There was confusion. There was pushback.
But there also was gratitude that the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry had gathered seminary professors and bishops to consider God’s mission for The United Methodist Church.
“Any time we can bring our various worlds together in one room and reflect, I think the church of Jesus Christ benefits,” said the Rev. Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of Boston University School of Theology.
The meeting — or colloquy, as organizers called it — occurred Nov. 12-15 in Boston under the title “Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness.”
“Missio Dei,” or the mission of God, proved a broad term, generating a wide range of topics for scholarly papers by colloquy participants and presenting a challenge as the group tried to consider how their work could help guide a denomination divided over homosexuality.
“We’re all confused on why we’re here,” California-Pacific Conference Bishop Grant J. Hagiya said with a laugh during one breakout session.
But Hagiya, who teaches part time at Claremont School of Theology, was among the biggest cheerleaders for having bishops and the entire denomination take advantage of seminary professors’ expertise.
“We need to find these innovative ways to bring you into the church in a way that would be engaging for both clergy and laity,” he told his small group.
More than 40 scholars, representing all 13 United Methodist seminaries as well as others that train United Methodist clergy, attended the colloquy. So did seven residential United Methodist bishops.
Most of the scholars and some of the bishops presented papers that eventually will be shared through a study guide and book.
The Board of Higher Education and Ministry had a colloquy on church unity and human sexuality in March, specifically aimed at informing the Commission on a Way Forward as it seeks to help the church avoid breakup amid division over how inclusive to be of LGBTQ individuals.
A third colloquy, on race, is planned for next November at United Methodist Iliff School of Theology, in Denver.
“What I hope we can do is set a pattern of communication among our theological schools and episcopal leaders, to help each other to listen and discern,” said the Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
She added that the Boston colloquy’s U.S. focus owed to The United Methodist Church “struggling with identity” as the country undergoes rapid social and demographic change.
Gregory A. Smith of Pew Research Center was the one outside speaker at the colloquy, and he addressed the shifting U.S. religious landscape.
Drawing on a major 2014 study, he said the number of religiously observant Americans has held roughly steady, with upticks among those who say they pray and participate in churches’ small groups.
But the study also documented numerical and percentage declines for mainline Protestants, including United Methodists. And the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown rapidly, especially among younger people.
“This is a huge change, to barely have a majority among millennials who identify with Christianity,” Smith said.
After Smith’s presentation, colloquy participants formed in groups to discuss the papers.
Joerg Rieger of Vanderbilt Divinity School presented one titled “Reaching Out and Reaching In: Reflections on Mission in a Postcolonial Age.” The Rev. Elaine Heath, dean of Duke Divinity School, called her entry “Unbinding Lazarus: Renewing Theological Education to Resource a Missional Church.”
Hagiya asked in his paper: “What if everything we did in the church was centered in mission?” The Rev. Julie Todd, senior adjunct lecturer in justice and peace studies at Iliff, described removing “anti-LGBTQ language” from church law as “the primary missional activity necessary to enable a United Methodist witness to the love of God in Christ in any local, national or global context.”
Some papers argued that culture or political ideologies had co-opted the church’s commitment to the mission of God. Others urged a missional emphasis on environmental protection, immigration, apostolic ministry, youth ministry and intercultural dialogue.
The name of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was invoked often. But Dana L. Robert, a professor at Boston University School of Theology, noted that Wesley’s statement “the world is my parish” has been embraced both by Methodists with an evangelism focus and by those who stress social justice.
Given the colloquy’s variety of topics and viewpoints, it was probably inevitable that the plenary sessions would struggle to find common ground. And some participants expressed frustration that the discussion wasn’t more directly about the church’s divide.
“We’re meeting because the question of human sexuality is breaking the church,” said Morris L. Davis, director of Wesleyan/Methodist studies at Drew Theological School. “Let’s deal with that question.”
Leigh Goodrich, senior director of education and leadership for the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, expressed appreciation for the colloquy but wondered how it would have gone “if there had been more women, more people of color and more people who identify as LGBTQ.”
Even the decision to use the term “missio Dei” came into question.
The president of Wesley Theological Seminary, the Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, said he had shared with some of his board members that he was at a meeting on “missio Dei” and heard back from one: “Why can’t you speak English?”
“Sometimes a whole lot gets lost in translation, especially when we’re trying to speak about mission,” McAllister-Wilson said.
On the colloquy’s last day, Moore led the group in a search for “convergences” in the areas of theology, church polity and practices of ministry. Participants formed small discussion groups, but sometimes no convergence could be found.
“It was very impassioned, even angry at times,” said Althea Spencer-Miller, who teaches at Drew, about one group she joined in. “What was precious about it was how honest and forthright and uncovered and vulnerable we were.”
The Rev. Paul Chilcote, professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, suggested it was unrealistic to expect much consensus from such a gathering. The perspectives were too wide, and the time too short.
“My sense is that we’ve had kind of episodic dives into the depths,” he said.
But he “absolutely” supported bringing scholars and bishops together. So did David W. Scott, director of mission theology for the Board of Global Ministries.
Scott, a rare agency participant in the colloquy, reported to the plenary from one of the small groups on the last day.
“We felt, even in the midst of our confusion, that the work we were doing here was important,” he said. “We wanted to strongly affirm that goal of bringing the academy and church into relation with each other.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.