Directors of the board charged with overseeing public policy on behalf of the United Methodist Church and implementing its Social Principles gathered for their spring meeting March 23-25 in Newark, New Jersey.
Amidst “saber rattling” in North Korea and a host of other global concerns, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) trekked to New York City to tour the United Nations headquarters and be hosted by United Methodist Women at the Church Center for the United Nations (CCUN).
The gathering was focused upon issues of immigration, healthcare, poverty alleviation and peace advocacy. There was no mention of an amendment the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference overwhelmingly passed to the GBCS outline of Responsibilities in the Book of Discipline to include a major priority of “education, prayer, and advocacy on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who suffer persecution for their faith.”
The meeting featured worship practices sometimes straying closer to paganism than Christian orthodoxy. During an opening communion service, The Rev. Gerald Liu of Princeton Theological Seminary offered communion elements representing six continents, including Ethiopian Injera for Africa and “vegan gluten-free” chocolate chip cookies for North America.
Associate professor of church music and composer-in-residence Mark Miller of United Methodist-affiliated Drew Theological School led worship with several songs he contributed. The songs emphasized themes of advocacy and inclusion, titled “God Has Work for Us to Do” and “Draw the Circle Wide.”
The service closed with a benediction “Ute Prayer for Earth’s Teachings” in which participants petitioned the Earth itself to impart stillness, humility and caring. God was unmentioned in the prayer.
Repeated calls for international unity were heard in the meeting, but of the 60 GBCS directors, only three positions are reserved for sub-Saharan Africa, where 40 percent of United Methodists reside. Of those three positions, one was vacant and one director was unable to secure a visa. A lone representative from Angola was the only African present at the spring meeting, joining Filipino, Norwegian and German directors.
On March 24 GBCS Directors visited the United Nations. Prior to the tour, GBCS visited the CCUN located directly across the street from U.N. headquarters in New York City. According to GBCS General Secretary Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, it was the first visit by the GBCS board to the U.N. since at least the 1980s. At a prayer service in the CCUN’s chapel, participants were led by a musician from Union Theological Seminary in a song which was the word “peace” repeated in six different languages, including Estonian and Haitian Creole.
A chapel altar prepared by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) was adorned with a computer keyboard, an iron, a garden trowel, a volume of womanist theology and other “signs of women’s work” arranged around a globe and flags of the world. While there was no Christian imagery on the altar, banners representing other faiths hung on the wall behind the pulpit, including Muslim, Buddhist and Shinto symbols adjacent to a permanently affixed cross on the wall. A version of the Lord’s Prayer, “Abana in heaven” was sung, but with songwriter Laila Constantine’s original composition altered in a nod to mujerista (Latina liberation) theology so that “Yours is the kingdom” was replaced with “Yours is the kin-dom”.
Afterwards, a panel of experts including U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Thomas Gass, UNICEF worker Rima Salah, Elsa Stamatopoulou, a three-decade participant at the U.N., and Joseph Donnelly of Roman Catholic relief group Caritas presented on their work in the United Nations and the historic role of the United Methodist Church at the CCUN. Among the topics were the rights of indigenous peoples and cultural rights. Directors were encouraged to write their respective countries’ U.N. ambassadors in support of a series of U.N.-negotiated sustainable development goals.
Henry-Crowe noted new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is a practicing United Methodist whose family belongs to a congregation in Columbia, South Carolina, where Haley was Governor. Haley was unable to personally greet the board due to travel that day.
In her address to the board, Henry-Crowe noted that GBCS priorities for this year are immigration, health, poverty and peace, which she rooted in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapter 5.
“It is also a time of tremendous pain and turmoil in the U.S. and in many places around the world,” Henry-Crowe reported. “While these issues often manifest as political they are issues of faith and justice.”
An amendment that the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference passed for GBCS to include a major priority of “education, prayer, and advocacy on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who suffer persecution for their faith” was not brought up. A single mention of “religious persecution” was referenced in the General Secretary’s address.
The GBCS General Secretary quoted theologian Walter Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
Henry-Crowe assessed a present dominant culture of “saber rattling in North Korea, modifying of alliances in Asia, extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, shifting priorities on the world scene, the fearsome rise of nationalism, in some places the diminishment of human rights, the marginalizing of those who are poor, rise of racism and hateful acts, religious discrimination against Jewish, Muslim and Christians communities, the sexualizing of women, the neglect of children and compromising the care of creation.”
The GBCS official listed “further marginalizing of the poor in the U.S. and around the world” and the potential threat of war as “profoundly troubling”.
Proposed increases in the federal budget for military expenditures alongside reductions in school lunch funding, food stamps and other social programs were presented as troubling. Proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act were characterized as threatening health care for “literally millions of people.” Directors were encouraged to contact their lawmakers and voice opposition to the proposed changes, which many did, identifying themselves by their role as officials of the United Methodist Church.
Henry-Crowe also highlighted GBCS President and Bishop Sally Dyck’s efforts at a forum on faith and gun violence. GBCS advocacy efforts promoting “a moral budget especially for the poor and those living in poverty” were touted as reaching 31 members of Congress from 22 states.
Directors reported on the work of their committees, including a process to begin comprehensively rewriting the church’s Social Principles.
“Let’s be honest, this will be a difficult process, but receive it with Christian charity,” exhorted GBCS Vice President Randall Miller. Miller described a goal of making the Social Principles “more globally relevant, more concise, ground them in biblical and theological foundations.”
Henry-Crowe shared that board is hoping to have a draft of changes to the Social Principles ready by end of 2018. While the proposed changes will be taken up by the next regularly-scheduled General Conference in 2020, there is a potential that the changes might enter discussion in 2019 as part of a specially-called General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.Google+