Global churches, planetary assembling

April 29th, 2024

Mark Twain receives credit for having said that “history does not re- peat itself; it rhymes.” The historical development of The United Meth- odist Church in the twentieth century has its share of rhymes with the history of American empire. Global Methodism, as much as it represents its identity in a polemic against United Methodism, is starting to produce its own imperial rhymes. As familiar as the image is, the spinning globe carries with it assumptions of a notion of the globe that has been formed and developed under the spirit of empire. As a totalizing view, the globe is never just a vision of all peoples and nations of the world coming together. With that image ingrained in its name, Global Methodism is carrying un- interrogated assumptions and replicating known imperial patterns.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, United Meth- odism struggled with its global reach. Its ecclesial structures and methods of deliberation—especially its General Conference—proved inadequate. “Holy conferencing,” a mark of Wesleyan ecclesiology, was rarely a means of grace for the denomination. Alongside the tensions around human sexuality, church governance, and doctrinal matters, the schism of The United Methodist Church is to be understood as yet another fracture in the history of empire and its global pretenses. As many chapters in this volume have indicated, attention to the flow of power in history and the cultural negotiations that happen in that context is central to an analysis of the schism in the denomination. The poles of conflict are themselves overdetermined by the imperial inheritance latent in Methodism.

The spirit of empire hovers above the formation of the globe, of the perception of homogeneity in that which is plural and mysteriously un- canny. Jacques Derrida has called attention to this through his concept of “globalatinization,” an expression that refers to the fact that “globalization” has been the global extension of an imperial memory that extends all the way back to Rome. It is a thoroughly Christian and imperial vision of the globe, Derrida affirms.[1] When unquestioned, claims for a global denomination run the risk of carrying over norms, political suppositions, and cultural patterns that are far from global. At worst, these projects replicate global designs that have been shaped by empire. The vision of a global denomination in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is un- thinkable outside the imperial aspirations of the United States.

Yet resistance to the spirit of empire does not entail letting go of com- mitments that are planetary in scope and solidarities that transgress na- tional boundaries. Pointing out the entanglement between global Methodism and this imperial inheritance does not diminish the movement but can contribute to the tracking of the counter-imperial gestures in the tradition. The hope and the bias of the analysis is that both exist and continue to rise up. In an epoch of rising nationalisms, a global ecclesial body can testify to a more excellent way. For a global denomination, that would entail turning the globe into an unfamiliar body, an assembly of living beings that escapes totalizations. That requires departing from the spinning globe as the operative metaphor and entering the unfamiliar zone of a planetary assembling.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has drawn the distinction between the “globe” and the “planet” to address, with regards to the former, a form of imagining the world as a homogenous entity engendered under the confines of imperialistic projects. For Spivak, we recall, the globe can exist only on the computer. As I suggested, the spinning globe is its most recent and common figura- tion that makes its way onto the imaginary of Global Methodism. The planet is distinct from the globe, but in a distinction that cannot be an opposition. “The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system,” writes Spivak. “It is not really amenable to a neat contrast with the globe.”[2] When she “invokes” the planet as a category, Spivak seeks to name—indeed to “nickname”—our human intendedness toward the other. We are creatures inclined in the direction of otherness. The planet is one such name for the “animating gift” of our other-bound intendedness. A planetary assembly would then be the gathering of a people committed to the unbounded mystery of the other, a community that takes upon itself the vocation to love that which is strange and “wandering.” The spin- ning globe presents a familiar and manageable entity. The planet, living and uncanny, is of a different nature.

Available from Cokesbury

The turning to the other, one might say, is one way to name our desire for God. Global denominations are temporary and incomplete attempts at gathering together our shared inclinations to God in an assembly that cannot be confined to any one nation-state or vision of a unified globe. The theological project of a global denomination cannot be subsumed by any singular vision of what the “globe” is. I’m suggesting that “global” ought never to be a “fully appropriate” name for a mode of assembling that honors our shared intention for the other.[3] A planetary assembling constitutes a different public, a different social body. A planetary assem- bling disidentifies us from a globe that has been constituted by the spirit of empire. The planet renders unfamiliar that which empire has made familiar. The church as a planetary assembling is only legible as an act of queering, a rendering strange of what has been made familiar, too familiar.

In the age of imperial globalization, nationalist boundary-setting, and ecological calamity, a planetary assembling might be the most appropriate name for a world parish. The spirit of the old Wesleyan proverb is claimed by competing inheritors of the Methodist revival, but its planetary dispo- sition remains elusive. The fact that we cannot pin down what a “world parish” ought to be is the hopeful sign that it does not belong to any one globe. Truly, the world that becomes a parish harbors the peculiar queerness of a warmed heart. One is entitled to hope that the strangeness of that experience will not let Methodism be consumed by the spirit of empire.



Excerpted from Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia. Copyright © 2024 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


[1] See Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002), 40–100.

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “‘Planetarity’ (Box 4, WELT),” Paragraph (Modern Critical Theory Group) 38:2 (2015): 291,

[3] Global Methodist Church, “Vision.”

comments powered by Disqus