Bishop Mike Coyner recently wrote this interesting article, which suggests that the way forward past divisive debates and into better ministry might be for the UMC to give annual conferences greater latitude rather than relying upon the General Conference to set all policies for the entire denomination. Coyner's basic question is "What if we allowed each AC around the world to make its own decisions on all matters other than those restricted by the Constitution? What if we allowed each AC to be innovative and flexible on all matters other than our basic doctrine and theological task (as outlined elsewhere in the current Book of Discipline)?" As a flip side to that question, Coyner adds, "What if we allowed General Conference to focus upon its primary task of adopting policies, mission goals, and budgets for the whole of our UMC—without asking the General Conference to micromanage every aspect of the UMC around the world?"
While Coyner is responding in large part to the controversy over LGBT issues and the threat of schism originating in the United States, he recognizes that his proposal could have a number of (potentially positive) consequences beyond providing a way forward on this issue. I thought it worth commenting about several aspects of his proposal, as they seem to have important implications for how the UMC functions as a global denomination.
1. Coyner also asks, "What if we allowed each AC to modify its own Social Principles and
approve its own Resolutions applied to the unique cultural and political
settings of its geography and people?" Such an approach could resolve the current tensions about the US-centric nature of the current social principles, as previously discussed on this blog.
2. Coyner further wonders, "What if we allowed each AC to establish its own standards and processes
to train clergy and laity to serve their churches and their unique
mission field?" While this approach would reduce (though certainly not eliminate) conflict in the United States about the ordination of LGBT persons, it would also highlight (and potentially lead to a resolution of) missiological questions about whether the proper educational or other standards for ordination worldwide should be based on Western standards or could be adapted to local circumstances.
3. Coyner suggests a change in relationship between the annual conferences and the general boards in which annual conferences would have more freedom to choose which general boards to partner with on what projects or issues, with support for general boards coming in part through these partnerships rather than primarily through funding from General Conference. While such a proposal might run the risk of defunding important global ministries, it may also build upon a positive trend initiated by such boards as GBGM, GBHEM, and GBOD in developing close partnerships with annual conferences around the world that lead to productive new ministries in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as the United States.
Ultimately, whatever the other implications of Coyner's suggestions, I think his idea is based on a solid missiological insight: that the ways in which we live out the gospel through effective ministry must be shaped by context. Annual conferences, which meet more frequently and are more closely identified with particular contexts, may be better able to live out that insight than General Conference.