Editor’s Note: As the 2012 General Conference approaches, United Methodist News Service is looking at details of legislation and offering information to help readers better understand how the church works. A number of proposals are aimed at restructuring the denomination and its general ministries, so UMNS asked the top executives of each agency to answer five questions about their agency's role in the church. This is the response from the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligous Concerns.
1. One issue to be debated at this General Conference is restructuring. What would the church miss if your agency no longer existed?
We are called by our Lord Jesus Christ to manifest our unity and the fullness thereof so that the world might believe (John 17:21). This is what some people have called the cornerstone of biblical ecumenism. If the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns no longer existed, we would fail miserably in our responsibilities as a church to be ecumenically engaged and interreligiously involved.
2. What is your agency’s primary mission? How do you accomplish this in the most effective manner?
The Book of Discipline contains constitutional requirements for The United Methodist Church to be engaged ecumenically. Article VI states that we will seek and work for Christian unity. The Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns is proposing legislation to add the words “pray, seek and work for Christian unity.”
The ecumenical responsibilities of our church are not only assigned to the commission, but also to the Council of Bishops. They are, after all, the corporate ecumenical officers of The United Methodist Church. Traditionally, in recent decades, an ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops has worked in close collaboration with the commission and its general secretary.
3. Name at least one exciting thing your agency has been involved in during the current quadrennium. How does it relate to the Four Areas of Focus?
We are unique in that we can’t hang our hat on any of the Four Areas of Focus specifically and intentionally beyond that of leadership. That’s been an historic concern for us rather intentionally to guarantee that The United Methodist Church has the caliber of leadership it should seek in terms of ecumenical and interreligious leadership and to be engaged intimately in the education and formation of a future generation of ecumenical and interreligious leaders.
The most exciting thing has been the proposal to incorporate under the Council of Bishops, the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, which would no longer remain a freestanding independent agency of the church, but rather be recreated as a new office within the Council of Bishops. We have proposed legislation in this regard, which would call for the creation of an Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships.
The amazing thing about this is that as the new general secretary in 2008, I didn’t know what my tenure would be. However, it was my intent to broach the subject to see if we might effect such a change in the way the general church deals with ecumenical and interreligious relationships in order to enhance them and expand them. With the fiscal crisis of 2008, the coming into being of the Call to Action Steering Team and, subsequently, the Interim Operations Team, it made perfect sense to seize an opportunity that may never present itself again.
Why? I was thinking about this in the long term. The short term made it possible to make such a proposal, first to my own board of directors, which required of them a great deal of deliberation about the commission’s future. I credit them for their selfless, self-sacrificial act to vote themselves out of existence if that would serve the wider purposes of United Methodist engagement in ecumenical and interreligious relationships. When we finally got to a vote, they agreed this was the way to go. That’s what we have in terms of legislation before the General Conference.
I cannot contain my excitement about the possibility that indeed, we might be an office within the Council of Bishops to carry out our responsibilities previously outlined in the 1900 paragraphs of the Book of Discipline. I would hasten to add that many across the connection perceive this to be yet another power grab by the Council of Bishops when nothing could be further from the truth. It was my proposal to the commission that we consider this possibility. We had a reconciliation of legislative language that led the commission to sign off on the notion of a set-aside bishop within the Council of Bishops. All of us felt that a strong, executive administrative function needed to occur within the Council of Bishops and the absence of such was a glaring weakness within our denominational structure. In the end, that’s how those two pieces of legislation were reconciled. We believe, nevertheless, the General Conference should act to establish this office within the Council of Bishops, apart from any consideration of the merits of a set-aside bishop.
I’m excited about the prospects of The United Methodist Church to be a better ecumenical partner in the wider ecumenical circle.
4. How does the average United Methodist pastor or member benefit from your agency’s work?
Our website is a rich resource for local pastors, district superintendents, bishops, directors of connectional ministries and so on. We heartily recommend that people use those resources.
We have a new effort held in conjunction with the annual national workshop on Christian unity called United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Training, and anyone is welcome to attend. We particularly emphasize and extend invitations to Christian unity and interreligious concerns contact persons within annual and central conferences. We hope to replicate the U.S. workshop within the central conferences. We already are working on the possibility of a session in the Philippines.
5. How much money and how many employees does it take to maintain the work your agency is currently doing?
We were part of the budget process for the next quadrennium to guarantee World Service funds come to the commission, even if we are incorporated within the Council of Bishops, because there would be a question about the transitional period.
When General Conference delegates and visitors go to our booth, they will see how extensively we are engaged in ecumenical and interreligious relationships. If you would draw a parallel between the structure of the U.S. federal government and The United Methodist Church, we are the functional equivalent of the U.S. State Department, and our “foreign relations” department is woefully understaffed.
We have four executive staff as well as three regular and one temporary administrative support staff. In terms of the long-range future and the gospel imperative of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ, we need to continue at least the level of funding we’re receiving now. Denominations no longer can afford to go it alone. We must pool our resources, come together, discern the mind of Christ in our ecumenical midst and move forward in ways we haven’t begun to imagine.
Learn more: General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns website
For more information, visit the General Conference 2012 website.