A revised statement of United Methodist Social Principles is headed to the 2020 General Conference. The Rev. John Boley compares the current and the new expressions of Wesleyan social piety.
Clergy Assistant, Michigan Area
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church have always been a source of inspiration to so many United Methodist Christians. As I have interacted with them over the years, I’ve considered them to be well balanced between aspiration and reality, well written, and updated regularly to meet changing times. I even take a little pride in the fact that I submitted a petition to General Conference in 2008 (with the inspiration of Eric Stone) which discussed the effect of bottled water. This was passed by the General Conference and has been a part of the Social Principles since then.
I have also appreciated the fact that the Social Principles have consistently presented the counter-cultural reality of our Christian faith – admonishing and cajoling United Methodist Christians to a more faithful path as we interact with culture – witnessing to the radical compassion and politics of Christ.
General Conference 2012 passed a resolution that the General Board of Church and Society undertake a large revision of the Social Principles. This revision has now been completed, and the new proposed Social Principles were unveiled recently for action at GC 2020.
Here is a brief look at the major overview changes of the new Social Principles and some important specifics.
- Scope: the previous Social Principles were more issue-specific as they were piecemeal added to over the last decades. The new Social Principles deal with plenty of specific social issues, but they are more concerned with large trends such as climate change, globalization, diversity, and wealth accumulation.
- Structure: while there used to be six sections, there are now four sections. The new sections are a) Community of All Creation, b) the Economic Community, c) The Social Community, and d) The Political Community. Previous sections of the Nurturing Community and the World Community have been integrated into these four sections.
- Participants: the previous Social Principles were dominated by the United Methodist majority culture of white Americans. As such they only dabbled in international issues in a piecemeal fashion over time. They were very American-centric. The revision team included many individuals from the Central Conferences. In fact, over 50 members of the Central Conferences were on the writing team, from Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and Eurasia. The result is a huge emphasis on globalization and the witness of the United Methodist Church in the world outside the US.
- Wesleyan References: throughout the new Social Principles there are references and footnotes to the body of work of John Wesley.
- Here are 10 specifics of note:
- The Preface and Preamble: these have been re-written and beefed up emphasizing the importance of the global community and the continued covenant with God, still with the beauty of Wesleyan theology.
- Creation Care: while the previous Social Principles emphasized environmental stewardship, the new ones go much further, and with more alarm – recognizing that Creation is in peril through global warming and climate change, destruction of ecosystems and dependence on fossil fuels. They call for a new Stewardship of Creation, with subsections on environmental racism, sustainable policies, and practices, food justice, caring for all creatures, protecting space, and affirming science. Removed were specific principles on water, air and minerals, and my addition concerning bottled water.
- Globalization: strong emphases include income inequality, corruption, and economic justice based in responsible consumerism, agricultural production, and the dignity of work.
- Human Sexuality: the “incompatibility” language concerning homosexuality has been removed. Stronger provisions reject child marriage and polygamy — particular cultural issues in the Central Conferences. The section on marriage does not say that marriage is between a man and a woman, but marriage “brings two people of faith into union.”
- Colonialism: a new provision discusses colonialism and neocolonialism, urging United Methodists to understand the effects of these and to work against further expressions.
- Gambling: the previous Social Principles condemned gambling as “a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive to good government and good stewardship.” These Social Principles reject the practice of gambling but acknowledge that First Nation peoples have operated gambling establishments as a means of self-determination and economic survival. The Church is encouraged to dialogue and learn about these communities and also to eradicate poverty as a means to reduce the financial appeal to organized gambling.
- Racism: there is a strong statement in condemnation of racism, ethnocentrism, and tribalism – condemning “any ideology or social practice based on false and misleading beliefs or ideologies that one group of human beings is superior to all other groups of human beings.”
- Gun Violence: there is no condemnation of gun violence.
- Income Inequality: the new Social Principles “decry the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the concentration of wealth in the hands of ever smaller percentages of the global population. Specifically rejected is “prosperity theology” — “religious teachings that view the accumulation of wealth as a sign of God’s favor and poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor.”
- Human Trafficking and Slavery: there is a much stronger provision about human trafficking – “We condemn human trafficking and slavery as profound violations of the inherent dignity and worth of every person…”
I have always appreciated the Social Principles as a counter-cultural approach to Christian faith. With these new Social Principles, I am struck by how much the world has changed over the last couple of decades. These Social Principles appear to bring a new balance to the global picture with being issue-specific. This is a step in the right direction, once again balancing reality with aspiration. And once again proving that Wesleyan theology is uniquely suited for bringing the message of God’s grace through Jesus Christ into this world.