Hearing the global voices of The United Methodist Church is essential as the denomination’s Social Principles undergo the first revision in 50 years. The 2016 General Conference charged the United Methodist Board of Church and Society with overseeing a revision that would be more succinct, more theologically grounded and more globally relevant.
The Social Principles present the denomination’s values and perspectives on everything from environmental care and climate justice to food security, gender-based violence, issues of war and peace and economic sustainability.
“From the beginning,” said Randall Miller, vice president of the Board of Church and Society and chair of the Social Principles Task Force, “we decided because the church has changed so much that we would change the process to be more open and diverse.”
Staff of the board traveled to Africa in June for a listening session with lay and clergy of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area. Representing Church and Society were the Rev. Neal Christie, who coordinates education and leadership information for the board, and the Rev. Clayton Childers, director of conference relations.
“We would like to create a document that The United Methodist Church globally can embrace and that resonates with their experience,” Childers noted. “We want the voices participating in creating the document (to speak) from a global perspective.”
He said Zimbabwe offered a great opportunity to talk with local church leaders and to hear about their experiences.
The Rev. John Makaniko, Church and Society’s grassroots organizer for social justice ministry in Zimbabwe, said the conversations were intended to “project the Social Principles as global in scope by representing the minds and voices from United Methodist episcopal areas globally. This process gives a sense of ownership … by every United Methodist member across the globe.”
The approval of ordinary Christians, Makaniko added, strengthens the Social Principles’ efficiency. Hearing and considering everyone’s contribution benefits the entire denomination, he said.
Simon Mafunda, Zimbabwe East Conference lay leader, said, “Annual conferences are the key stakeholders in this case. The job would not be complete without their input. This has been an insightful engagement.
“I don’t doubt that the final product will be well-polished and easy to sail through the 2020 legislative process. This has instilled a great sense … of ownership among the conferences, and we applaud Church and Society for going through this arduous task.”
Makaniko said the active engagement offered the opportunity to put the African voice to the global church document.
“We are glad that we speak our African social and theological mind to virtuous global outlook,” he continued.
He said the Zimbabwean team tried to be mindful of the global nature of the church, not just Zimbabwe in particular and Africa in general.
“The conversations” Makaniko pointed out, “were global in scope, social in nurture, biblically grounded and local in context. The conversations created a sense of belonging, accountability, responsibility and ownership of the Social Principles because we were (invited) to add our voice.”
“Social Principles,” said Rosemary Nyarugwe, “have an important place in the Zimbabwe education system. The primary curriculum includes family, religion and moral education, heritage studies and social studies, where values, attitudes and morals are groomed.”
Nyarugwe said the learning areas cut across the curriculum with concepts addressing different age groups. Student teachers are taught these values in subjects such as religious studies, theory of education, inclusion of education, environmental science, health and life skills and local language (Crishona).
Social Principles are considered as institutional values are developed, she said. Church-related schools have chapel time of up to two hours hours per week, where Social Principles are emphasized. Institutions also have peer-education groups on issues of health and life skills.
“I was so impressed with the way we do things as a church,” said Zivorashe Mujaji, Harare East District Church and Society chair. “There is order and transparency … a sense of belonging, which brings us together as one church despite nationality, gender or race.
“We contributed to the public conversation on the working draft of the revised Social Principles,” he added, “because we were representing our norms and values as a church. There is space and freedom for everybody to contribute without cohesion or prejudice. I am greatly humbled to be part of the team.”
Childers was thankful to be part of the listening team. “It is always a wonderful experience to meet the people here,” he said, “to see the enthusiasm people bring throughout discussion.”
“I was impressed by the diversity of the leadership that participated in this public conversation,” Christie said. “It is not possible to hear from every person in one area, so we will rely on leaders who are in touch with their people and who understand the realities of people ... they lead and (with whom) they help to keep the vision going.”
He said health care, women’s rights to inherited property and “the passion for building peace” were key concerns.
The Rev. Alan Masimba Gurupira, administrative assistant to Bishop Eben Kanukayi Nhiwatiwa, who leads the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area, said the sessions were “an enviable opportunity for Zimbabwe’s voice to be heard. It was an opportunity to contribute and learn. The challenge … is to put principles into practice.”
Nhiwatiwa congratulated the Zimbabwe participants for the historic achievement in exercising their leadership rights.
He voiced appreciation for “the approach which was used to visit an episcopal area, to have people participate in groups.” Nhiwatiwa said that because participants represented the local church, the process helped clarify United Methodist policies and directions for them and allowed them to help shape the future.
“Usually,” he added, “they hear about Social Principles like something mysterious which is discussed at the General Conference, but people have seen that these Social Principles are for your homestead, for your family, for your everyday life.”
In Zimbabwe, Nhiwatiwa continued, being good stewards of the environment is an important issue. “How good is it that now,” he said, “we are actually talking about it in the church. We will be good stewards, and we will be in contact with communities from an informed position. These (sessions) will go a long way in grounding our understanding of Social Principles and how to implement them.”
A draft and subsequent materials are available in English, French, Portuguese and Swahili, said Tricia Bruckbauer, director of communications for the board. People can weigh in on the draft until the end of August. At that point, an editorial team will compile the feedback and edit the document for presentation to the Board of Church and Society.
The board ultimately hopes to bring the proposed revised Social Principles for a vote in 2020 at General Conference, the denomination’s top policymaking body.
Six writing teams, assigned to the six sections of the Social Principles, worked on the draft, Miller said. The writing teams themselves also had global representation.
Kumuterera is a communicator for the Zimbabwe West Conference.