Friday, May 20, 2022

Recommended Reading: Filipino United Methodists Plan Episcopal Elections

The Philippines College of Bishops has announced a special session of the Philippines Central Conference, to be held Nov. 24-26. The main task of the conference will be to elect new episcopal leadership for the Philippines and to certify the retirement of all three current bishops. Additional central conference officers will also be elected. The Philippines had previously indicated an intention to hold episcopal elections before General Conference next meets in 2024, but this is the first instance in the UMC where the election of bishops has officially been announced in what is a world-wide need to replace retiring bishops. The fact that all three bishops will retire is significant as well. Whatever clergypersons are elected as bishops will collectively have a big responsibility for steering the Philippines Central Conference through a tumultuous time in the global church and in Filipino society.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Staying Stuck in UMC Conflict

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

When it was announced in early March that General Conference would not meet until 2024, but the Global Methodist Church would launch on May 1, 2022, few people were happy, but there was at least for some a sense of relief, even if mixed with disappointment.

Followers of the UMC had been waiting for months to find out whether General Conference would meet in 2022 as previously indicated, or whether there would be yet another delay. That period of waiting was marked with tension and increasing conflict. When the Commission on General Conference's decision was released, at least it was something, rather than continued uncertainty. People could now get on with making plans.

Traditionalists were deeply disappointed that they would not get a chance to pass the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation in 2022. Traditionalist leaders decided, though, that it was best to commence with formation of a new denomination now rather than engage in more waiting for 2024. And among some Traditionalists and some Centrists/Progressives, there was a sense that it was time to get the separation over so as to move on and be able to focus on each group's own ministry rather than continued conflict.

Conflict, however, can be be a hard habit to break. In the two and a half months since the news broke that General Conference was not meeting until 2024 but the Global Methodist Church was launching this year, the UMC has shown itself to be locked in conflict.

There was immediate debate over how (US) congregations should leave the denomination. Centrists and institutionalists have used their control of procedure and process to make departure difficult and expensive for Traditionalist congregations in an attempt to prevent them from leaving. Traditionalist leaders have leaked negotiation documents, derided bishops, and sought polity work-arounds to yield more favorable terms for departure. African episcopal leaders associated with the Traditionalist movement have said they will stay in the UMC until at least 2024. The WCA also announced that it would continue to advocate in the UMC until at least 2024. The Judicial Council has ruled that annual conferences cannot unilaterally leave the denomination. And when the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1st, the only group everyone was sure was joining was Methodists in Bulgaria.

In short, the announcements of further General Conference delay and formation of the Global Methodist Church have done no more to resolve the conflict in The United Methodist Church than did the 2019 General Conference or the Commission on a Way Forward or any of the other many prior attempts to move past denominational conflict.

With harsh attitudes by all sides towards each other, good faith negotiation is difficult to find. The Protocol was a hard won compromise, initiated by a unique figure in Bishop John Yambasu and led by one of the top negotiators in the world in Kenneth Feinberg. After COVID prevented it from being voted on in May 2020, neither side has really been interested in returning to the negotiating table, and there is no visionary African bishop or world-renowned mediator to help this time.

And with US United Methodists unable to solve their conflict, Africans and others around the world who have been enlisted on one side or another of the fight are left to wait to figure out their own fates, yet again relegated to the status of supporting characters in a narrative centered on the United States.

Therefore, the UMC is facing the prospect of a 2024 General Conference (however constituted with whatever delegates attending and whatever legislation before it) that will be just as focused on conflict around the slow-motion separation of the denomination as it would have been had it met in 2020 or 2021 or 2022.

This is all painful to watch and does little to serve the gospel of Christ. There are real consequences to this on-going conflict, too. The structures of the denomination have already been battered by the COVID-necessitated delays in General Conference. There will be especially big consequences if the next General Conference, when it finally does meet, is unable to pass any major legislation, which remains a real possibility. It will lead to the further hollowing out of the denomination and many churches that are part of it.

But conflict is a strong drug. It can be a very difficult addiction to kick. There are practices and strategies that leaders throughout the denomination could implement to move beyond conflict. But right now, it doesn't look likely that the UMC will be doing so anytime soon.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Plan Now: Ukraine Webinar

The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is hosting a webinar at 12pm EDT on Friday, May 27th entitled "A Faithful Response to the War in Ukraine: It’s Impact and What Makes What Peace?" The webinar will feature Rev. Oleg Starodubets, the UMC district superintendent for Ukraine; his wife, Rev. Julia Starodubets, also a UMC pastor in Ukraine, and Rev. Bill Lovelace, a UMC missionary in Europe, current assigned to work with migrants, formerly serving in Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia. The webinar will be of interest to United Methodists who have been following events surrounding Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the church's response. Registration is free but does require the creation of an account.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Recommended Reading: Ukraine Moved To Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area

The Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference met in special session on Saturday, April 30th to consider a request from the Ukraine-Moldova Provisional Annual Conference to be temporarily moved from the Eurasia Episcopal Area, overseen by Russia-based bishop Eduard Khegay, to the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area, overseen by Denmark-based bishop Christian Alsted.

The Ukraine-Moldova Provisional Annual Conference had requested such a move prior to the start of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that development has made the request more pressing. Bishop Khegay and delegates from elsewhere in the Eurasia Episcopal Area had indicated their opposition to the move and boycotted the meeting.

As a press release issued after the meeting indicates, the participating delegates in the Northern Europe and Eurasia special Central Conference voted overwhelmingly to approve the change, 48-0-1. The delegates noted Khegay's objection to the change, but "choose to place decisive emphasis on the wishes of the annual conference in question."

The move has implications not only for United Methodist polity, but also for the provision of aid to Ukrainians during the war. Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, whose office has led United Methodist aid coordination efforts, presided during the vote. Bishop Alsted has already been working with relief efforts in the annual conferences previously under his jurisdiction.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Creating a Respectful and Fair Separation

Today’s post is a translation of Klaus Ulrich Ruof’s article “Trennung respektvoll und fair gestalten,” first published on the website of the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirke, the UMC in Germany. The translation is by UM & Global’s Dr. David W. Scott.

Three United Methodist bishops responsible for European Central Conferences wrote an open letter to the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). The reason for the criticism voiced therein was the handling of the recent withdrawal of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference from the UMC and the simultaneously declared joining in the founding of the Global Methodist Church (GMC).

Open letter criticizes WCA leadership
Christian Alsted, bishop for Northern Europe and the Baltics, Patrick Streiff, bishop for Central and Southern Europe, and Harald Rückert, bishop for Germany, criticize the behavior of the WCA leadership in the public letter.

The conservative lobby group, which is based in the United States and now active worldwide in the UMC, describes itself in its own words as a " global connection of local churches, laity, clergy, and regional chapters that seeks to partner with like-minded orthodox Christians to build a new global Methodist church." In line with its objectives, the WCA supports individuals, groups, congregations, and conferences in many places in their efforts to separate from The United Methodist Church.

The intended withdrawal of the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference had only been announced shortly before the conference session. Patrick Streiff, the presiding bishop for the conference, declared the request inadmissible in the form submitted because it disregarded the regulations laid down in the Book of Discipline of the UMC. The conference members did not want to wait for a clarification offered by the bishop through the Judicial Council, the highest judicial body of the UMC. Without the chairmanship of the presiding bishop, it was unanimously decided to withdraw from the UMC and to join the Global Methodist Church, effect on the founding date of the new church, announced for May 1 this year.

Against this background and given subsequent commentaries about the events by WCA and GMC leaders, the European bishops chose the unusually public form to express their criticism and disappointment: "We would have expected the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Good News to uphold the discipline and promote respectful ways of separation."

In view of the situation in which the worldwide UMC has found itself, especially since the special General Conference in February 2019, paths to the separation of the church are foreseeable. As bishops, they have therefore “established documents laying out the different decision-making processes on central conference, annual conference and local church level for separation.” As bishops, they are "committed to the United Methodist Church", but "equally" to those "who think differently." According to the three authors of the open letter, this attitude was even appreciatively described as "stellar leadership " in a blog post from Good News Magazine.

Separation: “fascinating” and “courageous”
From the perspective of the three European bishops, the leaders of the WCA and the emerging Global Methodist Church have in turn lacked respectful leadership behavior. Tom Lambrecht, UMC pastor from Wisconsin and vice president of Good News, who had highlighted the "stellar leadership" of the European bishops, commented on the departure of the Romanian and Bulgarian Methodists from the UMC as a "fascinating account". In a blog post, Chris Ritter, a member of the WCA council, described the "recent actions of the Bulgaria-Romania Conference" as a "spunky persistence of traditional, Methodist, Christian faith."

Respect and fairness
Such reactions, in the opinion of the European bishops, raise questions about the leadership behavior of the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church. It is not about the fact of the separation per se, but about creating the ways to a respectful and fair separation. They want to still be committed to this goal, "even if we are disappointed by what we have experienced."

Judicial Council will clarify the case
In the meantime, the decision of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisions Annual Conference and its circumstances have been forwarded by Bishop Streiff to the Judicial Council for clarification of legal matters in accordance with the Book of Discipline.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Robert Hunt: Methodism Unraveling

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert A. Hunt. Rev. Dr. Hunt is Director of Global Theological Education and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. This post was originally published on Hunt's blog, The Crossroads of Christianity and Culture, and is republished here with permission.

Polity will never give you unity.

The current United Methodist polity is in crisis, the result of a failure to adopt to emerging global realities. The General Conference is once again delayed, congregations are departing, and denominational finances continue to fall. Most importantly, in the very practical matters of institutional maintenance we face unprecedented hurtles: http://www.umglobal.org/2022/03/what-now-episcopal-elections.html.

Methodism was born on the cusp of the creation of the current international order. As it grew beyond England and the United States, its polities reflected that order, with an organization based on both emerging national boundaries and the essentially colonial nature of the new order. The structures of the American Methodist church were fundamentally colonial, with ecclesial colonies (mission annual conferences within larger mission central conferences) managed by American bishops, run by American missionaries, and reporting to the General Conference funded and dominated by the United States.

The long end of the colonial era offered American Methodists two choices for continuing as a world wide organization. The first would be to develop into a kind of commonwealth of autonomous national Methodist churches related by a common heritage, pledged to mutual support, and engaged when possible in common missions. Such a structure fit well into a decolonizing world, even if it would have its own difficulties related to financing the newly autonomous national churches.

All of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia followed this pattern, and annual conferences became autonomous affiliated national Methodist churches. These churches have thrived, formed their own associations and cooperative ministries, and generally enjoyed the fruit of independence while remaining affiliated with the Methodist and then United Methodist Church.

However, the American Methodist church didn't require or encourage autonomy, and some Methodist central conferences chose to remain part of the Methodist Church and its successor, the UMC. They would elect their own bishops and appoint their own clergy, but remain dependent for both their polity and their funding on the UMC structures, with only minor changes possible. Churches in the Philippines, Europe, and Africa went this route.

There were reasons. In the European social setting, isolation from an international church polity invited being dismissed as a mere sect. You needed to be historical and international to be taken seriously. In the Philippines, long ties to the US of many types, not least a common language (English) for those with a tertiary education and patterns of migration, made staying part of the UMC seem a natural choice.

(The entire story of the complex formation of the central conferences can be found at: https://www.umc.org/en/content/central-conferences)

Yet these central conferences (with the possible exception of the Philippines) possessed neither national nor cultural integrity. They were international without having ever been national; multi-cultural without ever having had a culture of their own. And in Africa they were intermixed with autonomous Methodist churches out of a British Methodist tradition.

Most importantly, as the report on episcopal elections above makes clear, they remained financially dependent on US funding for every aspect of not just ministry, but organization. United Methodist business would always be international business and conducted at the same great expense and uncertainty as international business. The COVID pandemic has made this clear.

As Europe rebounded after WWII, European Methodists were largely able to fund themselves. Exceptions in Eastern Europe remained, but stronger Western European economies and the formation of the EU made the European central conferences a more organic expression of unity than in Africa. It also gave them far greater autonomy vis-a-vis the United States.

Africa -- Here we see the real fallout of the failure to create autonomous national Methodist churches. It is almost perfectly characterized by this map. https://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/who-we-are/documents/africa-central-conferences-map-revised.pdf Only the Congo Central Conference possesses national integrity, and that spread over a geographical and cultural area 1/3rd the size of the continental United States. While French is the language of government, there are four other national languages and 400 spoken.

The other African central conferences are each a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-cultural hodgepodge lacking geographical integrity or a common history. What unites them is the fiat of organizational convenience, funding by American Methodists, and the rubric of a global United Methodist Church. These central conference structures possess no organic relationship to their pastors, congregations, and people.

Small wonder then, that with the combined crisis of division within the UMC and the COVID pandemic they are becoming organizationally dysfunctional. And look what happens when they don't function! An American bishop has to be brought in to supervise (in name at least) peoples and congregations he scarcely knows. Colonialism redux.

The idea of a global UMC was misconstrued, based on the false understanding that polity creates unity.

Polity will never give you unity.

As we see even within the US, a common Discipline binds no hearts together and works only so long, and no longer, as it provides political and financial benefit to those who embrace it. When the money and power are gone, and even before, those who can leave, will.

As the UMC now unravels, we are beginning to see what really makes for unity: long established relationships of cooperation and mutual love that manage to transcend and make room for theological disagreement. The unity of the Methodist movement will depend on these, not an outdated and untenable polity held together by American dollars.

Instead of clinging to an unworkable "global" structure we should instead work, at whatever institutional level we are able, to establish real patterns of co-working and cooperation among those of the Methodist tradition.

The General Conference will face the hard task of restructuring the UMC in a way that is financially and organizationally tenable. The recent Christmas Covenant plan offered by the central conferences is certainly a good start, particularly since it comes from those most affected by disunity, most in need of better solutions, and most desirous to build real partnership across differences.

But while we wait for the General Conference, we do not need to wait to build Methodist unity. That must be rebuilt from the bottom up, seeking joint projects and more intimate institutional relationships than can be either managed or even supported by General Conference agencies.

In theological education, where I have been involved for 40 years in both autonomous national Methodist churches and the central conferences, the need is clear. Instead of ad-hoc admission of "foreign students," US seminaries should seek direct partnerships with leaders of United Methodist seminaries in the central conferences to both strengthen those local seminaries and craft the kinds of degree programs and admission standards that best serve particular churches and regions.

The era of a "global" UMC is ending. Let us pray that an era of genuine Methodist unity will begin.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Recommended Reading: Liberia to stay in UMC at least until 2024

Liberian Methodist journalist E. Julu Swen published a piece last Saturday indicating that "Bishop Samuel J. Quire, Jr. said the United Methodist Church in Liberia will remain a United Methodist Church until after the decision of the 2024 General Conference. 'We will not be a part of the Global Methodist Church, but we will pray for them.'" Moreover, General Conference delegate Jefferson Knight is quoted as saying, "There is a possibility that the church in Liberia will remain a United Methodist Church beyond 2024."

This story, which should be read in its entirety, represents one of the most significant developments in United Methodism since the further delay of General Conference to 2024 and the launching of the Global Methodist Church on May 1 were announced at the beginning of March. The Liberia Annual Conference, which is the oldest branch of The United Methodist Church outside the United States, was widely seen as the part of the African church most likely to join the Global Methodist Church. This decision thus likely has implications across Africa.

Moreover, as both Bishop Quire's and Jefferson Knight's quotes indicate, there is still some uncertainty about what Liberia will decide to do come 2024 or even what the range of options will be. Certainly, some of that depends on the actions of General Conference in 2024. But this story is a reminder that the future of United Methodism remains to be written, and the pivotal decisions will happen in Monrovia, not Minneapolis, Memphis, or anywhere in the United States.