Reimagining, rewriting the Social Principles
Succinct, theological, global
The charge from General Conference 2012 is clear – revise the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church to make them more succinct, theologically grounded and globally relevant. It was one of several actions the assembly took to address the worldwide nature of the church.
Many of the statements originally adopted by the 1972 General Conference have been revised in successive sessions. Others have been added or deleted. However, not until now has a complete rewriting of the 73 statements that are official church teachings on many social and social justice issues been undertaken.
Within weeks of General Conference's adjournment, a task force of the General Board of Church and Society began leading the work at the request of the Connectional Table.
Listening around the world
Phase One – listening sessions that drew a total of 193 people to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Nigeria, Philippines, Czech Republic and the United States – is complete. General Conference 2016 is being asked to authorize Phase Two – the actual revision of the Social Principles for presentation to the 2020 session.
GBCS and local organizers recruited participants for the listening sessions based on nominations by their bishop, recommendations from annual conference church and society leaders and from applications.
The Rev. Neal Christie, GBCS assistant general secretary for education and leadership formation, and other staff facilitated the events. GBCS directors and members of the Division on Ministry with Young People (a part of Discipleship Ministries) and the Connectional Table attended as listening partners. Present for six of the events was the Rev. Fitzgerald "Gere" Reist, secretary of the General Conference.
Each two-day consultation focused on three questions:
- What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?
- How much and/or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographic area (conference)?
- What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?
Participants spent time in small-group conversations guided by the three questions and reported to the plenary.
At each event, participants introduced the six sections of the Social Principles:
- The Natural World
- The Nurturing Community
- The Social Community
- The Economic Community
- The Political Community
- The World Community.
Key findings Christie summarized in his report on the consultations were:
- Deep appreciation for the Social Principles as a resource for mission and ministry; participants illustrated specific ways (they) empower United Methodists to bear witness to the gospel in their communities
- Tension between acknowledging the practices of United Methodists in specific geographic areas and the application of the language in the Social Principles in those areas
- A desire to further clarify and reaffirm both the contextual and worldwide relevance of the Social Principles
- A desire for a more precise and concise articulation of the Social Principles that speaks across cultural distinctions and historical particularities; a desire for more explicit theological and ethical foundation to ground each social principle
Statements inspire action
United Methodists familiar with the Social Principles value them, according to many of the written reports from the consultations.
"The Social Principles encourage people to speak for those whose rights have been denied," said the Rev. Isa Duna Audu, a listening session representative of the superintendent of the Northern Nigeria Conference, "and also help us to understand that all humanity is equal before God."
In the Philippines, the Rev. Ismael Fisco Jr. said, "The Social Principles have become our inspiration ... in the implementation of programs that cater to the promotion, protection and upholding of human rights."
Participants in the Washington, D.C., sessions both lamented average churchgoers' lack of knowledge of the Social Principles and celebrated their use. The Rev. Jörg Niederer, GBCS director from Switzerland, told of one pastor who said, "People are excited to find that they are there." Another found them helpful "in talking to families who had a member in hospice or were facing those end-of-life decisions, particularly about removing life support."
While most participants were familiar with the Social Principles, for some the sessions provided their introduction.
The Rev. Kathleen Kind, a GBCS director from the Susquehanna Conference, told of a pastor from Romania where The United Methodist Church is young. He learned of the statements at the consultation in the Czech Republic. "He was very affirming in the language and potential role of the Social Principles for him and his church (with the exclusion of Social Principles that speak to sexual orientation, gender identity or nontraditional families)," Kind said.
Theological grounding can strengthen
Along with appreciation came widespread agreement the principles need to be revised.
"All participants are of the opinion that the Social Principles are a unique feature of The United Methodist Church and of special significance but can be formulated even better, can be explained better and can be better integrated in the local context," reflected a participant in the DRC session.
Providing the theological foundations may be the easiest of the three tasks and is needed.
"Realities may differ, but there are principles and positions that, if approached from a biblical perspective, offer room for positive understanding," wrote the Rev. Laishi Bwayla, a Connectional Table member from Zambia.
Niederer advised, "More theological foundation and maybe scriptural references in the Social Principles themselves.... I think that makes it more translatable in other languages, but also translatable from culture to culture."
Cultures, contexts vary widely
The variety of contexts and cultures in which United Methodists live their faith could offer the biggest challenge for those rewriting the document. Even those places that are too often perceived by outsiders as monocultural are not.
Said one DRC participant, "Ivory Coast is not Nigeria. Nigeria is not Congo. Almost everything in the Social Principles is also an issue in Africa, but often from a different perspective."
"Globally-relevant Social Principles should integrate the social realities of Africa, America, Europe and Asia," wrote the Rev. Lisa Garvin, a GBCS director from Mississippi.
Many find the present statements reflect a United States-centric perspective on the issues – whether they are related to economics, families, relationships among different groups of people, sexuality or other topics.
In sections about the Economic Community and The Natural World, participants in both the Philippines and African consultations cited needs to discuss the effects of transnational corporations either displacing smaller, local companies or wreaking havoc on the environment of developing nations.
"The power of producers and capitalists must be exposed in the Social Principles," wrote a Filipino participant, "how profits go to foreign corporations. Local markets and local communities are being killed by big corporations who offer better prices."
Concerns were voiced in Mozambique and the Philippines about language on the family. "‘Loving parents' should read ‘loving communities' – parenting is shared and not limited to the parents," wrote a Filipino participant.
"In Africa, a child does not belong only to the biological parents but to the entire community," wrote Natal Oliveira Massela Naftal from Mozambique. "With the emigration of cultures, we see a growing number of street kids who lost their parents in certain circumstances of life. ... The Social Principles should speak to this issue and safeguard the positive African practice."
Czech Republic participants recommended expanding the principle about marriage to include comments on child brides, arranged marriages and mail-order brides "where there is unequal power and possibly violence."
Polygamy is among the issues for African United Methodists. "For the past couple of General Conference sessions, the issue of homosexuality has been at the center of discussions," wrote Naftal. "However the issue of polygamy in Africa is discussed in Africa and ends there and is never transported to the General Conference."
Garvin noted, "(Present) statements on ethnic and racial minorities have little significance in Africa, but there is a need for statements related to tribalism."
Reducing the words
Considering how to make the statements more succinct, participants noted some include examples and ideas for implementing the principle.
"The random mixture of actual principles with values statements, proposed behaviors, belief statements and position statements makes it difficult to fully understand what the core ‘principle' is," wrote the Rev. Dan Dick, a GBCS director from Wisconsin.
"The Social Principles should be stated in a concise way," wrote Benedita Penicela Nhambiu, a Connectional Table member from Mozambique, "with an explanation of the biblical groundings leaving the details of their interpretation to the local leaders, considering the local context and settings."
Moving toward GC2020
GBCS is recommending General Conference 2016 establish a Committee on the Revision of the Social Principles for the Worldwide UMC. Collaborating with Church and Society would be the Connectional Table, the Committee on Faith and Order and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. Regional representatives would help develop working documents.
The draft of the revised Social Principles is to be discussed in a series of public hearings to be held in the central and jurisdictional conferences during 2018 and 2019.
The revised Social Principles will then go to the 2020 General Conference for action.
The Rev. Kathy Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine, www.interpretermagazine.org, publications of United Methodist Communications. This story was developed using reports and presentations from the consultations. The General Board of Church and Society's report to General Conference is found in the Daily Christian Advocate, Volume 2, Section 1, p. 187.