Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The UMC as a Global Church, 1968 to the present

Today's piece is written by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It is the first of a three-part series on General Conference and the global structure of the UMC.
This fall I received an email out of the blue from Foochow Methodist Church in Singapore. It said, “Dear Prof, I am a member of Foochow Methodist Church, Singapore. My sincere apology for intruding this way. Our Church’s kindergarten is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year on 14th Nov. Mrs Carol Wingeier was the first Principal of the kindergarten 50 years ago. We wish to invite her to Singapore as our honored guest to grace the celebrate on 14th Nov 2015. Hope to hear from you soon. Regards, CL Tong.”

Fifty years ago this month my parents, like many Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) missionaries, were building up mission churches around the world. At the same time, however, conversations between the Methodist Church, the (African American) Central Jurisdiction, and the EUB led to the formation of the United Methodist Church.

When this union occurred in 1968, 92.5% of the General Conference delegates were from the United States and the remaining 7.5% came from the Central Conferences outside the U.S. Before the merger, the Methodist General Conference (GC) authorized the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) to conduct a study of the Methodist overseas structures during the 1964-1968 quadrennium and bring recommendations.

As part of this mandate COSMOS held a consultation in Green Lake, Wisconsin in 1966 where they invited missiologists from the former Methodist and EUB churches to examine the relationship to mission churches. The former EUB mission churches outside the United States had become autonomous, while most Methodist mission churches had not. The general trend in the ecumenical mission movement beginning with the International Mission Conference in Whitby, Canada, in 1947 was to encourage more partnerships, mutuality and autonomy for the “younger churches” that had reached “advanced stages of development.”

Leading up to the 1968 union, two dozen Methodist mission churches, such as the churches in Singapore, Malaysia, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Cuba, among others, requested and were granted their autonomy. However, Methodist Churches in Africa, Europe and the Philippines did not, and as a result, they were carried into the new United Methodist denomination without much consideration for how these mission churches would participate in the life of the UMC.

At the 1972 General Conference (GC) in Atlanta, there was little attention to the global nature of the church. For example, all the proceedings were in English without provisions for non-English speaking delegates. A Global Ministries staff person noted, “The non-English speakers were just left out of the process.”[1] A few staff members from Global Ministries (GM) offered translation for international delegates at the Portland GC in 1976. Staff person Joyce Hills recalls that there were no formal arrangements or equipment. In an effort to be hospitable to the guests, the GM staff just whispered an informal translation into the ears of the international delegates.[2]

With each successive GC, the United Methodist Church has become more attentive to the global nature of the church. The 1984 GC issued a directive to all general boards and agencies to have representation on their board of directors from the Central Conferences. In 1988 the Council of Bishops gave a global nature report, and in 1992 the General Council on Ministries was given several tasks related to global issues.

The first General Conference that I attended was in 1992, and the number of international delegates was still relatively small. I remember a local church in downtown Louisville that provided a resting place and meals funded by Global Ministries for international delegates. Moreover, the area churches invited international delegates, many of whom were bishops and distinguished leaders in world Methodism, to preach on the Sunday in area congregations. However, this had the feeling of a “dog and pony show” with the main event still being the legislative process at the convention center. Aside from the formal introductions on the floor of GC, the international delegates were largely ignored, and the majority of the petitions and discussions on the floor were not relevant to international delegates.

By the 2012 GC in Tampa, not only had the awareness of the growth of world Methodism increased, so had the sophistication of preparing for a larger number of international delegates. GC had mushroomed into a full-fledged international convention—with a price tag to match. All of the petitions were translated into nine languages before the start of GC for the delegates to consider.

Proceedings at GC were simultaneously interpreted into the languages of the delegates, including American Sign Language, French, German, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili.[3] Whenever a written proposal or amendment was on the floor for a vote, the presiding bishop asked the maker of the proposal to write it down and give it to a page, who would take it to the chair to be translated into the aforementioned languages. When the floor language is English and an increasing percentage of delegates are non-English speakers, it is difficult to have full participation in parliamentary procedure.

In October of 2013, GC secretary Rev. Fitzgerald L. Reist made an announcement that was of no surprise to anyone: the percentage of Central Conference delegates will rise; thirty percent of delegates in 2016 will be from Africa, 58.3 percent from the U.S., 4.6 percent from Europe and 5.8 percent from the Philippines. In a stopgap measure to decrease costs, the secretary also announced that the cap for delegates was lowered from 1000 to 850.

The non-US sector of the UMC can no longer be ignored or treated as a sideshow. We have reached a critical tipping point as a denomination where we either need to embrace the global nature of the church or reform the structure. As membership declines in the US and increases in the Central Conferences, the percentage of international delegates will continue to grow.

Ever since COSMOS completed its mandate in 1972, there has been no movement toward autonomy for former mission churches. The current structure is not really global, because many Methodist Churches around the world are not included. Also, the overwhelming majority of the petitions discussed at GC deal with the U.S.-based church. There is not a good biblical or theological explanation as to why some Methodist Churches around the world are autonomous and others belong to the Central Conferences.

Nor have we gone back and reflected with the autonomous churches on their well-being. Some of these churches, such as the Methodist Church in Singapore, have thrived on their own and have grown to be self-supporting. Others, such as those in Latin America, have a rich Wesleyan heritage yet have struggled to be self-supporting. Yet because they are autonomous, they do not have access to many denominational funds. We have come to a critical point where the UMC either needs to fully embrace the global nature of the church and invite all to the table or continue the work that COSMOS was doing before 1968 to encourage autonomy.

In part II of this blog, I will address the effectiveness of the General Conference as a decision-making process and the cost of being a global church. I will also discuss proposed changes and how they can make the UMC structure more efficient in Part III.

[1] Bloom, Linda. “Global Delegates Mean Multiple Languages,” UMNS, accessed February 28, 2015, http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/global-delegates-mean-multiple-languages
[2] Ibid.
[3] UMTV: “Interpreters Raise Church Voices,” posted July 5, 2012, accessed February 28, 2015, http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/umtv-interpreters-raise-church-voices

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