Methodism's Future: A Filipino Perspective

January 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

For the past fifty-two years as a global united church and nearly three hundred years from the time John Wesley and his brother, Charles, first started organizing societies which grew and eventually came to be known as the Methodist movement, the Methodist Church has been on the leading edge of God’s mission to the world. In Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia, and especially in the Philippines, one can find the Cross and Flame—a symbol not only of The United Methodist Church, but of people who bring Christ’s love to those in need wherever they may be.

It has been over a hundred years since the arrival of American missionaries to the Philippine Islands. Since then, countless lives have been touched through a multitude of projects: schools, hospitals, orphanages, places of worship and sanctuaries, and various ministries ranging from jail visitations to feeding programs, community health projects to relief and rehabilitation missions, work with indigenous peoples to involvement in justice and peace causes, and the equipping and sending of missionaries and fellows. The mission is never done for people called United Methodists.

Methodism was one of the first branches of Protestantism that set foot in the country, courtesy of American Methodist missionaries who arrived with the American military forces at the height of the outbreak of the Philippine–American War in 1898. Their Chaplain George Stull preached at the first Protestant service on August 28, 1898 with American soldiers and some Filipinos in attendance. 

While there are those who say that the missionaries were also instrumental in pacifying the anti-occupation sentiments of Filipinos, nobody can argue the fact that they were also instruments of hope for those suffering from the ravages of war and destruction. Methodism was instrumental in supporting the efforts for postwar relief, reconstruction, and development. 

And as one of the leading Protestant denominations in the country, The UMC has a profound impact. Some of its contributions to our heritage came through ushering the Philippines into a new era with the introduction of preschool education in the country through the Harris Memorial College; public medical services by a private medical institution which eventually became the Mary Johnston Hospital; pioneering work in legal education through the efforts of Dean Jorge Bocobo, a Methodist Lay Leader who started at the YMCA and eventually transferred to the University of the Philippines; the first student center and first women’s dormitory, the Hugh Wilson Hall, through the Kapatiran Kaunlaran Foundation, Inc., and many more.

This is our legacy and this is our contribution in Missio Dei: We are making disciples who can help transform the world so God’s kingdom can be experienced more widely, here and now. As mandated in the Great Commission of our Risen Christ: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, CEB). And we do this effectively because we are a global church.

The challenge that our beloved church faces at this historical juncture is critical to our ability to be in mission as a church to the farthest reaches of our “Parish,” to those that have not yet heard or experienced the presence of Christ in their lives. And while we, as a global church, have experienced splits and separations in the past, these have never been done with significant consideration for or from conferences outside the United States. We must place the challenge of our church in its proper perspective so that all the members of the body can be appreciated for their gifts and graces, no matter how secondary or insignificant these may seem.

Must we, therefore, sacrifice the efficacy of our global reach to minister to the “least and lost” because we fail to be more open to the healing, loving, and reconciling work of the Holy Spirit in us? Both the Apostle Paul and our founder, John Wesley, urged us to be more humble, act more lovingly, and strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit that is in us.

"Our Calling to Fulfill" edited by M. Douglas Meeks. Order here:

We in the Philippines still have a rather fresh experience of the pain and confusion when, not so long ago, misunderstanding and rigidity led us to quickly part ways. Pitiful were those whom were victimized by the sudden turn of events: those whose relationships were unfortunately broken or suffered due to lack of options that could have preserved them, those who could have been at the receiving end of more effective ministries, and those who were affected by the “negative” witness they saw and heard from the people who usually ministered to them. It is my earnest prayer that we as a global church do not experience this. Not ever, by God’s grace!

So what, ideally, should the future of United Methodism look like from the perspective of the churches in the Philippines? 

First, we should still be a united church. Especially because of our diversity, we must be united. Our diversity will provide the necessary “mixture” and “contrast” to make our continuing participation in God’s mission more meaningful and significant. This will require that we all be more open to engagements and relationships that can be mutually enlightening and empowering. Our unity will likewise strengthen our global reach, enabling our united church to continue ministering to our Parish.

Unfortunately, this first element will necessitate that we oppose any moves toward disuniting.

Second, United Methodism should support and embody the various contexts from where the churches originate. This should be manifested in our polity. Thus, instead of making the rest of the connection suffer from dissolution or splitting, the US church should restructure itself into a regional conference that will be the counterpart of central conferences. This will provide our American brothers and sisters the necessary structural mechanism by which they can consider in holy conferencing concerns that are centrally theirs. By doing so, others in the connection that do not hold any contextual stake on the issue/s being considered do not get unnecessarily involved. Part of this second element is the initiative to have a contextualized Book of Discipline.

Central conferences, on the other hand, should be able to opt to become affiliated as autonomous so that they can grow from partnerships and relationships emanating outside the main connection. This can further strengthen their capacity to be in ministry with people in need within their various areas.

Third, we must view this as an opportunity from our Most Gracious and Loving Creator to revisit how we conduct ourselves. Almost all central conferences have signified their intention and deep conviction to continue as a global church, reminding ourselves of the Quadrennial Theme years back: "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors!" 

Unfortunately, contrary to this view are most proposals originating from US churches which push for the disuniting of our beloved church, including a new proposal that already suggests how resources can be shared and distributed. This move by some of our American brothers and sisters may be interpreted by many as perpetuating the relegation of central conferences (and their representatives) to being mere voters in a legislative tug-of-war and not real stakeholders to the life, witness, and mission of our church.

This, therefore, becomes an opportune time to prayerfully reflect, dialogue, and if necessary, recast our ministering together as a family in a global church. Borrowing from the words of Rev. Dr. Lloyd T. Nyarota of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference when he represented the Forum of Concerned Central Conference United Methodists during the Philippines Central Conference Coordinating Council Meeting in October 2019: “We are convinced that we have a lot more to accomplish as United Methodists coming together despite our differences. Our witness and mission is bold and effective when we stand United, and we believe it is still possible for us to continue as a global denomination.” 

Amidst the challenges in our church and in the world—our Parish, we must continue to be a global movement of Christians open and sensitive to God’s work in us, committed to discipling believers, intent on mission that cultivates our common faith, and engaged in action for social justice and transformation, whether at home or abroad.

I honestly do not know, nor can I forecast, what will transpire during GC2020. I also do not want to offer even an educated guess. What is next for The United Methodist Church is not clear to anyone, despite what you may have already heard or read. With the recent Protocol being proposed to the General Conference, Filipino Methodists will act on the basis of their contextual authority as a Central Conference. An outcome will only be determined come May 5-15. We should earnestly pray for whatever revelation our Gracious Creator will let us experience during that time. Let us rest in the promise that all things will work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28).  

But what I truly believe is this: All is far from over and our Miraculous God is not yet through with us. God still requires the church for mission because “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers” (Luke 10:2, CEB). God is not yet finished molding The United Methodist Church; neither is God about to stop doing what God does best —spreading love, pouring out grace, and providing hope to a broken world in need of mending, reconciling, and healing.

May our Loving God continue to be with us in our journey ahead as a united global church. God bless us all.

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