This is the first in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies.
What would The United Methodist Church look like if it did not have central conferences or jurisdictions and had taken questions about its global nature more seriously in the 1980s and 90s? The answer is probably, “It would look like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.”
First, some background on the global extent of the AME Church: The AME was founded in 1816 in Philadelphia, primarily by black members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Within eight years, it started societies in Haiti. Work in Canada was added in 1840. Additional work in the Caribbean and South America started in the mid-nineteenth century. The AME expanded to Africa in the 1890s, where the church has grown substantially. Work in India and Europe started in the 1960s. Today, there are 20 episcopal districts, seven of which are entirely outside the United States (six in Africa, one in the Caribbean). Additional work in the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, and India is part of predominantly-US episcopal districts. All total, the AME Church has members in 39 countries on five continents.
As noted, one of the primary differences between the UMC and the AME Church is that the AME does not have the UMC’s structure of central conferences and jurisdictions. Instead, the AME is organized into episcopal districts, which are similar to but more important than episcopal areas in the UMC. Representation in church-wide committees and other organizations (other than General Conference) is primarily based on districts. Each episcopal district contains approximately a half dozen annual conferences, which tend to be smaller in geographic scope and membership than UMC annual conferences, since several annual conferences share a bishop.
Bishops are all elected and assigned by the AME General Conference. Bishops must rotate between episcopal districts at least once every eight years, and there are no restrictions on where a bishop can be moved. Thus, the AME preserves the notion of general superintendency better than the UMC does, which has moved much more toward a diocesan model of episcopacy, or at very least a regional model of superintendency, organized around jurisdictions and central conferences.
The downside of episcopal election by General Conference is that Americans, constituting a majority of the delegates at General Conference, stand a better chance of being elected bishop. Historically, most of the bishops serving outside of the US were nonetheless Americans. Currently, bishops from outside the US lead only three out of the 20 districts. Americans lead four districts outside the US. In contrast, central conferences have served to ensure indigenous episcopal leadership in the UMC outside the US.
Whereas the UMC has a system of independent boards and agencies, the AME Church has one General Board with various departments that function like UMC boards and agencies. Thus, the AME Church system is more akin to Plan UMC. The AME departments are headquartered in the US (as are the UMC agencies), and the General Secretary/Chief Information Officer is required to have an office in either Washington, DC, St. Louis, Nashville, or Memphis. The departments and the General Secretary are, however, required by the Discipline to have “voluntary” field representatives in episcopal districts outside the US. UMC program agencies have some sort of presence outside the US, but this is not disciplinarily required, nor is it true of all boards and agencies. The AME Judicial Council is entirely American in membership, whereas the UMC Judicial Council has members from outside the US as well.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the UMC and the AME Church in terms of their global polity, however, is the AME Church’s Global Development Council and Commission on Global Development. As in the UMC, African members of the AME began to agitate in the early 1980s for greater inclusion in what they perceived to be a predominantly US-centric body. The bishops of the denomination took such pressures seriously. While overwhelmingly American, because the AME had retained the principle of general superintendency, the AME bishops were much more aware of what was going on in the church outside the US, since many of them had served episcopal terms in Africa or the Caribbean.
The effort to address African concerns led to some new initiatives in the early 1980s such as partnership-in-mission agreements between American and international branches of the church. These agreements not only facilitated development work outside the US but also sought to develop deeper “mutual understanding” and “more meaningful dialogue and interaction” among AME members from different countries.
Real changes in the global polity of the AME Church, however, awaited the late 1990s and early 200s. Starting in 1996, the church undertook a primarily African-led process of self-study that led to the formation of the Global Development Council. Its duties include to “develop a structure to address the needs, aspirations, beliefs and cultures of the global context,” “promote deeper understanding, collaboration, and cohesion among the AME Churches in Africa, the nations of the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and Canada with those in the United States,” “determine methods to address the unique challenges of the Districts outside of the United States,” and “propose legislation in the General Conference to move the process beyond the Global Development Council.” This is a broad scope of work, much beyond what the UMC’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is commissioned to do. The Global Development Council is a high-powered group, with all bishops, the General Board, and heads of administrative departments involved, as well as representatives from all episcopal districts. Such work is then further supported by the Commission on Global Development, part of the church’s General Board.
This process resulted in substantial changes to the denomination’s Doctrines and Disciplines, its equivalent to the Book of Discipline. These changes included adding a section on “Global Witness and Development in Africa, the Nations of the Caribbean, Europe, South America, and India” that includes a recounting of the history of greater global inclusion in the AME Church. The Doctrines and Disciplines also includes assertions such as “The budgets of the Episcopal Districts 14-20 of the AME Church shall be included in both the responsibilities and benefits of every activity of the church. Districts 14-20 [those outside the US] shall not be treated separately or differently in any way, personal or financial. They shall also participate in the decision-making processes of the church.”
AME Church does lack Central Conferences as a means of adapting polity to local circumstances outside the US. Yet, through the Global Development Council and revisions to the Doctrines and Disciples, it has been much more successful in embracing internationalization and enshrining this value in their polity. Indeed, it is fair to say that while the UMC has emphasized local contextualization, the AME Church has emphasized international inclusion. While there are undoubtedly many factors behind this difference, the retention of a more fully itinerant general superintendency in the AME is likely an important one.