Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The UMC and the Confusion of International Ecclesiology

Recently, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) published an article about HiRyo Park's work in organizing a Methodist Women Leadership Conference for women in Latin America and the Caribbean.  This successful endeavor is another instance in a long history of Methodists recognizing the important work that women do in forwarding the church and promoting God's kingdom.

Yet this article also made me think about the varied types of relationships that The United Methodist Church has to its former missions and other Methodist bodies throughout the world.  On the one hand, there are Methodist churches in some countries that were started by the UMC and its predecessors which have continued as Annual Conferences or Provisional Annual Conferences.  These churches have representation in General Conference and are governed by the Book of Discipline, the same as other United Methodists.  They have access to the resources of some of the denominational boards and agencies, though for reasons of history, proximity, and funding, many of the boards and agencies remain primarily US-focused.

On the other hand, there are Methodist churches in some countries (including most of those in Latin America and the Caribbean) that have become autonomous from the UMC or its predecessors, but maintain a status as "affiliated churches."  Often the UMC helps provide missionaries, training, and other resources to these churches, as exemplified in the recent GBHEM article, in which HiRyo Park was working with affiliated churches in Latin America and the Caribbean.  These churches, however, are not voting members of General Conference and are governed by their own internal principles.

Then there are a few Methodist churches in countries that were started by the UMC and its predecessors which have become completely independent.  Or, going the other way, Methodist churches in some countries that were started by British Methodists but have become affiliated with the US-based UMC as Annual Conferences.  Finally, there are some Methodist churches that were started by British or other Methodists, have never been affiliated with the UMC, and continue to be unaffiliated.  Sometimes there may be multiple Methodist churches in a single country reflecting a diversity of historical and current relationships to the American UMC.

All of this makes for a rather confusing array of possible relationships between the UMC in the US, the UMC in other countries, and non-UMC Methodist bodies in other countries.  Fortunately, the intricacies of our human-made church structures do not always stand in the way of collaborative ministry partnerships between these various groups, as the GBHEM article shows.  Nevertheless, it makes more sense why it is difficult for the UMC to develop a coherent, theologically-grounded international ecclesiology when its polity is a hodge-podge of historical and administrative relationships.  How do we think ecclesiologically about the internal relations of different national branches within the UMC or think ecclesiologically about ecumenical relations to other denominations when the lines between part of the UMC and separate from the UMC are not entirely clear?  The UMC desperately needs more ecclesiological reflection as it comes into its own as a global denomination, but such reflection will not be an easy task.

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