Should I stay? Or should I go?

Tuesdays at the Table’ is a series of discussions hosted by the Connectional Table that will help us better understand our faith, our church, ourselves. Learn more.

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Maybe you started going to a United Methodist church as a child. Or perhaps you came later in life because of the choir, the preaching or because the building was near your home.

As our church experiences a tumultuous season, you may be wondering what our disagreements and decisions will mean for you.

As we begin Tuesdays at the Table, we talk with Dr. David N. Field about why he is a United Methodist and how he is thinking through these personal decisions.

Discussion Guide


Guest: Dr. David N. Field

Dr. David N. Field serves as the Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops. Photo courtesy David Field.

I was born and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. While I did not grow up in a Methodist church, I can trace Methodist ancestors to the 1820’s. Methodism is in my genes.

Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I was a beneficiary of racist exploitation. My teenage years were influenced by the interacting of deepening faith and a growing awareness of the injustice experienced by my fellow South Africans. After completing high school, I studied theology. Of prime importance for me was the discovery of the centrality of justice in the biblical traditions and the challenge of how to incorporate this into my faith, life, and theology in the context of the intensifying political conflict in South Africa.

In 1988, I joined the staff of Student YMCA at the University of Cape Town. The focus of my work here was on evangelism, discipleship, and pastoral care. I completed an MA and Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town. In 1996, I took up a post as lecturer in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Transkei and in 2000, I moved to Africa University as Senior lecturer in Systematic Theology and Ethics. This move coincided with my marriage.

My wife was teaching in the faculty of Theology at the University of Bonn in Germany. After we married, I moved to Germany where I took responsibility for our family and household enabling my wife to work fulltime as a pastor. In 2005, we moved to Winterthur, Switzerland when my wife became the pastor of the UMC congregation there.

In 2006, I was approached by Bishop Patrick Streiff to lead the project planning for the development of an online program in Methodist Studies for prospective pastors in the UMC across Europe. This developed into the Methodist e-Academy. Since then, have led the work of the e-Academy as part time Academic coordinator. The Methodist e-Academy is a theological education project for Methodist Churches in Europe (primarily but not exclusively United Methodists) providing online supplementary education in Methodist Studies for ordination candidates and further education courses for pastors and lay leaders. I also taught courses in the Methodist Studies Program. The focus of the Methodist Studies Program is the development of Methodist identities and mission in contexts in which Methodists are (often small) minority churches.

I am a layperson and a member of the Kleinbasel congregation of the United Methodist Church.  I am active at various levels of the denomination. I serve on the annual conference’s Church and Society committee and have represented the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe at various forums. I was a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. Since August 2021, I am the Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops.

Host: Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai

The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai serves as Chief Connectional Ministries Officer of The Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy Kennetha Bigham-Tsai.

Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, Chief Connectional Ministries Officer of The Connectional Table, came to the CT as a board member in 2012 and to the chief executive role in 2018. Before coming to the Connectional Table in a staff role, Rev. Bigham-Tsai served on the Michigan Annual Conference Cabinet as chief missional strategist. She has served local churches and in many leadership positions within her annual conference and at the general church level, including as a delegate to General and Jurisdictional conferences since 2012 and as co-chair of the Michigan delegation for the 2020 General Conference. Bigham-Tsai is a sought-after speaker who has a passion for the growth and vitality of The United Methodist Church and for equity and justice for all. She has been married to Kee Tsai for 27 years. They have two children, Keeton and Kamden.


Transcript

Kennetha: I am here today for the first Tuesday at the table conversation. My guest is Dr. David Field, author and scholar, academic coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy and the new ecumenical staff officer of the COB. Welcome David.

David Field: Thank you. It’s good to be here, thanks for the invitation.

Kennetha: David, tell us a little bit about your academic background and your professional background.

David: Well, perhaps just to know, first I originally come from South Africa and studied theology and religion in South Africa. Graduated from the University of Cape Town with a masters and major in PHD. Then I taught it at a number of institutions in South Africa. The University that was then called the University of Transkei, and then would go on to Africa University in Zimbabwe. For the past 20 years almost now, I've being living in Europe. It was purely a... what can I say, a love change, my wife happens to be German. And when we got married, I decided to move here, and spent a lot of time in that 20 years, actually looking after our family and our household, while my wife was a full-time Pastor. And then I've been running the Methodist e Academy, which is an online for theological education project, providing supplementary education in Methodist studies for prospective pastors, and for pastors doing further education.

In addition, I do a bit of writing on various subjects. Methodist theology, ethics, the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eco theology, are kind of my areas of interest.

Kennetha: We're going to talk today about one of your books. Now what brings us to this conversation is a desire to talk about what it means to be United Methodists, and why a person would choose to be a United Methodist today, in the midst of the ongoing disagreements that we grapple with and in the midst of the possibility of a split. So we have posed the question for the series. Should I stay? Or should I go? Tell us a little bit about your faith journey and where you stand on that question and why?

David: Well, perhaps important to know, I didn't grow up a Methodist. My father's family were actually Methodist, we can claim Methodist ancestry back to the 1820's. I grew up in a small conservative, evangelical independent church. My initial theological studies was a very conservative Calvinistic orientated Bible college. But I think importantly growing up in South Africa in the 1970s, a key part of my faith journey was how does my Christian faith relate to, issues of racial justice, and the struggle against apartheid. That was really kind of defining for me as I wrestled, coming from a church which emphasize strong personal faith, and personal salvation, and personal holiness. And the big question for me is how does that relate to the struggles for justice? And that was really a theme, perhaps the first 10, 15 years of my theological life.

And that really shaped me, is there a theological framework that I can hold these two things together. A second important kind of development that was more personal, when I was in my doctoral program, a close friend, former girlfriend came one day to me and shared with me that she was convinced she had come to the conclusion she was a lesbian. And she had her coming out experience with me. I spent a lot of time walking with her through her coming out experience. That was also a challenge for my faith coming from quite a conservative background. And I spent a lot of time wrestling with biblical passages, dealing around sexuality. And at one point came to the conclusion, reflecting on what Paul said to the Romans chapter one, that Paul didn't know what he was talking about. Which was kind of a shock to me and my faith. And the question, does Christian faith mean anything at all? Is it just purely myths and fairy stories? And then I went through a number of years of kind of doubt and struggle.

And interestingly, I'd since left the university... I completed my PhD teaching University of Transkei, and met a group of people. Christians from diverse denominations, diverse theological perspectives, but met together once every two weeks for fellowship and Bible study, and they nurtured me back to faith. So it was very diverse group and from them, to quote a title of a book, I met Jesus again for the first time. And discovering a new understanding of who Christ was, and his message and his understanding of including people who are ostracized and excluded of bringing solidarity with the poor, the rejected, the excluded. That really shaped my thinking, and I began to think this Christian faith really does make sense. If this is who God is, in human form. Wow. This is the kind of God I want to follow.

I then went onto Africa University and discovered United Methodism, which I didn't know before. And I suppose a highlight if anybody's been to Africa University is the weekly chapel services. There's nothing quite like worshiping in an African University chapel services. A mixture of Wesleyan hymns, and African culture and traditions as really something amazing. So I was beginning to think, yeah this Christianity makes sense. I was actually then thinking maybe Methodism also makes sense, although I wasn't really... I was a member of the Presbyterian Church at that stage. After we got married, I moved to Germany, as I said, and I looked after our family and household, and spent a lot of time while our kids were playing in the playground, I was sitting, reading, and thinking of theology of life and what it would mean.

And my wife came to the pastoral position in the UMC in Switzerland, and I was asked by Bishop Streif to project plan and lead a new program one-on-one education. And to do that I delved into Methodism, John Wesley, and really discovered suddenly I found a theological home, where there's the strong emphasis on the centrality of love. God's love for us, our love for God, our love for each other, linking together personal piety and spirituality with a commitment to social justice, commitment to being on the side of the poor and the oppressed, this doctrine of prevenient grace emphasizing God's working in all people throughout the world. And suddenly it really made sense to me. But also importantly at that stage it was meeting people, young pastors from across Europe, very different cultures and backgrounds who really lived this message. People working often in very difficult circumstances in some Eastern European countries, Methodism is a minority church working really amongst the poor, the excluded, the rejected, the society less.

And so it, wasn't only a theoretical thing and it made sense to me. And then coming into Methodism suddenly discovering, there was this huge conflict going on in the church, which I didn't know about at all. And having gone through this whole experience and come to really understand the gospel messages, one passage which affirms and includes LGBTQ people, I suddenly discovered this was a point of contention within the church. And more than that, discovering that the people who, in some ways I saw living this faith held a more conservative position than I did. And so that really was a kind of struggle for me. How do I hold this altogether? Which took me back into Wesley's theology and struggling with it and discovering in Wesley's theology resources for you can hold the core of the Christian faith and you have the ability to tolerate difference and disagreements around a lot of issues, and wrestle together with them.

Then I explored in my other book Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease so I tried to say, and really saying that in Methodism within the tradition is a huge amount of theological resources that can help us deal with division and debate within the church. And I suppose for me, I found it tragic that we hadn't really mined those resources. I then spent some time working on my commission on a way forward, looking at the future of the UMC and meeting with diverse people across the denomination. And again, strikingly in people with different views, discovering a common faith, a common commitment to Christ their common heritage in the tradition.

And so I've really found that in many ways, this is where I belong. This is where I live. But in the Methodist tradition, I find resources for helping me deal with all sorts of complex issues in our contemporary world. I enjoy the breadth of the church, but there are differences of opinion. Because I know I need it, I need people to disagree with me and tell me where I'm wrong, where they think I'm wrong. I don't want to be in a place where everybody agrees with me because you don't grow that way. I need to learn from others, I need to learn through this process of wrestling together, living with different convictions and ideas. I need a multinational church. A church which crosses boundaries. The feature of living in Europe in the past 20 years has been the issues around migration, the number of refugees coming into Europe and just reflecting that many of the refugees coming from Africa are not just fellow Christians, but that many of them are fellow Methodists, but many of them are united Methodists.

And when I think of the struggles in places like Congo or Angola, Zimbabwe, the people are really struggling to survive. It means I'm connected, they are my siblings they are a part of my church, in a very real way. And when they come across to Europe, they're here, they are a part of me.

I think that opens up new perspectives, particularly as we face in Europe and elsewhere in the world, sort of growing nationalism and emphasis on keeping things for ourselves or building barriers. It has been really important being part of a church, which crosses those barriers, and links me to people who I wouldn't normally be linked with.

Perhaps just a personal note terms of we now celebrate communion, which we do again here in Switzerland we are now celebrating communion in person. But it has always been tough for me to reflect on other people around the world, around the connection, why don't we simultaneously celebrating communion because of time differences, but we'll be celebrating communion some of the time now. People for example, who served with me on the commission on the way forward, we now thoroughly disagree. I think they also celebrating communion today. Well remembering Christ, they are participating in the body. And people who I agreed with people who are suffering, people having good. And that really means it gives me a picture of what God's reign is all about. And so its...

Kennetha: It's somewhat... You've talked about a lot there and what comes to mind, Wesley's words, though we might not think alike, let us love alike.

And you talk about the centrality of grace and the centrality of love that crosses those boundaries of difference. I want to point to a book that I have enjoyed of yours -  “Our Purpose is Love: The Wesleyan Way to be the Church. You say in that book, that love is the answer. Not only for our time, but all time, that may seem obvious to people. What struck me about that, and what raised a question is what is it in particular about our times today, that would make that statement particularly true? What is it particular about our times now that would lead you to write such a statement? If you were to write it again today?

David: A good question. I wrote that book while we were working in the Commission On a  Way forward. And that really struck me that often we deal with church politics. We're dealing with new structures, new rules, new regulations, trying to solve a problem. And what we really need is a vision for what it means to be church. And in that context of conflict, was important for me to reemphasize the notion of love.

Obviously love can be sometimes seen somewhat sentimental and superficial. And Wesley often talks about love, and then he explained it using three other concepts, justice, compassional mercy, and truth. And those things I find very helpful in our contemporary context. Compassion means really going out and standing in solidarity with those who are different, those who have other perspectives, those who are in need, those who are suffering. Justice also includes actually standing up against what is wrong and what is evil, and what is oppressive in our society, in our church. And that's also important. And truth, integrity, I think is a quality we desperately need. And you know, when we do see love in those terms, I think that was a picture of how we can begin to deal with a lot of different issues. Yes, the conflict in the church, but also in our societies.

If you look at all different societies, conflict, potentials, struggles, the pandemic we're living through at the moment. What does it mean to love our neighbors in the context of pandemic? What actions do we need to take? What things do we need to refrain from doing? In order to ensure that we don't infect other people, and that we don't get infected and so on.

I think here is where I would qualify my statement a little bit now is the thing I emphasize in the book. I think quite a lot self-giving love. I think that's important, but I think it does need to be qualified because often in situations where people are forced to give of themselves, and are actually being hurt by that kind of attitude, do they come and say, yes, no, you must love those who are hurting you, those who are oppressing you and you must be self giving towards them. I think we need perhaps to recognize there that justice, I mean, love is also about truth telling, and saying, this situation is wrong, this situation is... You are oppressing me, you're doing what is wrong, and be prepared to stand up for truth. That self-giving is important, but it needs to be complemented by other aspects in terms of dealing with love.

Kennetha: And the sense that self-giving does not mean sacrificing the image of God within itself, or the wellbeing of self. And I love this idea that you have of love as the sacrificial commitment to the wellbeing of another, which should also be the wellbeing of the self. You say in your book, that love is at the heart of God's mission in the world. How does that understand then relate to the call of the church, The United Methodist Church as it goes forward? Considering what we're dealing with and how should such ideas impact decision-making for people who are thinking about, should I, or should I not be a part of this church?

David: Kennetha, when we think about the mission of the church, I think an important part of the mission is not just what we say and what we do, but also who we are. That we model an alternative to the society around us. And that's a key thing we find in Wesley's theology and interestingly, when Wesley talks about mission he focuses not so much on proclamation, but on the life of the church. If the church actually lived the gospel, the gospel would spread. The problem is not that the church isn't speaking enough, the church is not living enough.

And so how do we live a life of love? And I think The United Methodist Church has an enormous opportunity to demonstrate to a world, which is often fraught with conflict and disagreement. What love is. To demonstrate an alternative by being the body of Christ. But because we are so different, because we are diverse cultures diverse nations, diverse languages, diverse political and social opinions and diverse theological opinion. Yeah. I think if we can say, yes, we have this diversity, but we also love each other, and we support each other and we pray for each other, and we are with each other. The people looking on can say, wow, these people are odd, they're different, they're strange, but in a way which is attractive.

Sometimes Christians are odd and strange in ways which are off putting in our cultures. Different cultures at different times. There was a time in Holland I believe when good Christians didn't ride bicycles. That was a sign of being a good Christian, it's bizarre, it's strange. But if people look around, and saw what they did in church, see how they love each other, then they'll think we've got something to offer. And you know, we've been in conflict in the church for what, 20 odd years or more. Can we not show something different, a way to deal with our problems and our real issues of diversity and difference, in a way that demonstrates there's something different about this group. There's something  attractive – something that can’t be explained except that God is amongst them.

Kennetha: And what a wonderful witness to the world right now that is so driven by all kinds of conflict. I'm going to do something really hard and maybe unfair, in your book you described the church in a lot of different ways, you described the church as a covenant community, a welcoming community, a missional community, a counter-cultural community. You also define the church as a sacramental community, a connectional community and a transnational community. Of all those adjectives, covenant, welcoming, missional, counter-cultural, sacramental, connectional,  transnational, pick one and highlight why it is an important aspect of the identity of, or the future vision for The United Methodist church. I know you wrote about all of them, but which would rise to the top today.

David: This is a difficult question. Reflecting on that, because each of them kind of shaped who I am and how I think about the church. I would like to pick counter-cultural. As I said earlier on the church has been associated with strange things in counter-cultural communities. And I do mention in the book that in Europe, for example, the Methodist church, The United Methodist church is small it's a minority church, people don't know much about it. It's often regarded as a sect-like church. So you have Methodists, Mormons and Muslims are altogether as kind of strange groups.

And the question, what makes us different from the society around us? And there different categories of that. And people... Certainly in Europe where you have highly secularized cultures, Western Europe. People look upon religion or upon the church as odd, as strange as not part of their daily life, perhaps different from the US, where the church is still much more a part of the culture. And anything you do that seemed to be strange, immediately opened you up for criticism, or it makes you a laughingstock. There's regularly here in Basel where I live, once a year there's a big Christian youth rally. And then the local newspaper always has some strange comments about it. Because somebody says something which really just... Western society is laughable.

So yes, we must be different. But we must be different in such a way that people say, hang on a minute, that difference is attractive. That's something I want. What is also clear, we needed to find boundaries.

When I was growing up in South Africa, in the seventies many Christians, certainly evangelical Christians emphasized being different from the society, being focused on Christ and all that focused around sexual morality, for example. But racism wasn't addressed at all. So you could be a good Christian and a racist, that was okay. And it's just struck me now, how absurd, the key issue in the society we missed, and focused on other issues. I think it's important just there, what in our particular context is the key issue. We as Christians must be different from the world around us in order to embody love. And that will be different in Switzerland from the US or from different parts of the US, or we're different from Congo or the Philippines or Bulgaria, Romania, as we move across the spectrum.

Each of our contexts and countries, there'll be different ways of expressing that love. And we need to find what those ways are, that is strikingly different, and that way is because, not just because you're looking for something to be different in an odd kind of way, because you're faithful to Christ. What does it mean to be faithful to Christ. We express God's love in a Christ like way in our culture dealing with the specific problems that we are facing in our situation.

Kennetha: And Christ was certainly counter-cultural. The early church was a counter-cultural movement, as an expression of love. What else would you say, David, about your identity as United Methodists and about how you were thinking about the issues and the decisions facing the United Methodist church today?

David: Well, as I said earlier on, for me, Methodism has become my theological home. Where I feel most comfortable with in terms of my own theological persuasions, and I find it difficult to leave. I’d find it really, really difficult to leave. I faced this in a different context a few years ago when my wife had been asked in the Methodist church, decided to pick up a position in the Reform Church here in Basel. And the question was, do I switch my membership? Do I follow my wife into the Reform Church? But do I stay a Methodist? And we were very clear, I was going to stay a Methodist, I would come to her services and listen to her preach, but I also joined the local Methodist congregation, and so I do both, in both services at different weeks.

Because to me, what was really important, I think is being part of a diverse family that crosses boundaries. I experienced that in different contexts, and I don't want to give that up. I need my brothers and sisters, my siblings who are different from me. I need those who are perhaps theologically would describe themselves as more conservative or more progressive or liberal. They correct me, they open my eyes. They help me to see things from a different perspective.

Interestingly, we recently had a lot of controversy. Switzerland has its unique culture, and politics is politically part of the European Union, but it has certain agreements with the European Union. And as a result of those agreements with the European union is freedom of movement. People can come from different countries, and move in. And about six months ago, or a year ago, there was suddenly a large number of people coming from Eastern Europe into the city and living on the streets begging. And there was a huge outcry. And then one of the politicians said, you know what, what we really need to do, is to be working in Romania, where these people are coming from, and doing development work that they don't become poor. They can stay there. That was part of the idea, they must stay there.

But we can really help them. That shocked me, but that's what we are doing as Methodists, we have been doing that for the past 20 years. We have churches in Bulgaria and Romania in Hungary amongst these very communities. We've been doing it, and the politicians have only caught up with it now. That kind of excited me that the church is doing things that are really important in the lives of people across the world. One can think of many things. When I think of the work of UMCOR or some of our development work, we're doing, you think of relief work. It's just huge what the United Methodist church is doing, and we can be part of that. And that to me is really important.

Kennetha: Thank you, David. Thank you. And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. And I am so looking forward because we're going to have you come back again in November and talk a little bit more in depth about questions around Christian Perfection and holiness, kind of how we grow in Christ and how we understand that from a Wesleyan and from a United Methodist perspective. So thank you so much for being with us.

David: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure to be here and I've enjoyed the conversation.