Thursday, June 9, 2016

Robert Harman: Historical Context for Affiliated Autonomous Methodist Churches and their Standing in a Global United Methodist Church

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries.

In a previous post, Dr. Philip Wingeier raised significant issues underlying the claim of the UMC to its global status and some programmatic implications for affiliated autonomous partner churches, especially those in Latin America.  A rehearsal of the historical context of their origins underscores the intentionality of their independence and illumines what was lost and gained in the process for these partner churches and a "global" UMC.

At the 1968 General Conference that celebrated the union of the EUB Church and the Methodist Church, a process unfolded that eventuated in all of the churches (conferences) remaining in connection with the former Methodist Church in Latin America and Asia (The Philippines being the only exception) gaining their autonomy.  Former EUB Church relationships with mission bodies abroad (except Germany and Sierra Leone) were mostly independent united churches and planned to remain autonomous after the formation of the new United Methodist Church. So, the UMC was left with a much diminished global reach with no denominational presence in Latin America, minimal memberships in populous Asia and small conferences in Europe.

Dr. Wingeier (and others) have suggested that the Methodist churches in Latin America were "encouraged" or influenced by the denomination to choose structural independence from the emerging UMC, a position I fail to find documented in the proceedings I have researched.  Both Mexico and Brazil Methodist Churches achieved their autonomy by forcing the creation of a special commission of their parent bodies (Methodist Churches North and South) to successfully advocate devolution at their respective General Conferences in 1930.  At a consultation held in Green Lake Wisconsin in 1966, leaders from all churches in the world wide Methodist connection plus representatives of the EUB Mission board offered their thoughts about the future of the denominational structure and mission.  The revolutionary changes occurring in the post colonial period impacting governments and social institutions in affected countries were strongly impacting the churches.  Most presentations offered by church representatives themselves vigorously concluded that historical linkages suggesting any continuation of colonial patterns of dependency had to be jettisoned.  The Commission on the Status on Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), the consultation host, only then agreed to engage in a follow up process that permitted regional conversations resulting in proposals for autonomy to be submitted to the 1968 General Conference. 

To each of the follow up regional consultations, COSMOS offered three options: continuation in Central Conferences, Autonomy as independent Methodist churches with affiliated relationships to the UMC, and Autonomy within newly created regional bodies that would also convene periodically as a world wide connectional body.  In my reading of the documentation from the Latin American churches, it was the third option that interested them.  The Asian churches favored Autonomy and some preferred exploring union with other Protestant churches to strengthen their witness nationally.  Within Asia only the Philippine conferences chose continuation in a Central Conference.  African leaders pleading greater self determination chose continuation in Central Conference structures.  European conferences also chose continuation in Central Conferences.

Latin American Methodist church leaders today rightly maintain that they did not leave the connection, but that the connection left them.  They chose the one option that would have created new and potentially vibrant linkages regionally and globally for a connectional Methodism, but that vision soon faded.  While the 1972 General Conference approved funding for a global consultation in Atlantic City in 1973 to pursue further discussion of this option and other scenarios for a new globally representative structure for UM originated world church bodies, participants were either tired or wary of the outcome from more energy and funding invested in this conversation.  They agreed only to strengthening their commitment to the World Methodist Council where an even larger representation of Methodists with various histories of origin meet periodically.

This explains how the UMC today inherited its reduced global nature and - to some extent - how the newly independent Methodist bodies in Latin America and Asia unfortunately became disconnected satellite entities.  It may also suggest why some affiliated autonomous church partners like those in Latin America often feel bereft of the fraternity a global fellowship like meetings of the UM General Conference should offer.  Membership has its privileges so a General Conference will always grant favors to its Central Conference members that its autonomous partners, invited as guests (voice without vote), don't experience.  But those partners share strong values and offer important venues for significant mission involvement that general agencies, conferences and church mission teams support through project funding and networking.  Many challenges remain to be addressed through greater cooperation and that can happen in Latin America because independent self-determining Methodist churches have created an effective regional structure (CIEMAL) for mutual support and advocacy within and beyond Latin America.  Like the larger UMC itself, individual Latin American and other autonomous Methodist churches also benefit from membership, representation and direct participation in the World Council of Churches. 

Today one cannot be too sanguine about the UMC's potential for reconsidering its compromised standing as a global church, but the best option remains a variation of that the Latin American churches hoped the winds of change in the 1960's would have delivered, I.e. locally/nationally autonomous (and accountable) church bodies where the focus and strength of a relevant cultural witness take precedence, but also united in regional organizations connected to a global structure offering a periodic reflection, outlook and vision for what churches of the Methodist tradition are called to realize in the contemporary world setting.

1 comment:

  1. Good historical context. Picking up for UM Insight as a follow-up to Phil Wingeier-Rayo's article. Thanks!