As I mentioned in the first two parts of this blog series, the United Methodist Church can no longer ignore the growing non-US sector of the UMC, but there is an increasing cost associated with bringing together delegates from around the world for an often ineffective meeting at General Conference. While I enjoy being part of a global church, I have come to the realization that it is not the most cost-effective way to organize an international body.
One proposal to address this problem is for a Global Book of Discipline that will move all the binding polity for the global church into one section that can be addressed at GC. This is important because the UMC functions in a variety of languages, cultures and under several governments with different laws that affect how the church must relate to the state. The remaining sections of the Book of Discipline will allow for changes by the Central Conferences for the church to function within the local context. The Global Book of Discipline will be available for review and discussion at the 2016 GC, but will not be eligible for adoption until 2020.
While these are positive incremental changes, I feel that they do not go far enough. Before joining the UMC, the EUB Church facilitated the independence of its former mission churches around the world. The PC(USA) and the Episcopal Churches have done the same; the latter maintains a connection to those churches through the worldwide body of the Anglican Communion.
The current configuration of the global United Methodist Church is still a holdover from the traditional mission model with the U.S. at the center, and former mission churches at the periphery. As I mentioned in my first blog, some of those Methodist Churches in Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Latin America and the Caribbean became autonomous, while those in Africa, Europe and the Philippines did not. This would be tantamount to some of the 13 American colonies choosing independence and some remaining part of England.
I would like to propose picking up the work of the COSMOS commission in the 1960s to have conversations with the Central Conference churches, while also retaining a commitment to connectionalism. This would be a model more in line with other Protestant churches as well as the Wesley spirit of equality and appreciation of diversity.
Here are two real examples of how this might look. The first is the Sol Africa project. Recently I had the privilege of attending the 10-year anniversary of the Sol Africa project that brings together the Portuguese-speaking Methodist Churches in Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, and Portugal to share resources. This project joins both autonomous and United Methodist churches, as well as human and monetary resources to carry out the mission of the church.
These churches share publications, as well as human and material resources, to train future leaders, produce Sunday School materials and rebuild Methodist training institutions that were damaged during civil strife in Mozambique and Angola under the guidance of the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry and Discipleship Ministries. Part of this project is distributing E-readers uploaded with Bible commentaries and theology books, many published by Methodist authors, to pastors and seminary students.
The Cuba-Florida Covenant is another example of a ministry that goes beyond the United Methodist Church, yet honors past relationships. Historically the Methodist Church in Florida has played an intricate role in the growth of Cuban Methodism. Many mission churches in Cuba were started and built by Florida churches in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. After the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the beginning of the embargo in 1961, the two countries (and churches) went their own way. The Methodist Church in Cuba gained its autonomy in 1968 and went through three very difficult decades of tense church-state relations under a Socialist government.
Beginning in the 1990s the church underwent a charismatic revival, which transformed its theology and practice according to its ministry context. Gone were the formalities of bulletins, hymnals, and organ music, and in were extemporaneous prayers, praise music, guitars and maracas. I lived through six years of this charismatic renewal as a missionary in Cuba (1991-97) and observed many positive attributes, such as adapting to current realities and contexts, that we can all learn from our Cuban brothers and sisters.
The Cuba-Florida covenant was signed in 1997 by the Florida Annual Conference and the autonomous affiliated Methodist Church in Cuba, and since then has facilitated 198 partnerships between local churches and districts.These are two ecclesial bodies that could not be more different culturally, liturgically and theologically. I cannot imagine these two churches having to function under the umbrella of one General Conference or one Book of Discipline--which is fine. Neither should the Cubans impose their beliefs and practices on the American church, nor should the Americans impose their beliefs and practices on the Cuban church. Both are in ministry in their distinctive contexts and cultures. The Cuba-Florida Covenant operates despite the obvious differences, respecting each others’ autonomy, yet allowing districts and churches to covenant to pray, visit and even support one another in more concrete ways.
If the Wesleyan connection between Cuba and Florida is still strong after 55-years with no diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, then certainly the connection between Methodist churches around the world can retain their historical relationships while we move away from a neocolonial mission model to one that is more adaptable to local contexts and cultures. The current model is a leftover configuration without a sound biblical or theological justification. It is frozen in time when the work of the COSMOS commission was interrupted by the unification talks between the former Methodist and EUB churches.
Rather than having an unequal and arbitrary division with some former mission churches being autonomous affiliated and others as United Methodist, I call on the church to consider a more equal model that encourages all churches to create culturally appropriate ecclesial structures, while remaining connectional, for the greater mission to “make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
 Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Cuba Methodism: The Untold Story of Survival and Revival, 2nd edition, Atlanta, GA: Dolphins and Orchids, 2006.