists in our day carry a weak understanding of the nature of the Church. However, this Study Committee can begin to remedy that problem by initiating a study, with invited theological consultants, on ecclesiology. Such a study might begin by examining The Nature and Mission of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (WCC/Geneva, Faith and Order Paper 198). A potentially rich point of departure for the study would be Paragraph 12 on the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It declares: "Being the creature of God's own Word and Spirit, the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These essential attributes flow from and illustrate the Church's dependence upon God. The Church is one because God is the one creator and redeemer (cf. John 17:11, Ephesians 4:1-6), who binds the Church to himself by Word and Spirit and makes it a foretaste and instrument for the redemption of all created reality. The Church is holy because God is the holy one (cf. Isaiah 6:3; Leviticus 11:44-45) who sent his Son Jesus Christ to overcome all unholiness and to call human beings to become merciful like his Father (cf. Luke 6:36), sanctifying the Church by his word of forgiveness in the Holy Spirit and making it his own, the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:26-27). The Church is catholic because God is the fullness of life 'who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (I Timothy 2:4), and who, through Word and Spirit, makes his people the place and instrument of his saving and life-giving presence, the community 'in which, in all ages, the Holy Spirit makes the believers participants in Christ's life and salvation, regardless of their sex, race or social position.' (Confessing the One Faith, WCC [Geneva], Faith and Order Paper 153, Paragraph 240) [The Church] is apostolic because the Word of God, sent by the Father, creates and sustains the Church. This word of God is made known to us through the Gospel primarily and normatively borne witness to by the apostles (cf. Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14), making the communion of the faithful a community that lives in, and is responsible for, the succession of the apostolic truth expressed in faith and life throughout the ages."

Only after this ecclesiological study is completed, and the study's statement is published and taught, would new constitutional amendments on The United Methodist Church's polity be composed. These amendments would be informed and guided by the ecclesiological study, statement, and consultants.

CONCLUSION

For over forty years The United Methodist Church, particularly in the United States, has been in search of the way, the method, the answer, the solution that will stem the drift in our denomination. Evangelistic programs, church-growth methods, advertising campaigns, business-tested theories, and now leadership principles have enjoyed their brief acts on our denominational stage. Many of us have watched as these various acts have come and gone.

I believe it is time -- actually past time -- for The United Methodist Church to remember, consider, and learn more deeply what it means to be the Church. That will not involve exciting programs or flashy ads. It will involve you, the Study Committee, learning anew what it means for the Church and The United Methodist Church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It will require of you, the Study Committee, to teach, to teach the Christian truth about the Christian Church. It will demand of you, the Study Committee, with the help of theological consultants, to write constitutional amendments that will increase The United Methodist Church's unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. For this task, you will need wisdom, courage, and perseverance -- all of which God can and will provide in abundance.

I close with a word from Bonhoeffer in edited form: "[We should] protest against any form of the church which does not honour the question of truth above all things." (No Rusty Swords, "A Theological Basis for the World Alliance," p. 160)

Thank you for your time and attention, patience and consideration.

Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth
St. Peter's United Methodist Church
111 Hodges Street
Morehead City, NC 28557
(252).726.2175church (phone and fax)/(252).726.0491home
paulstallsworth@nccumc.org


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