This is the second 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 the work of the Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) had gained more traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The answer is probably, “It would look like The Wesleyan Church.”
First, some background on The Wesleyan Church: The Wesleyan Church is present in over 90 countries, the result of mission work in a wide variety of areas around the world, starting in the nineteenth century. Across all these countries, it has more than 5,000 churches with over 370,000 members and 475,000 attendees. (These numbers are from 2012, but they are what’s presented on The Wesleyan Church’s website.)
The Wesleyan Church is the result of a 1968 merger of two bodies, one of them itself formed by a 1946 merger (sound familiar?). In this case, the two denominations coming together in 1968 were the Wesleyan Methodist Church, formed in 1843 by founders who left the Methodist Episcopal Church (a forerunner of the UMC), and the Pilgrim Holiness Church, which traces its roots back to founders who left the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1897. Along the way, both groups absorbed a wide variety of other church bodies and missions (such as the 1946 merger of the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Holiness Church), but The Wesleyan Church’s polity remains distinctively Methodist.
The most basic group of churches in The Wesleyan Church is a district, roughly equivalent to an annual conference in the UMC. Wesleyan Church districts tend to be smaller than UMC annual conferences and are headed by district superintendents instead of bishops, but otherwise serve the same functions. (There is one overall General Superintendent, but no bishops.) Historically, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was governed by a General Conference, similar to the UMC. Missions outside the US and Canada were also organized into districts which related both to General Conference and the denominational mission agency.
The Wesleyan Methodist Church/Pilgrim Holiness Church merger in 1968 raised the question of what the role of churches outside the US should be within the new denomination, as did the Methodist Church/EUB merger in 1968. The Methodists and EUB formed a group called COSMOS to answer this question. Despite COSMOS entertaining a wider range of options, the UMC answer eventually became that annual conferences outside the US could either become completely autonomous or remain part of the UMC as a member of a central conference. Much of the work and recommendations of COSMOS were overshadowed at the 1972 General Conference by domestic concerns with overhauling the Book of Discipline. (See Robert Harman’s previous UM & Global article on this topic here.)
The Wesleyan Church took a different approach, however, one similar to possibilities raised in the COSMOS discussion by Latin American Methodists. The Wesleyan Church developed a system of different degrees of autonomy for groups of churches outside the US with continued relationship between all Wesleyan churches everywhere. This plan was successfully approved at their 1972 General Conference.
Under this plan, The Wesleyan Church created additional types and layers of regional groups of districts that had varying levels of autonomy. It kept the North American General Conference and districts within the US the same. Outside the US, it created several new options for groups of districts: national or regional conferences, Established Regional and National Conferences, and separate General Conferences.
National and regional conferences continue to be governed by their originating General Conference and relate to the associated mission agency, but can build national three-self capacity. As that capacity grows, the North American General Conference can approve the creation of Established Regional and National Conferences and eventually separate General Conferences. With each step, a group of districts outside the US gains more autonomy. Established National or Regional Conferences write their own Books of Discipline, subject to General Conference approval, and still relate to their founding General Conference. There are currently three: South Pacific, Canada, and Ibero-America (i.e., Latin America). Separate General Conferences are fully autonomous, write their own Books of Discipline, and are headed by their own General Superintendent. In addition to the North American General Conference, there are also General Conferences in the Philippines and the Caribbean.
At the same time, the system adopted by The Wesleyan Church includes measures to preserve connection between these increasingly autonomous national and regional branches. The first of these measures is a delegated meeting of all Wesleyan Church bodies throughout the world, initially called the Wesleyan World Fellowship, but since 2004 called the International Conference. The International Conference includes representatives from all General Conferences, Established National and Regional Conferences, and mission units in additional nations, even though this last group is also represented at their associated General Conference. The International Conference’s primary purposes are fellowship and coordination, since it does not directly control any bureaucracy or substantial budget, nor does it approve Books of Discipline. It must, however, approve the creation of new Established National and Regional Conferences and General Conferences.
The second unifying measure is a common set of statements binding on all branches of The Wesleyan Church everywhere, called “The Essentials.” This short, twelve-page writing consists mainly of 21 statements of faith. It can only be modified by a two-thirds vote of constituent General Conferences. The International Conference can sanction regional bodies that it deems are not living out The Essentials, but to my knowledge, that is mostly a theoretical power.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both The Wesleyan Church’s system and The United Methodist Church’s system in terms of honoring the autonomy of Christians outside the US and in terms of preserving ties among Christians of different nations. Overall, I think The Wesleyan Church has emphasized autonomy, whereas the UMC has emphasized connection. Still, while The Wesleyan Church’s system is set up to honor autonomy, it nonetheless privileges in some ways North Americans as the “parent” body of new Wesleyan churches in other countries; and UMC Central Conferences’ ability to adapt the Book of Discipline does allow for a degree of autonomy.
Ultimately, though, the point of this comparison is not to deem either the Wesleyan or United Methodist system “better” than the other. The point is that The Wesleyan Church’s system represents a road that The United Methodist Church could have taken in 1972, but didn’t. Recognizing this alternate polity as a potential road not taken, though, raises questions for United Methodists: Why didn’t we take this road? What have been the advantages and disadvantages of that choice? Would it still be possible to go down this road, or another like it?