Our part in global Methodism today

By Rev. Dr Amelia Koh Butler and Janelle Gibson 

The UCA as part of Global Methodism

Methodism is a movement of Protestant Christianity made up of a number of denominations. The movement traces its roots back to founder John Wesley, an Anglican preacher. Charles Wesley, John’s brother, and George Whitefield were also significant leaders in the movement. The Wesley brothers founded the Holy Club while studying at Oxford. The club met weekly to systematically set about living a holy life. Other students branded them “Methodists” because of the way they methodically ordered their lives.  The Methodist movement was mostly Arminian in their theological outlook (salvation available to all), however, George Whitefield and several others were considered Calvinistic Methodists.

John Wesley believed the goal of discipleship was for Christians to live in such a way that the love of God "reigned supreme in their hearts". He promoted the idea that outward holiness should be an expression of the sanctification of our lives by God’s work. Personal piety, service for the common good and attention to the disciplines of the faith, including the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, became important marks of “the people called Methodists”.

What is the World Methodist Council?

The World Methodist Council is made up of 80 Methodist, Wesleyan and related Uniting and United Churches representing over 80 million members in 138 countries.  It engages, empowers and serves the member Churches by encouraging Methodist unity in witness, facilitating mission in the world and fostering ecumenical and inter-religious activities.  It promotes obedience to the Great Commandment of Jesus Christ to love God and neighbour and to fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples through vibrant evangelism, a prophetic voice, cooperative programs, faithful worship and mutual learning.

Although it is one of the smallest member churches numerically and financially, the Uniting Church in Australia has been a key contributor to the work of the World Methodist Council, with numerous Australians serving as Council, Steering Committee and work Convenors over many years. The UCA has played a key part in understandings of ecumenism (led by Robert Gribben), polity and ethos (Terence Corkin) and mission and evangelism (numerous contributors, including Alan Walker). Currently, Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler serves as a Steering Committee member, with responsibility for Convenor of Global Worship and Liturgy. She was appointed with the encouragement to focus on developing intercultural, global worship.

At a last year’s meeting of the Steering Committee, Amelia travelled to Mexico City to facilitate worship and participate in the Annual Steering Committee meeting. She was accompanied by Janelle Gibson, a member of the Orange UC (NSW). Here the pair offer some reflections on their experience.

What were your impressions of the Steering Committee?

A: We serve a five-year term, so I had met most people before, last year in Seoul and the year before in Rome. This time, we had more of a sense of the rhythm of work around the world and a greater clarity about the gifts the different churches bring. In Rome we had a stronger focus on refugees and migration issues. In Seoul we were part of the peace and reconciliation developments. In Mexico the emphasis was on responding to the global Climate Crisis.

J: As a group, they were very compassionate and focused. They related personally to the theology. Sometimes, we might be unsure if there is too much theory and not enough about actual solutions.

A: I particularly notice the impact of having Bishops. Many of the member churches have Bishops. They talk a lot about the pros and cons of their polity, but often lack clarity about processes of discernment. The members are warmly welcoming of using Consensus, but have a history of robust meetings where listening can be a bit of a struggle. We can make a real contribution. Like the Uniting Church in Sweden, we bring lived ecumenical experience.

We know how to allow enough space for new movements to develop, while still respecting the variety of heritages in our communities. In an increasingly ecumenical global environment, the Methodist churches worldwide are particularly interested in how we do this.

What was memorable about the gathering?

A: Mexico City is bustling with energy. We met in the heart of the city at a Church deeply connected with social services and welfare. They ran a ministry providing support enabling people with disabilities to participate more fully in local life.

J: The host church, the Methodist Church of Mexico, was very able in demonstrating their hospitality, friendship and commitment. You could not find any fault in the extent of their welcome. There was delicious, home-cooked food, a vibrant and celebratory cultural night and interpreter and IT assistance provided for the meeting.

The Closing Service was very moving and spot on/to the point. It was about the climate crisis and our responsibility to act.

A:In the sermon we heard from Vice President of the WMC and Lay Preacher Gillian Kingston. She reminded us:

  • We are the custodians [of creation] – a role given to us by God.
  • Because [political] leaders put economics over people, we have to formulate some ways of being informed and generating change.
  • It is too easy to say “they’re not doing anything”… We need to lead change by example. E.g. when someone else throws something into the ocean, we need to pick it up and we need to become the ethical consumers that drive a move towards an ethical economy.

How were the locals?

A: Leaders from the Mexican Government and from the church, included younger leaders from other provinces. Some young ministers, who are undertaking Masters programs were encouraged to act as our interpreters/translators, in order to give them exposure to international ecumenical work.

J: All the people I met were friendly. They showed a real interest in each other and me. I found them interesting and engaging.

A: Yes - they were knowledgeable and they related clearly in conversations about the scriptures and how they apply to us and our situations.

J: There seemed to be a common thread. The difference with the other countries seemed to be the size and commitment of resources. It seemed like the leaders I met incorporate their beliefs into their daily life in clear and conscious ways.

What are the implications for what we do ‘back home’ when it comes to what you have heard and talked about with the World Methodist Leaders?

J: The church in Australia still feels very closed off. We talk the talk but we don’t necessarily enact what we talk about. When we do things, like having a local community lunch on a weekly basis or developing new gatherings of friendship groups, we sometimes measure how things are going by whether the group has many people and whether it makes a profit.

When we are counting money, we sometimes forget to measure social value. In a ‘user-pays’ society, how is the church called to be different and inclusive of those who are less able? Centralisation has sometimes contributed to an emphasis on risk avoidance  or reporting financial capacity (ability to make a profit) rather than reporting on the number of people served in mission and how the activity is contributing to the common good.

Often we can have an intention of giving something, but we can get too bogged down with money and finances. We might need to think a bit more about what we do if people can’t pay or if the focus on finance becomes a burden to some. When is a community meal a fundraiser and when is it an act of hospitality and a sign of generosity?

A: Travelling with my long term friend, Janelle, was really helpful. When you attend these meetings, it can be so easy to get caught up in the global thing and the academic knowledge accumulated from papers and reports… being with a friend helped keep my thinking grounded. I felt better able to make a valuable contribution because I would regularly and immediately have the conversation with Janelle about – what difference do you think this would make in Orange, or to the locals here or there… It made me wonder if we should change how we do meetings, how we should connect with others and how we stay grounded.

Rev. Dr Amelia Koh Butler is Advocate of the Seeking Common Ground Circle and Janelle Gibson is a member of Orange Uniting Church in NSW.