Africa Again the Stepchild?

Africa Again the Stepchild?

By Thomas Lambrecht —

This week, 14 new bishops are being elected in the five jurisdictions of the United States. In a few weeks, three bishops will be elected in the Philippines and one bishop in Central and Southern Europe. All these newly elected bishops will be replacing bishops who have retired or are retiring by the end of this year.

At the same time, Africa is scheduled to elect zero new bishops this year. A sidebar announcement coming out of a recent Council of Bishops meeting stated new bishops for Africa would be elected following the 2024 General Conference.

This situation developed, of course, as a result of the repeated postponements of General Conference occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since General Conference was not held, the jurisdictional and central conferences did not meet as usual to accept episcopal retirements and elect new bishops. Some bishops started retiring anyway, which meant that remaining active bishops had to assume additional duties to supervise those areas vacated by the retiring bishops. By the end of this year, 20 bishops will have retired in the U.S., meaning the remaining 26 bishops would have had to pull almost double duty to fill in for them.

The Council of Bishops attempted to rectify this situation by securing permission from the Judicial Council to call a special session of the jurisdictional conferences to elect replacement bishops. Although bishops can call special sessions of a jurisdictional conference, the Discipline only allows election of bishops in the U.S. jurisdictions within two years after the holding of a General Conference. Since General Conference did not meet, new bishops could not be elected without special permission.

Judicial Council Decision 1445 permitted the bishops to hold special sessions of the jurisdictional conferences to elect replacement bishops for those retiring, outside the parameters of normal church law and practice. Those are the sessions being held this week.

What About Central Conferences?

The Judicial Council decision applied only to the jurisdictions and electing new bishops in the U.S. The Book of Disciplineallows bishops to call special sessions of the central conferences at any time and for any purpose, including to elect bishops. Election of new bishops is required during the first year after a General Conference meeting. But unlike for U.S. bishops, the Discipline does not restrict bishops from being elected at other times.

The College of Bishops in the Philippines has called a special central conference to elect three bishops there. The bishop of Central and Southern Europe (there is only one) has called a special central conference to elect his replacement. But the three African colleges of bishops have refused to call special central conferences for their regions to elect new bishops there.

There are four African bishops who have already reached the mandatory retirement age for clergy of age 72. One bishop is in the West Africa Central Conference, one bishop is in the Congo Central Conference, and two bishops are in the Africa Central Conference (in East Africa).

Discipline Par. 357.1 says, “Every clergy member of an annual conference who will have attained age seventy-two on or before July 1 in the year in which the conference is held shall automatically be retired.” The provisions for central conference bishops to retire (Par. 408.1b) require bishops who reach their sixty-eighth birthday on or before the opening day of his or her scheduled [central] conference to retire “no later than three months following the adjournment of General Conference.” This requirement prevents any bishop from reaching their 72ndbirthday during the quadrennium. So the mandatory retirement by age 72 applies for all clergy and bishops.

Since General Conference did not meet in 2020 as scheduled, the four bishops in Africa are refusing to retire, even though their 72nd birthday has already passed! Once again, the Discipline is being disregarded with impunity. The Council of Bishops presumably did not exert pressure on the African colleges of bishops to call special central conference meetings to elect new bishops. The announcement that no such special sessions would be held arose out of a Council of Bishops meeting. It was discussed in that meeting.

An Additional Opening

In addition to having one bishop past the mandatory retirement age (and also in poor health), the West Africa Central Conference has another episcopal opening due to the tragic death of Bishop John Yambasu in August 2020. Since that time, retired Bishop Warner Brown from the U.S. has been filling in as the part-time bishop of Sierra Leone and will do so for (apparently) another two years. The Sierra Leone Annual Conference this past summer endorsed two nominees for bishop under the assumption that elections would be held this fall. Now, that is all on hold.

So, two of the four episcopal areas in West Africa need new bishops, but the college of bishops is declining to call a central conference meeting to elect them.

The Need for More Bishops in Africa

Within the past two years, the number of United Methodist members in Africa surpassed the number of members in the U.S. Yet the number of bishops in Africa is only 13, compared to 46 in the U.S. The U.S. has three times as many bishops for the same number of members. Add to that the difficult travel conditions in Africa, and one can readily see that the church in Africa is significantly underserved when it comes to having enough bishops to adequately lead and supervise the church there.

That is why the 2016 General Conference authorized the addition of five more bishops in Africa, to be elected in 2020. A task force identified the areas that would receive the new bishops and submitted a proposal to the 2020 General Conference. Of course, since the conference did not meet, it could not approve the proposal, and the new bishops could not be added.

The third postponement of General Conference has meant that Africa will be four years delayed in receiving the additional bishops sorely needed there to lead the church. That delay only compounds the problem caused by the failure to elect new bishops this year to inject new blood and provide new leadership to the fastest-growing part of the UM Church.

Call for Elections by Africa Initiative

The Africa Initiative has issued a call for the election of new bishops and the retirement of bishops who have reached the mandatory retirement age. Africa Initiative is an association of African clergy and lay leaders who are committed to partnering with people in all the annual conferences and provisional annual conferences in Africa to equip the church for leadership and growth.

Their statement reads in part, “Why dash the hopes of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference and that of other annual conferences who are looking forward to electing new bishops to replace bishops due for retirement? Why treat the central conferences of Africa in such a demeaning manner as if we do not matter? We consider this action on the part of African College of Bishops, with the acquiescence of the Council of Bishops, as a violation of our rights to elect our own bishops when they are duly scheduled to be elected. This is a gross injustice to the growing membership of the three central conferences. The decision is therefore unacceptable. Hence, we call for the election of new bishops in the three central conferences of Africa where elections are due” (emphasis original).

The Role of Judicial Council

This past summer, the Burundi Annual Conference requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on this matter of whether bishops can ignore the mandatory retirement date and continue serving beyond it until 2024. The Judicial Council should issue a decision on this matter sometime this month. It is hoped the Judicial Council will require bishops to retire who have passed the mandatory retirement date, and therefore require election of new bishops.

This whole situation is another example of some leaders in our church ignoring the requirements of the Discipline when they want to. There are very few avenues to force bishops to obey the Discipline. They can ignore even the rulings of the Judicial Council when they choose. Such disobedience in the past would have called into question the legitimacy of a bishop’s authority. However, for some bishops, it has now become all about holding on to power by whatever means works.

It is highly ironic that it is Africa that has been denied equality of bishops through the years by the majority U.S. General Conference. And now, the predominantly U.S. Council of Bishops supports the perpetuation of an unjust situation in Africa. When will our African brothers and sisters be treated as equals?

Enough General Conference delegates in 2019 resisted proposals to hold bishops more strictly accountable that those proposals were buried in committee and not adopted. That alone should be enough to provide a rationale for separation under Par. 2553. The leadership dysfunction and the structural failings of the UM Church, along with its resistance to reform, go a long way toward explaining the need to separate and start a new church that acts with integrity and accountability. The Global Methodist Church offers the possibility of such a church.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Public Domain. 

Colorful Faith in a World of Chaos

Colorful Faith in a World of Chaos

By Jessica LaGrone —

My friend Ryanne is a colorful Christian. Her home is colorful. She often paints a wall or ceiling or the whole front porch on a whim, based on some color that has drawn her fancy. Her family is colorful. Her children’s skin colors are a glorious variety of hues. Her language is sometimes a little colorful. As she stands yelling at her four kids and two dogs (and yardful of chickens, to boot) from her multicolored porch, she sometimes uses words that attract attention and occasional alarm from her aging neighbors. She stands out in her neighborhood, and pretty much everywhere else, which is clearly the way Ryanne likes it. 

She especially stands out when she and her kids pull into the church parking lot on Sundays, her ancient station wagon covered in bumper stickers that range from humorous and whimsical to edgy and political, surrounded by all the matching minivans. It can be hard at first to tell who the adult is in this brood. Ryanne is shorter than her oldest and matches him in cropped hair and faded jeans. She looks a little more like a teen headed to detention than a mother of four on her way to worship. Her church attire is a special T-shirt – one of her favorites to wear to church has “I love Jesus, but I cuss a little” printed across the front. “Just because I don’t dress like a church lady doesn’t mean I don’t believe like one,” she laughs. 

Does someone whose life seems so messy fit into the orderly picture of God’s good creation? Do we need to be a people of sterile, ordered lives to be a people of God?

Honestly, Ryanne has one of the most solid faiths of anyone I’ve ever met. Her house and car might look a little odd, but she and Jesus are tight. He was with her when the child support was late again. When the electricity was about to be turned off. When her middle kid wanted to go live with his dad. When her daily life was as torn and beat-up as the old carpet on her back porch, where we sat as she told me how Jesus helped her put the pieces back together. 

Just because he made her whole again didn’t mean he ironed her personality flat. 

Order and chaos. One mistake we make when we talk about order and chaos is to assume God’s call to order is a sentence to bland uniformity. He didn’t tidy up the vast expanse of creation expecting us to fall marching into line. Looking around at the world he made, we can see that his creativity is unmatched. Whether or not we wear it on our T-shirts, all of us are a little colorful, made up of stories and opinions pasted over a bit with life and humor and politics that would entertain some and shock others. 

But God’s idea of order in this vast universe wasn’t meant to keep the riffraff out, to place plastic covers on the couches, or to send uniform Christian soldiers trooping into churches dressed up and combed up and polished into essentially the same model with a slightly different minivan. 

The design of order in creation was never meant to decree uniformity. Creation by separation was never meant to make clubs of those who belong and outcasts of those who don’t. There’s no sign or secret handshake that Christians have to give in order to be truly accepted. The mark of a life lived faithfully with Christ isn’t some outwardly visible thing that shows up in our homes, our dress, or the shape of our family portraits in the church directory. It doesn’t matter if you wear a suit or a faded T-shirt. Those are only outward appearances, after all, and God looks at the heart. 

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton’s take on the discipline and order found in the Christian life was that “the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”

When God, on the first three days of creation, laid out one environment after another, creating space to swim and fly, to run and walk, to breathe and sing and dance, he was preparing a space ordered for the things that would come to live in it. When he looked out at each created space and named it “good,” surely part of the goodness was the intended purpose – the goodness to come, as wild things, humanity included, would enjoy this place to its fullest.

Room for play. There is something appealing about order, about pristine gardens and manicured lawns. Why risk letting anyone in to mess it up? If order is the highest value, then why allow play? Put up signs on the field that read, “Keep Off the Grass!” Fertilize it to green perfection. Manicure the heck out of it. Mow it in careful parallel stripes and guard it from pests, especially those big enough to run and kick a soccer ball.

What does it say about God that he didn’t put a plastic cover on the couch of creation? That he didn’t put up a “Keep Off the Grass” sign and shake his fist every time we came near?

We’ve bought into the lie that there are only two options: to either keep everyone off the field so they won’t mess it up, or to let it all go to seed, to descend into a wild space overtaken by weeds. The creation story paints a shocking alternative. God took the dark, empty chaos and made a beautiful space. Then instead of hiding it away, he decided to share it with us, knowing that our footprints would mess the field but that our play would be the ultimate fullness, the thing he made it all for.

Sometimes we tell ourselves the lie that the life God loves is a sterile, empty picture of life where there’s no room for human error. But anything that doesn’t allow room for human error doesn’t allow room for humans, and the whole point of the creation recipe culminates in putting humans in the environment to flourish in their relationship with God and each other. A place for God’s children to bring their imperfect and chaotic selves into his presence to commune with him is just the glorious chaos he ordered. A creation empty of messy inhabitants would be a different kind of chaos – the chaos of puritanical sterility, lacking the vulnerability that always comes when we open ourselves to sharing life and space with others. 

Signs of Life. When life comes pouring in, all kinds of accompanying miracles and mayhem come with it, even in places we wouldn’t expect. That’s exactly what happened when Dr. Bill Thomas became the new medical director at Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York. 

Upon his arrival, Thomas found a tidy, well-run facility. The staff members were focused on keeping patients safe and comfortable in their last years of life, and they were doing it well. But Thomas noted that while the environment was quiet and safe, the light had gone out in many people’s eyes. The excellent job the caregivers had done in providing order and minimizing risk had also succeeded in producing a dead calm. 

Dr. Thomas began to wonder what it would look like not just to keep patients alive, but to give them a reason for living. He wanted Chase to feel like a real home, not an institution. He found the inspiration for what was missing when he went home at night to his own household: plants, animals, and children – untidy, unpredictable, and utterly alive. 

The plan Thomas formulated and presented to the administration was called, appropriately, the Eden Alternative. If you’ve been imagining the Garden of Eden as a serene and tranquil paradise, you might not have pictured every kind of creature bursting onto the scene with all of their predatory and procreative instincts revved up and ready to go. As the old Lucky Strike cigarette ad used to quip, “Nature in the raw is seldom mild.”

Dr. Thomas first proposed removing all the artificial plants and adding live plants in every room of the facility. He wanted to pull up the back lawn and plant vegetable and flower gardens. Then he proposed housing one dog and two cats on each of the home’s two floors. He was going to have to lobby the forces at the state capitol for waivers to work around the rules and regulations that stipulated no more than a single pet per nursing home. But the menagerie was only getting started. Thomas proposed a flock of laying hens and a colony of rabbits on the grounds. A hundred parakeets in cages would be brought into living areas and residential rooms. 

Oh, and he wanted the staff to bring their kids to work so they could spend time around the residents too, and he proposed opening an after-school program for the community. 

Surprisingly, the administration signed off on the proposal – mostly because they assumed Thomas would never get the approval he needed from the authorities to put his plan in action. How wrong they were. Dr. Thomas was awarded not only the grant money he needed to accomplish the plan but also all the waivers needed for the rules he wanted to bend. Now they were going to have to see if it all worked. 

The residents at Chase Nursing Home had been existing in a state empty of light and life. The staff’s efforts to produce a calm, safe environment added up to an empty existence that actually accelerated the end of life for many residents rather than giving them something to keep living for. This little corner of creation had order but no fullness. It was formed, but not filled. But all that was about to change. 

The prescribed dose of what Dr. Thomas had gleefully called “total pandemonium” arrived so quickly that no one was really prepared for the consequences. A greyhound named Target and a lapdog named Ginger were both getting settled amicably on their separate floors, figuring out how to share space with two cats each. Staff members’ children were dropped off at the door by their school buses each afternoon. The back lawn was dug up and transformed into a garden and a playground next to the rabbit pen and chicken coop. Things were getting a bit crowded. 

And then, in the midst of it all, the birds arrived. One hundred parakeets, all delivered on one day in one truckload – with the birdcages nowhere to be seen. The staff locked all one hundred birds in the center’s hair salon until the cages arrived later the same day – some assembly required. Through the glass picture windows of the hair salon, the residents gathered, watching and laughing as the staff spent hours assembling birdcages and chasing the loose parakeets all over the hair salon, grabbing at feathers and ducking as birds flapped around their heads. “Glorious chaos” had arrived. 

(You can read about the Chase transformation in greater detail in Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Metropolitan Books, 2014).

The pandemonium caused by all these changes was not all humorous. I can tell you personally from years of helping to stage live nativity scenes in the back parking lot of our church each December: when you get live children and live animals together, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. The staff pushed back at times on their new duties. Some felt that if money could be spent on animals, then someone should be hired to care for them all. But gradually, someone else did begin to take over the animals’ care – namely, the residents. 

Many of the elderly residents agreed to host a pair of parakeets in their rooms. They helped water the hundreds of new indoor plants and demanded a say in the planting of the flower and vegetable gardens. Residents who had previously been nonambulatory said they’d take one of the dogs outside for a walk. Light began to dawn in people’s eyes. Even some of those with advanced forms of dementia seemed to take joy in the burgeoning life and noise around them. They could recognize birdsong, run their fingers through a pet’s fur, turn their head when a child ran shrieking down the hall. 

Over the first two years of Chase’s Eden Alternative, researchers watched the center’s vital signs carefully. Their study found that the number of medicines being prescribed at Chase fell by half, especially those prescribed for agitation. The number of deaths fell by 15 percent. The immeasurable changes were even easier to witness: life came back into residents’ eyes, and the number of smiles grew daily. Instead of simply waiting for death, they were jolted back to life as it ran and chirped, hopped, and grew all around them. 

God’s vision of order is not one where chaos is ironed flat, but a place where good things run wild in each of our lives, as holy and messy as the day is long.

Jessica LaGrone is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a member of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church. LaGrone is the author of numerous books. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Out of Chaos: How God Makes New Things from the Broken Pieces of Our Lives. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

The Scandal of the Incarnation

By David F. Watson — 

In Nazareth, there is a large church built over the traditional site of Mary’s house. It is called the Church of the Annunciation. Tradition holds that the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary here: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). 

Mary, of course, wishes to know how this will happen since she is a virgin. Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). 

The Word Became Flesh Here. Within the Church of the Annunciation there is an altar that sits atop the site where this event is thought to have taken place. It bears a remarkable inscription: Verbum caro hic factum est, or, in English, “The Word became flesh here.” There is a stunning particularity to this claim. The Word became flesh here – amidst the stone, wood, smoke, fire, and flesh of an ancient village. God is the God of all times and places, but his redemptive work began at a particular time and in a particular place, through the obedience of a particular young woman who responded in faith over fear. 

This very claim has so vexed Christianity’s cultured despisers that it has come to be called the “scandal of particularity.” In the midst of so many claims to truth and revelation in our world, how dare we say that the perfect union of God and humanity by which the redemption of all creation took place happened here, and nowhere else? But there it is, carved in stone: Verbum caro hic factum est. It happened, Christians insist. It happened here. 

The particularity of this event matters. Today, Nazareth is a busy city of over 75,000 people, but in the first century it was an obscure village with a population of probably less than 500. Nathaniel asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). God did not choose Rome or Alexandria or Athens, these cities of renown and high culture, in which to become flesh. God chose a backwater village on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire as the staging ground for the redemption of the world. He did not need the power of Rome, the literary culture of Alexandria, the philosophy of Athens. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27). 

God does not see as humans see (1 Samuel 16:7). Our vision is obscured by sin in its various manifestations: pride, selfish ambition, the elevation of sensory pleasure, and greed, to name a few. Perhaps this is why we humans have such a hard time accepting this Jesus, born of a virgin, hailing from Nazareth, a carpenter raised by a carpenter, a wandering preacher who had no place to lay his head, loved, hated, worshiped, and betrayed. He did not provide a form of government or a manifesto but spoke in pictures about the kingdom of God. He told his followers they must take up the cross, that they would be hated on his account, and he himself was executed upon the cross, the “slave’s punishment.” After he rose from the dead, he entrusted the news of his resurrection to two women, one of whom he had freed from seven demons. He went back to those obscure few who followed him in his ministry and then left his mission in the hands of fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots. 

It is unsurprising that so many have rejected this Jesus. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Within the last three centuries, many have tried to tell us that the significance of Jesus is not that God became human, that within Jesus is a union of divine and human, or that through his death and resurrection we are forgiven and free from sin. Rather, they have said, Jesus was a supremely wise person, along the lines of Socrates or Confucius. They might suggest that Jesus had an acute “God consciousness.” His spiritual sensitivity and perceptiveness toward the will of God gave him insights much like those wise sages who have existed across the centuries. We should listen to what he taught and live accordingly, rather than focusing on these ancient myths of incarnation, atonement, and resurrection. 

This purveyor of wisdom, a sage among sages, even a politically radical Jesus, is a safe, manageable, comprehensible figure. He is here to make us wiser people, to improve our lives, to reform society. If his words seem strange to us, don’t worry. It is easy enough to shape his teachings into the values we already affirm, and myriad authors stand at the ready to help us do so. 

Such a Jesus is simply too weak, too cerebral, too bound by the narrowness of modernity to do us any good. Jesus did not come first and foremost to teach us. He came to save us, and his teaching serves the end of salvation. Flannery O’Connor once said of the resurrection of Christ, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” I would say the same thing of the incarnation. If it’s just a symbol, metaphor, or myth, then so was my baptism. A wise sage cannot save us from sin and death. Only the incarnate God can do that. The real Jesus does not simply want to make us wise, but holy. The real Jesus will not simply reform society, but renew all of creation. The real Jesus offers us not just a better life, but new life. 

The Incarnate God and New Life. Perhaps part of the problem is that we do not accurately perceive the need for new life in Christ.  According to Ligonier Ministries’ recent report called “The State of Theology,” 43 percent of evangelical Christians in the U.S. agree with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Put differently, almost half of all evangelicals reject the doctrine of the incarnation. Equally significant, however, is that 65 percent of evangelicals believe that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. In other words, they reject the doctrine of original sin. 

If we drill down into the doctrines of the incarnation and original sin very far, it becomes apparent that they are closely connected. Let’s start with Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Another way of putting this is to say that, even though Christ did not sin, he took on full humanity, which means he took on sinful human nature. Because he did this, we can take on righteousness, which is an aspect of God’s nature. Put still another way, in Christ, God took on what is evil in us so that we might take on what is perfect in him. 

As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “What is not assumed is not healed.” God has redeemed us – healed us from the corruption of sin and death – by uniting fallen humanity and perfect deity in one person, Jesus Christ. Christ did not sin, but was perfectly obedient to the Father, and he took upon himself what we deserve (death) so that we might receive what only he deserves (righteousness and eternal life). If there is some aspect of human life that God did not take on in Jesus Christ, that aspect of our life is still fallen. But Christ was truly and fully human, even while he was truly and fully divine. We can thus experience full salvation, both forgiveness of our sins and freedom from the power of sin. 

One might ask why the all-powerful God could not simply wave away our sin and its consequences, rather than actually becoming human, living a perfect life, dying on the cross, and then rising from the dead. Such a scenario would involve what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” If God were simply to dispense with sin as if blowing on a dandelion, the unavoidable conclusion would be that sin really doesn’t matter. But you and I know that isn’t true. Sin has consequences. We see and feel them every day. Lies, violence, exploitation, betrayal – these kinds of actions cause us pain because they are violations of creation’s moral order. They are the opposite of love, and to say that God has wrath in the face of these sins is another way of saying that God is love. The destruction of his beloved creatures through the corruption of sin and its consequences is intolerable. Were it tolerable, if God simply did not care, it would mean that God does not love us. 

Yet God does love us, and so he must deal with sin and its consequences. There are many ways in which God could have dealt with sin. He could simply have willed us out of existence. He could have consigned us wholesale to eternal punishment. The wrath of God is nothing with which to be trifled. But God is love – pure, unselfish, eternal love. So rather than imposing upon us the just consequences of our sin, God took these consequences upon himself, and in so doing, he set us free. 

Creation and New Creation. John’s gospel teaches us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14). 

Everything was created through the Word. Life and light came into being through the Word. And this very Word, the source of all things, also became the source of redemption for us. As Athanasius put it, “[T]he renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” The creative Word of God is the agent of the new creation. 

What is not assumed is not healed, but God assumed our full humanity so that we can be healed fully of sin and death. It is the greatest act of love imaginable, given by a perfect God to the broken, the undeserving, the sinful, the selfish – in other words, to all of us. If we but say yes to God, we can be healed. And God wants to heal us. God wants us in the new creation. That is why he became one of us. 

David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com). Illustration: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a realist painter and the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Public domain.

New Hymnal for a New Day

New Hymnal for a New Day

By Andrew Miller —

For generations, hymnals were the primary tool of worship for churches across denominations. Every few decades, denominational leaders would undertake the task of updating their tradition’s hymnal, containing in it not just hymns to be sung during worship services, but also liturgical readings, sacramental rites, and common prayers. In our modern, and increasingly digital, way of doing church, hymnals have largely become outdated and fallen into disrepair – considered by some to be too outmoded for use by many churches today.

Contrary to that belief, the traditional hymnal is still an invaluable resource and testimony to the gospel and our human longings to be in communion with the triune God. A hymnal that’s true to its name is able to serve congregations in a number of ways that no app, bumper video, or welcome packet ever could – by providing a lasting canon of worship, a rich devotional resource, additional worship aids, and structure for the church year and liturgical calendar.

For these reasons and more Seedbed Publishing has created a first of its kind pan-Wesleyan hymnal meant to fill the need for an updated collection of hymns.

Our Great Redeemer’s Praise: A Hymnal for All God’s People is an 800-page, comprehensive collection of hymns, prayers, liturgical elements, and service music for various occasions that incorporates numerous original hymns by John and Charles Wesley – more than any other hymnal in the last century. 

Jonathan Powers and Julie Tennent have been leading the team compiling the hymnal for more than two years. Julie provides decades of liturgical and theological knowledge to this project, and Jonathan is Assistant Professor of Worship Studies and the Associate Dean of the School of Mission and Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary. They took time to sit down and answer some essential questions about the purpose of Our Great Redeemer’s Praise and explain its timely release.

What was the spirit driving the development of a new hymnal for the church? 

Julie: God’s people are always in need of trustworthy songs to sing in worship, and the Wesleys believed this fervently. This hymnal brings together hymns from Wesley’s rich theological reservoir, the holiness and charismatic movements, our African American heritage, the gospel era, contemporary favorites, as well as classic traditional hymns from throughout the history of the church. The result is that it provides a shared worship core that will strengthen the church for “knowing its own voice” amidst the cacophony of cultural voices that continually bombard its very existence.

Jonathan: Hymnals are a testimony of God’s beauty, goodness, and grace. One of the purposes of this hymnal is to hold together the old and the new, offering to future generations songs and testimonies that we see are worth hanging onto for years to come. Also, we wish to continue to stay true to the Wesleys’ original vision of a hymnal that provides a canon of song that presents God’s message of love and salvation specifically from a Wesleyan theological perspective. By bringing together hymns from various traditions represented in the Wesleyan theological heritage, this hymnal allows for both the diversity and unity of the Wesleyan voice in worship.

Why now?

Julie: If there was ever a time that the church needed to be fortified to know who we are as God’s people, and who God is in our midst, it is now. It is a common adage that what people sing will become what that people believe. The Wesleys understood this deeply, and ensured that the church of their day would sing hymns that were both doctrinally sound and experientially compelling in nature. The need in our day to do the same is absolutely essential.

Jonathan: One pragmatic reason this is a good time for the release of a new hymnal is the fact that it has been decades since many denominations last published or updated their hymnal. Between the new songs that have been written and old songs that have been rediscovered, especially thanks to technological advancements over the past few decades, there is a need for new hymnals.

Who is this hymnal for?

Julie: This hymnal is for the whole church – the Wesleyan traditions of the church certainly, but the entire English-speaking church more widely.

Jonathan: This hymnal is for all Christians who testify to the great love of God, know the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, and enjoy the wondrous fellowship of the Holy Spirit. 

Do you think a hard copy printed hymnal has enduring value in an all-digital era?

Julie: Absolutely! There are so many benefits of a hard copy printed hymnal that the digital form can never replace. A hymnal provides responsive readings, historic creeds, sacramental liturgies, and indexes that help to introduce previously unknown hymns to the church.

Jonathan: Yes, a hard copy hymnal is an embodied reality! This hymnal will always be this hymnal. There is something beautiful and meaningful to that. Moreover, a hymnal is something you can hold, something you can give, and something you can receive. 

What do you feel is the best feature(s) of this new hymnal?

Julie: This hymnal simultaneously gives a collective voice to the wide expressions of the Wesleyan traditions by gathering hymns together in one place from across that full spectrum, while also grounding those hymns in the deeper encompassing foundation of the Apostles’ Creed, which is held in common by all branches of the Christian church.

Jonathan: There are so many good, important, and valuable features to this hymnal, but my favorite is the fact that the hymnal is full of so many Wesley texts. When including texts by both John and Charles, there are one hundred Wesley hymns represented in the hymnal. Some have not been published in a hymnal for quite some time, while others have become popular favorites.

Are there parts of the hymnal that are unique from other hymnals out there?

Julie: Absolutely! In addition to the organizational structure of the Apostles’ Creed, there are two other unique features in this hymnal. First, the entire collection of twelve hymns (one hymn for each article of the Apostles’ Creed) that were written by Samuel Stone as a pastoral catechesis for his congregation have been included. At a time when the church is in danger of losing its grounding in orthodox faith, this is a powerful resource to reclaim. Second, the foundation of the Psalms for Christian worship is acknowledged by the inclusion of a sampling of metrical psalms for singing.

Jonathan: I would add that this hymnal brings together songs from across the ages and across traditions like no other I have seen. Hard work was done to ensure all of the major Wesleyan denominations are represented well in the hymnal. Likewise, the dates of the hymns included in the hymnal range (not including the psalms and canticles) from the first century to the twenty-first century. You could easily find a Charles Wesley hymn on one page facing a Chris Tomlin song on the other. A fourth-century text could be side-by-side with a modern hymn written by Hillsong or the Gettys. A camp meeting song may fall right next to a spiritual from the AME Zion.

If you could offer any encouragement to churches who may be on the fence about purchasing new hymnals, what would it be?

Julie: My challenge to those churches would be a question: How will you pass on the faith once and for all delivered to the saints? Beyond the Scriptures themselves, the hymns that we sing are the primary means of passing on the faith to the next generation (as well as grounding our own faith in the historic orthodoxy of those who have faithfully gone before us). I encourage every church to consider the value of a codified treasury of worship that has stood the test of time, and that preserves the sung legacy of our faith to be passed on. 

Jonathan: As a kid, when I wasn’t reading my Bible in church, I often was reading a hymnal. And to be honest, many times this is what I did during the sermon! I owe a lot of my formation and education in general to hymnals. Beyond this perhaps the best encouragement I can give to a church on why they should purchase a hymnal is because it shows that you take worship seriously. Investing in a hymnal is investing in your people. 

What is the teaching or catechetical value of a hymnal? 

Julie: Hymns bring together the heart and mind. For the mind, they provide catechesis in doctrine and theology; they teach us literal phrases and content of Scripture and thus form us to think theologically and to be conformed to the mind of Christ. But they also stir the soul; they form and transform the orientation of the heart as we sing and thus compel us to deeper piety and devotion, and to acts of love and mercy in our living. They weave together both the truth and beauty of God in a powerful life-force infused by the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Jonathan: “Show me how you worship and I’ll tell you what you believe.” The statement acknowledges that the words said and the actions done in worship are of utmost importance since they foster a vision of the triune God and cultivate a congregation’s understanding of God. The same can be said of singing – “Show me what you sing and I will tell you what you believe.”

Through the act of singing, the church itself becomes an embodiment of the liturgical and theological truths contained within a hymnal.

Andrew Miller is director of publishing at Seedbed. To learn more to visit: https://www.ourgreatredeemerspraise.com/

Alpha Leader’s New Role

Alpha Leader’s New Role

Since 2005, the Rev. Nicky Gumbel has been the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London – the largest congregation in the Church of England. He is also the popular leader of the Alpha course currently being utilized in 30,000 churches of all denominations – including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Pentecostal – in 130 countries.

Gumbel, 66, announced his retirement from the congregation that he and his wife Pippa have been part of for 46 years. “I believe the best is yet to come – for you, for the church, for all of us,” he said in his farewell sermon. He said that he and Pippa will continue their work with Alpha and – in association with new HTB leader, the Rev. Canon Archie Coates – encouraging and resourcing the more than 125 church congregations that HTB has planted through its partnership with dioceses across the Church of England and the Church in Wales. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood,” he preached in his sermon from Acts 20:28. “This is not our church. This is God’s church.” 

Good News Media Service. Photo: The Rev. Nicky Gumbel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, in 2003. Photo by Steve Beard.