The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is working hard to persuade future Methodist pastors that its political activism is an extension of the work of the local church and an expression of United Methodist connectionalism. As Emory University’s Steven Tipton demonstrated in his 2007 book Public Pulpits, the GBCS’s track record of support for liberal political causes has estranged it from many rank and file United Methodists, the balance of whom range from moderate to conservative in their political orientation. The growing perception has been that while the GBCS claims to speak for the UMC, it does not, in fact, represent the convictions of most Methodists.
In a presentation to United Methodist seminary students at Emory’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GBCS representatives Rev. Neal Christie and Rev. Julie Wilson maintained that the GBCS is changing its approach. To be sure, it continues to focus on seeking the implementation of the Social Principles of the Methodist Church in places of power. The GBCS operates out of the only non-government office building on the crest of Capitol Hill, what Christie called “Ground Zero,” the focal point of “public consciousness.” It is here where the United Methodist Church finds a point of “access” to power, “where people use power and privilege for good or for ill. The reality is you cannot ignore that, and so our ministry of course [is] located on Capitol Hill, where decisions revolving around power are negotiated, where interests are negotiated.”
But Christie went on to insist that Capitol Hill is “not where the ministry takes place solely.” The work performed by the GBCS is “from the bottom up trying to influence pieces of legislation and public policy.” Its perspective “is being formed … not only by the General Conference, but at the grass roots of our church.” The GBCS is therefore “truly an extension of the local church,” an expression of the Methodist commitment to connectionalism. Christie suggested that in his work for mercy and for justice he is simply doing the sort of itinerant work that Wesley implored pastors to do.
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