Challenging the world's 12.4 million United Methodists to be involved in Christ-inspired social concerns is a big undertaking.
But that is the mission of United Methodism's General Board of Church and Society.
The General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, entrusts the agency with this work of public witness, reconciliation and peacemaking in the United States and around the world.
"We do it using the gospel, the Social Principles and The (Book of) Resolutions as core documents, but the other documents of the church are important in helping churches and our advocacy endeavors know the way forward," said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, GBCS general secretary since 2014.
The Social Principles are 73 statements of church teachings that cover a wide range of issues, including racial justice, homelessness, hunger, climate change, drug addiction, incarceration, opposition to tobacco and alcohol, medical experimentation, genetic technology, rural life, HIV/AIDS, mental health, right to health care, equal rights regardless of sexual orientation and rights of people with disabilities.
Social Principles basic to work
GBCS uses the principles and the resolutions, both adopted by General Conference, to develop resources to inform, motivate and train United Methodists on issues of social justice in society.
Church and Society's historical roots originated with the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, a unit of the Methodist Episcopal Church that played a major role in the prohibition movement in the United States during the 1920s. That board constructed The Methodist Building (now The United Methodist Building) on Capitol Hill in Washington to promote the church's lobbying power on public policy issues, particularly in opposition to alcohol. The building stands as the agency's Washington headquarters and is the only nongovernment site adjacent to the U.S. Capitol. The board also operates an office at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
Partner organizations with which the General Board of Church and Society works include:
- Christian Coalition for Family Planning: An informal group of Christian organizations engaged in advocacy and outreach for family planning and healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.
- Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP): A coalition of 19 public policy offices of national churches and agencies.
- Creation Justice Ministries (CJM): Educates and mobilizes faith communities to engage in protecting and restoring God's creation; encourages collaboration among National Council of Churches communions.
- Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CoNGO): An international association of nongovernmental organizations; facilitates NGO participation in United Nations debates and decisions.
- Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace and Justice Days Planning Team (EAD): An event each March bringing 700-1,000 people to Washington, D.C., for training and advocacy focused on a current issue of concern.
- Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC): A partnership of faith-based organizations committed to enacting fair and humane immigration reform.
- Jubilee USA Network: Over 60 organizations and more than 8,000 individuals responding to the international call for jubilee debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries.
- National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP): A national organization exclusively devoted to abolishing capital punishment.
- National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM): An interfaith organization supporting farm workers as they organize for empowerment, justice and equality.
- Shoulder-to-Shoulder: A national campaign of faith-based, interfaith and religious organizations dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment.
- Washington Interfaith Staff Committee (WISC) Human Trafficking Working Group: A group of diverse faith traditions and denominations collaborating to educate and mobilize faith constituents to advocate for an end to human trafficking.
"The Methodist movement in England had a strong social holiness emphasis around child labor, prison reform and debt, basically the care of the people in the society," Henry-Crowe said. "As the movement came to America, it continued to have this emphasis on reforming society."
The Social Creed of the Methodist Episcopal Church, adopted in 1908, evolved into the Social Principles, which became the teachings of the church and the ethical guide from General Conference for the church in six areas: the world community, political community, social community, economic community, nurturing community and the natural world.
"The Social Principles are the best guidance of the General Conference, put together in a democratic process by a large committee, on what the church wants to say to United Methodists and people around the world on how we do good and how we try to live out the Gospel," she said.
"The Social Principles of the church are the best wisdom we have on how to address issues that face society. They move with some fluidity and address issues that societies around the world face at any particular time in history."
Agreement not required
Although church teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality often receive the lion's share of media attention, the Social Principles deal with a much broader array of issues.
Not all United Methodists agree with all of the teachings — nor do they need to.
The statement on abortion (Para. 161j, The Book of Discipline 2012) declares the church's belief in the "sanctity of unborn human life." However, it also recognizes "tragic conflicts of life that may justify abortion, and in such cases, we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers." While the church is "committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates," that principle says, "we particularly encourage the church, the government and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption."
"United Methodism encourages critical thinking and belief about a whole variety of issues," Henry-Crowe said. "That does not mean that everybody has to believe in every single principle the way it is written. But in all things, we are unified in our commitment to Jesus and in our commitment to United Methodism."
The Social Principles are intended to be guiding and educational documents that people discuss, learn from and talk about in Sunday school and other settings. They guide the direction of a local congregation, as well as the whole church, but they are not written in stone.
United Methodist doctrine is clear about the beliefs that are core to being a Christian: believing in the Trinitarian God, believing in the Old and New testaments and being followers of Jesus.
"In different times throughout history, we have had principles that guide our thinking about war, economic development, poverty and social issues. These are ways to help us think about society and what a Christian response would be," Henry-Crowe said.
Critical thinking, reflection encouraged
The United Methodist Church allows a lot of latitude for critical thinking and application of how to live in a complicated world. "Our positions are not as doctrinaire (as those of some other denominations), perhaps. We encourage critical thinking, theological reflections, prayer and spiritual guidance," Henry-Crowe added.
Richard Hearne, a 73-year-old conservative Texan, became a GBCS board member in 2008. His intention was to "go up there and straighten out those nuts. So much of what we heard about Church and Society was always negative," he said.
"I expected it to be just a bunch of crazy liberals," he said, "but what I found was a bunch of really committed Christians who just had a difference of opinion from me about what our mandate is to do as Christians. Over the course of the last seven years, I've moved more and more from the right to the center, I think."
Now, Hearne is a self-described bridge builder at Church and Society.
"I think there's a group of us on General Board who are little bit more conservative, who have tried to find a middle ground on some of these issues, like the abortion issue and the divestiture issue," Hearne said. "Some people just look at them as black-and-white, but there's a middle ground."
The agency always welcomes United Methodists who have different values and perspectives than those stated in the church teachings, Henry-Crowe said.
Earlier this year, Lifewatch, an active group of United Methodists that supports human life and abortion prevention, held its annual worship service in the chapel of The United Methodist Building.
"My position, and I think correctly the church's position should be, is we're all in this together," Henry-Crowe said. "If Lifewatch promotes a legitimate position on questions of life, of course, they are welcome to pray in the chapel, as are all people in the church who have a different perception and views on life."
Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata, GBCS board president, said he is pleased with the positive direction in which the agency is moving. "There are some people who will never agree with the kinds of issues and stances that we're taking on some of the issues," said Hoshibata of the Phoenix Episcopal Area.
During the 2013-16 quadrennium, the board has been successful "reaching out to people with whom we have traditionally not agreed; at least opening the doors for conversation and prayer together," the bishop said. "I think we've also made some strides in helping the church understand how important it is that we have a global set of Social Principles that is meaningful to more than just the U.S. audience. ... And I feel very positive about the way the board has been led by our new general secretary."
Seven listening sessions conducted by the agency throughout the world in 2014-15 at the direction of General Conference and the Connectional Table underscored the importance of the Social Principles.
Henry-Crowe said the statements were seen as instruments of empowerment in many communities.
"In the central conferences in Africa, several members said they need the Social Principles. When United Methodists are in the minority and address issues of water, for example, it gives them more authority to talk with officials and to the governments and churches," she said. "To be able to give the church's position on clean water — a life-and-death issue for them — really helps."
The fear that the Social Principles might place people who live in non-democratic societies at risk with their governments is not always the case. Instead, some local United Methodists feel empowered to speak from the church's point of view about the importance of democracy.
Nine board members were among the 193 people attending the listening sessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Philippines, the Czech Republic and the United States.
"One of the things we learned was that Church and Society has not done a very good job communicating the importance of the Social Principles and educating members of the church about them," Henry-Crowe said. "A lot of people who came to the listening sessions said they had sort of heard about the Social Principles but really didn't know much about them. Or they knew about the one on homosexuality and maybe about one or two more.
"I would say almost to the person, the more they delved into it, the more they were excited," she said.
People in the pews at United Methodist churches generally are unaware that the church provides guidance and a pastoral perspective on things like end-of-life issues, women's reproductive health and gun violence, she said.
"There were people in Africa who said it helped them to know the church's perspective on women and girls being used as weapons of war because it happens in their context a lot. Girls are raped and women are used as weapons of war," she said.
"Young people said they would be more excited about being United Methodist knowing we had these teachings and educational documents for the church," she continued. "There was a lot of enthusiasm about them, and we learned that there has not been a lot of education around them."
Henry-Crowe said she finds that the more people know about the Social Principles, the more they like being United Methodist.
Some inconsistencies and conflicts exist, but Henry-Crowe considers the Social Principles the church's best efforts at speaking to issues.
"We're not asking you to believe or affirm every single thing," she said. "We affirm the inclusiveness and freedom of thought within the church."
Some of the Social Principles are very U.S-centric. Church and Society is proposing to General Conference 2016 that they be rewritten with a more worldwide perspective during the next four years. The proposal includes presenting a more global and theologically relevant document to the 2020 General Conference. It would continue the work that GBCS began during the listening sessions.
Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, March-April, 2016.