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Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper No. 45 September 2009

Secretary: John Roberts

Responding to economic recession

In July the Auckland Sea of Faith community held a one day conference on the theme “Responding to recession: facing hard times”. Contributors were: noted local economist Brian Easton; Wellington based Commonsense Organics owner Jim Kebbell; and New Zealand church historian, Allan Davidson.

Brian Easton began his presentation with a quote from St Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “the root of all evil is the love of money”, noting that it isn’t money that is the root of all evil but the love of money. He then stated that most economic theory is built on the premise of an individual’s right to maximise a utility, that is to make a gain from whatever we can possess. The founding father of this view is Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century utilitarian philosopher and social reformer. Utilitarian economics holds that wealth leads to happiness, and the best way to maximise a utility, or increase wealth, is within a market economy. Now for some two hundred years the prevailing utilitarian economic philosophy has been ‘the more we possess the happier we will be’.

Easton went on to share some insights from a local study on incomes and happiness. The conclusion of the study has been that overall any gains in happiness as a result of increased incomes is marginal. He also said that in the latter half of the 20th century in the USA there was no increase in people’s levels of happiness despite a threefold increase in incomes over that time. In terms of GDP per capita there is no evidence that the richer a country is, the happier its citizens are. Although raising the standard of living in the world’s poorest countries does raise happiness levels. On the whole though, increased income doesn’t generate increased happiness. This is a setback to traditional economic thinking that still holds to the view that the more you have the happier you will be.

Easton contends that what a rise in income does is increase a person’s self esteem. More income is reflected in a greater sense of self worth. So the annually published ‘rich list’ is a way for the rich to show off, to make their wealth known. The rich typically acquire ‘positional goods’ such as flasher cars, and grander homes in well heeled localities. This is what sociologists call conspicuous consumption, a modern day version of the love of money. Acquiring positional goods is a way of seeking public esteem: “See how well I’ve done, I’ve got all these possessions to show for it.”

What the pursuit of positional goods does, however, is increase consumption without increasing happiness. For St Paul the answer was to shun riches and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love endurance, gentleness.” Easton suggested that is good advice for these times.

Jim Kebbell spoke of the importance of traditional principles and values such as respect and care for one another. He contrasted this with the present where so often disciplines such as the physical and the social sciences, including economics, pride themselves in being values free. Economics tends to be all about growth. So we’re told we are well off when there is economic growth and badly off when there is economic decline. In this way of looking at things growth has become a great economic virtue. The challenge now is to reassert the traditional virtues or values we once admired that have been pushed aside in the pursuit of economic growth and the desire to be wealthier.

There are other forms of recession besides the economic, says Kebbell. He drew attention to environmental recession brought about by the steady erosion of our environmental capital. The industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries has led to a rapid consumption of the earth’s resources on a vast and unsustainable scale.

Kebbell questions an anthropocentric theology that allows people to justify what they do by saying God told them to do it. A responsible Christian ethic, he says, suggests we should affirm that creation is good, to be respected and treated with dignity, and what we earn or acquire is to be shared equitably amongst people. Kebbell calls these transcendental values.

It’s as if we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, said Kebbell. Our values are disappearing. The churches are in decline and with that goes a diminishing of the significance of values. If we are to have a meaningful future we need to change our attitudes and show respect for the earth and its resources and share our wealth more equitably.

Allan Davidson began his address by focusing on the New Zealand churches’ response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. At this time a moralistic agenda prevailed in the churches. The churches’ response to the collapse of exports, mounting national debt, and considerable social distress was to call for prayer and the alleviation of suffering rather than challenging the prevailing social order. The churches’ direct response was to cut church budgets and reduce ministers’ stipends.

The government was ill-prepared for the economic hardships brought about by the depression, said Davidson. At the height of the depression 40% of the male workforce was unemployed. Riots occurred in Auckland’s Queen Street, a public catharsis on the part of the unemployed. The typical response of parishes was to provide food, clothing and other practical forms of assistance to those in need. In larger centres church agencies turned to practical social work. They responded to social hardship with relief depots and soup kitchens. Colin Scrimgeour (Uncle Scrim), the Auckland Methodist missioner, pushed the boundaries by providing medical and legal aid and calling for an investigation of the economic system. The high public profile of the likes of Scrimgeour helped keep the needs of the poor before the wider public.

In the 1930s the churches did not have a strong prophetic tradition. According to Davidson they tended to baptise the social status quo. However in 1923 the Methodist Church had adopted a wide ranging social creed which represented something of a watershed at the time. Rev Percy Paris had promoted monetary reform and the development of the welfare state. In 1933 the Methodist Church issued a statement on unemployment, calling it a hindrance to God’s kingdom on earth. Churches that acted in this way found they were frequently criticised for speaking outside their area of expertise. The pietistic and moralistic was giving way to a more prophetic and challenging response.

In more recent times there have been other attempts at prophetic responses. The church leaders prepared a social justice statement ahead of the 1993 election in response to finance minister Ruth Richardson’s benefit cuts. Five social principles were enunciated; however they were rather idealistic, and generating action on them proved difficult, said Davidson. In 1998 the Anglican Church launched the Hikoi of Hope, intended to be a wakeup call to the government about growing poverty in the country. However the reality is that since the 1990s the churches have been in decline, and their right to speak on social issues has been weakened. They now have to earn the right to speak and be heard all over again. But there are signs of hope. The emergence of the discipline of public theology which brings theology out of the ivory tower and into the public space to address important issues of the day is an encouraging sign, according to Davidson. Public theology is an effort to bring Christian insights to bear on how we should be shaping our society now and into the future.

In conclusion: in these hard times Brian Easton says we should shun the acquisition of positional goods and conspicuous consumption, pursue righteousness or justice, and support one another; Jim Kebbell holds that economic theory needs to acquire some transcendental values; while Allan Davidson says the churches need to develop a holistic theological response that embraces both the pastoral and the prophetic.

John Roberts

Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional PaperNo. 44 March
Secretary: John Roberts

“We told you so!” Spotlight on the world economy

A shorter version of this article appeared in ‘Touchstone’ for March 2009

A luxury alpine Swiss resort town that hosts the annual World Economic Forum (WEF). The WEF is attended by heads of state, leading world economists, bankers and other gurus sympathetic to its cause, which is to uphold global capitalism. It is an invitation only event where stringent measures are taken to keep out the unwanted. The 2009 event took place 28 January to 1 February with the theme Shaping the Post-Crisis World, with some 2,500 people attending. The theme refers to the current world financial crisis. The WEF is a gathering of the world’s richest and most powerful people who come together for a few days of debates, dinners and parties. The idea of its founder Klaus Schwab, a German born professor, was to hold an affable event at which the world’s leading company executives could mingle with and lobby presidents and prime ministers.

This year the atmosphere at Davos was rather different to previous years. The much promoted Davos consensus broke down in spectatular fashion when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan, stormed out of one debate claiming unfair handling of the discussion he was taking part in. Overall the cosy world of Davos was profoundly shaken by the global financial crisis. The world’s leading bankers, widely held responsible for the financial crisis, mostly stayed away. Some world leaders also stayed away, including Barak Obama and top officials of his administration in the USA. Steven Schrage of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC said it would have conveyed a very bad signal to send a large contingent to an event that has an elite aura when there are real domestic problems. Entertainment celebrities such as Bono were left off the invitation list. Bloomberg (one of the world’s leading sources of financial information) said the Davos gathering was marked by fear, anger and bitterness. Most of those attending saw it as the grimmest Davos they had ever attended. Evidently little was achieved. Arif Naqvi, chief executive of Abraaj Capital (a Dubai based investment company) said, “People are looking for the solution but don’t yet have the question formulated.”

New Zealand had a presence around the edges of Davos. Trade Minister Tim Groser was there with trade ministers from around the world, lobbying Davos to apply pressure for a completion the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Round of free trade negotiations. In the face of the world’s economic crisis they fear many countries will return to protecting their industrial and agricultural sectors and will introduce subsidies. They may have generated a lot of words, but there was little action in response. The Doha round looks increasingly doomed to failure. In a moment of frankness, India’s Trade Minister, Kamal Nath said, “The only thing that’s shining is the sun.”

A city located in the Amazonian rainforest of Brazil that was host to the World Social Forum (WSF) 2009. It was chosen to draw attention to environmental and climate change issues as well as to encourage the participation of poor and ethnically diverse communities. The WSF is the face of the world’s anti economic globalisation movement. It meets in different places each year. With unrestricted entry some 100,000 people from 150 countries attended Belem, participating in events under the theme Another World is Possible. The WSF was held 27 January to 1 February, timed to coincide with the WEF’s meeting in Davos. The WSF seeks to present an alternative to the views of the WEF. But it is Davos that captures the media’s attention. The New Zealand Herald gave quite a bit of attention to the Davos meeting, with no mention of Belem.

The WSF is a place for debate rather than deliberation and there was much debate at Belem. The presidents of Venzuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay put the blame for the worldwide economic turbulence on developed nations, particularly the USA. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called on WSF participants to go on the offensive against the neoliberal economic agenda. He said, “In Davos the world that is dying is meeting, here the world that is being born is meeting.” Trade unions said capitalism was on the ropes. Fears were expressed of cuts in overseas aid and development budgets. Jean-Louis Veilasjus of the French NGO Coordination SUD said, “There is a sense of injustice that so many billions [of dollars] are being spent shoring up the battered world financial system while so little is going to fight poverty, deforestation, hunger and sickness.”

Rory Carroll of Britain’s Guardian newspaper said, “The bankers and politicians gathered in Davos for the WEF may have only admitted it to themselves privately, but a rival summit [the WSF] wanted to remind them: you really screwed up.” He went on to say while the theme of Belem was Another World is Possible, the unofficial motto was We Told You So!

Where were the theologians?
There may have been a few religious leaders on the fringes of Davos but they don’t seem to have had any impact. There were however a number of theologians and church leaders at Belem.

Brazilian economist Marcos Arruda from the Institute on Policy Alternatives for the Southern Cone said real alternatives are needed to the current financial system. Martin Guck, from Kairos Europe, a network of church-related justice movements spoke of the need to reverse the imbalance of power in the current financial market system which favours banks and financial institutions that have no democratic base and are not accountable to society. “An alternative development model needs to be people-led and driven by local demand”, said Percy Makombe from the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa. He advocated the rejection of global financial and trade systems, and refusing aid that forces developing countries to open up their markets and put food security at risk Rogate Mshana, a Tanzanian economist working for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, addressed the need for a more just financial system. “It’s a question of the market,” he said. “The market is a gift from God because people cannot live without a market. But that relationship must be just. It should not be dogmatised in such a way that it is left free to go without any rules. From a Christian perspective there is no system that is so sacred that it cannot be changed. We need a contribution from faith based groups, civil society and other groups around the world. It must not be left to the G20 group (made up of leading economies from the developed and developing world), because they are talking about how to stabilise the current system and not the need for a new economic architecture.”

Key proposals
to emerge from Belem included mechanisms to control international capital flows, an international monetary system based on regional reserve currencies, citizens' control of banks and financial institutions, progressive taxation schemes both at national and international levels, prohibition of speculative funds and non-regulated markets, eradication of speculation on primary products including food and elimination of tax havens. It was proposed that a reformed and democratised United Nations put reform of the financial system at the centre of its work. Belem also recognised that the crisis is not just financial. There are multiple crises affecting the environment, social and political structures, food and energy supplies. Rogate Mshana believes that in pressing for reforms at different levels, civil society organisations and churches around the world have a lot to contribute.

Brazilian Chico Whitaker, one of the founders of the WSF and a Roman Catholic influenced by liberation theology said, “At this forum it is clear that it is really possible to have another world, and not just possible, but urgent and necessary.” He went on to say, “In Chinese the word for crisis means a risk and an opportunity. Those gathered in Davos are facing the risk of seeing their system go down the drain. We in Belem have a moment of opportunity.”

John Roberts

Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper No. 43 February
Secretary: John Roberts

World Mission Asia – looks ahead

A world mission conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910 is regarded as major event in the formation of the modern ecumenical movement. An event to celebrate the 1910 conference is planned for Edinburgh in June 2010. A recent consultation “Beyond Edinburgh 1910 – Asian Reflections on Mission” sought to critically evaluate concepts of mission post Edinburgh 1910. Hope S Antone, joint executive secretary for the Faith, Mission and Unity section of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) provides this account of the gatherting published in CCA News, December 2008.

While the Edinburgh 2010 event is a call to celebration, Asians at the recent international conference in Tainan, Taiwan called for confession on what has been named as the complicity of mission with colonialism, imperialism and capitalism.

The conference with the theme “Beyond Edinburgh 1910 – Asian Reflections on Mission” was hosted by the Formosa Christianity and Culture Research Centre (FCCRC), Tainan Theological College and Seminary (TTCS), and Chang Jung Christian University (CJCU). It was sponsored by the Methodist Theological University (MTU), Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), and Christian Conference of Asia (CCA). It was held at Tainan Theological College and Seminary on 29 September – 3 October.

Several presentations were made at the conference covering the following topics: critical evaluation of the mission concept evolved through Edinburgh 1910 and the 20th century missionary movement; analysis of the present Asian context; critical analysis of the development of Asian churches and ecumenical movements; challenges to mission by the multi-religious situation of Asia; new paradigm concepts of mission; and implications of new paradigms for theological education.

C. S. Song, a visiting professor at TTCS and CJCU, asserted that mission is God’s creation (Genesis 1-2) and God’s re-creation (Revelation 21), found in God’s incarnation and God’s dwelling among us (John 1:14). The traditional view of church mission as calling people to believe in the Lord and convert to Christianity is very one-sided. If the church is to become God’s partner in re-creation, we must be converted from “The Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19-20) to Jesus’ “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-35), Song said.

"If the church is to be -
come God's Partner in
re-creation, we must
be converted from
'The Great Commis-
sion' to Jesus' 'Great Commandment'."

Kim Yong Bock, chancellor of the Asia Pacific Graduate School for Integrated Study of Life, claimed that world Christianity is in crisis as it is caught up in the illusion that “world Christendom” will save the world. Yet, he said, there is a lack of theological perspective with which to deal with the destruction and potential death of all life. He asserted that Jesus’ movement of loving all living beings should be recovered and revitalised in order to lay the firm foundation of the mission of love.

Speaking on “doing mission from the underside”, Huang Po Ho, vice president of Chang Jung Christian University in Tainan, critiqued the significance of Edinburgh 1910 as a defining moment of the modern Western missionary movement and the birth of the modern ecumenical movement. “Without denying its contributions, the centennial celebration may be a good occasion to redefine the place of Edinburgh 1910 against the background of world mission from the perspective of the people being represented, if not totally absent, at the conference,” he said.

“People as the subject of mission challenges not only the Christendom concept of church-centered mission, Christ-centered mission or even God-centered mission, but also the dichotomy of gospel and cultures, Christian world and non-Christian world, sacred and profane, sending and receiving, etc. Christian mission cannot be a top-down enterprise by missionary societies or church headquarters, but developing and shaping in the midst of the struggling people,” Huang continued.

In his presentation on “relativism and difference,” Wang Shik Jang, professor of philosophy of religion at Methodist Theological University in Korea, called for deep or genuine pluralism that appreciates the importance of difference among religions without falling into the pitfalls of relativism. With emphasis on differentiation, deep pluralism provides an ideal methodology for establishing a better type of religious pluralism – e.g. that since all religions are limited and relative, they have to cooperate with each other, such as through interreligious dialogue, Wang stated.

Speaking on “new paradigm concepts of mission,” Hope S. Antone, joint executive secretary for CCA - Faith, Mission and Unity, asked whether mission should still be used given its unholy alliance with colonialism, capitalism and even terrorism or whether there is indeed a new wine that demands new wineskins. Expounding and building on Sri Lankan ecumenist Wesley Ariarajah’s four shifts in mission thinking, she added two more shifts.

Given the reality today that Asia is producing and sending zealous missionaries who are promoting the narrow concept and practice of mission, Antone called for a mission moratorium and challenged churches and their seminaries and mission training centers to critically evaluate their curricula in view of the critiques raised about a narrow mission orientation during this conference.

Ariarajah’s four shifts in mission thinking are: (a) from an exclusive to an inclusive understanding of God’s mission as framework of mission; (b) from conversion to healing as goal of mission: (c) from majority to minority as the nature of the faith community in mission; (d) from mere doctrinal issues to deep spiritual concerns as content of mission. Antone added two more necessary shifts: (e) from token partnership to genuine solidarity as the spirit behind the methodology or practice of mission; and (f) from overemphasis of one biblical passage (i.e. the so-called Great Commission) to an emphasis of the total biblical message as basis for mission.

“If we must have them, we should have missionaries who are: educators on the integral view of life; healers with holistic concept of healing; environmentalists to help detoxify and recover the sustainability of the earth; people who are critically conscious of power – not for power over, but for power with (shared power) and drawing power within (empower); and people who are religiously literate since to be Asian is to be interreligious,” Antone stated.

In his presentation, Chen Nan Jou, vice president of Yu-Shan Theological College and Seminary, highlighted the proposal of both Preman Niles and C S Song – that God’s creation, rather than redemption, be the framework of mission. It is with this framework that he called for a mission-oriented theological education where the seminary will be a facilitator and the ministers the mission enablers of Christian communities so that the people of God will be empowered to be co-workers of the reign of God.

Group discussions were held to reflect further on some of the topics. In the final plenary session it was suggested that the sentiments and critical reflections made at the conference should be shared with those responsible for the Edinburgh 2010 process.