This is the third 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.
“How big should a global Book of Discipline be? And how big should regional units that craft contextual polity be?” Those are two questions that a comparison between the Free Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church begs, especially when The Wesleyan Church is also included in the comparison.
The Free Methodist Church originated in 1860, led by B. T. Roberts and constituted from members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The church spread to Canada in 1874 and overseas to India in 1881. Work in Africa and Latin America soon followed. Today, the denomination includes over 1.5 million members in 88 countries around the world. Over 90% of these members live outside North America, with large portions in Africa and Asia.
In many ways, the global polity of the Free Methodist Church is similar to that of The Wesleyan Church, profiled in last month’s piece on comparative global Wesleyan polity. Like The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church is composed of annual conferences (or districts in Wesleyan Church lingo), which are grouped into multiple General Conferences, all of which relate to one World Conference (or International Conference in Wesleyan Church lingo). The Free Methodist Church does not have Regional Conferences as an intermediate step towards becoming an independent General Conference, as in The Wesleyan Church. Instead, it has regional fellowships of independent General Conferences in the same geographic area of the world for the sake of camaraderie and coordination.
Free Methodist General Conferences can be smaller than those in The Wesleyan Church – only 5,000 members are required to form a General Conference. Consequently, there are more of them than in The Wesleyan Church. The Free Methodist Church has 13 General Conferences and two provisional General Conferences. Each has its own Book of Discipline. Free Methodist General Conferences are led by 1-3 bishops per General Conference.
Also like The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church has a common core that is affirmed by all General Conferences and thus binding on all Free Methodists around the world. For Free Methodists, this common core includes two chapters that are included in all Free Methodist Books of Discipline. The first contains a series of theological statements. The second includes rules about General Conferences, the World Conference, the international Council of Bishops, and the process for amending these two chapters.
For United Methodists, this two chapter constitutional core to the various Free Methodist Books of Discipline may make some think of the process of creating a United Methodist “global Book of Discipline.” The global Book of Discipline is an effort underway in the UMC to identify essential parts of the current UMC Book of Discipline which should be binding on all United Methodists everywhere and designate these as a General Book of Discipline. All other current provisions, especially those related to national property laws or specific national programmatic practices, would be left to regional bodies to determine.
Yet the Free Methodists, The Wesleyan Church, and The United Methodist Church have taken different approaches to understanding what constitutes the most important elements that should be shared by denominational compatriots around the world. For both the Free Methodist Church and The Wesleyan Church, the answer is that what’s absolutely essential for everyone in the denomination to share is some basic theological affirmations and an understanding of how they will relate to each other. As noted, for the Free Methodist Church, this core is presented in the first two chapters of all Books of Discipline, which is about three dozen pages of material. For The Wesleyan Church, this comes down to about two dozen pages of material contained in the “Charter of the International Conference of The Wesleyan Church.”
By contrast, even the stripped down General Book of Discipline in the UMC will still contain material from all six parts of the current Book of Discipline, the last part itself split into seven chapters. Work is still ongoing in developing the General Book of Discipline, yet the final product will likely come to over 200 pages, nearly twenty times as long as the common material for The Nazarene Church. Clearly, the UMC is opting for a much larger body of shared policies and procedures. There are advantages and disadvantages to such an approach, but the examples of the Free Methodists and Wesleyans should lead United Methodists to ask themselves what the advantages of a much larger shared body of policy are.
The size of the shared core of theology and polity is one question, and the size of the body elaborating the contextual aspects of theology and polity is another. For Free Methodists, these are the General Conferences and Provisional General Conferences. They are constituted on a national basis, and thus there are many of them, though not all national branches of the Free Methodist Church have become (Provisional) General Conferences. As noted, General Conferences can be as small as 5,000 people, though most are larger than this – in the 10,000s of members. In The Wesleyan Church, the General Conferences and Established National or Regional Conferences that write their own Books of Discipline can be either national or trans-national. A General Conference must have at least 15,000 members.
While this is still in progress, the bodies that will be adding contextual material to the General Book of Discipline in the UMC are likely to be the Central Conferences, which can be either national or transnational bodies. While there is no theoretical threshold membership level to become a central conference, in practice the smallest are Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference and the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, both of which have just over 15,000 members. For comparison, the largest, the Congo Central conference, has 2.2 million members. The five US Jurisdictions, ranging from about a half million to over two million members in size, may be given similar authority (though creation of a new US-wide body is also an option). Such a practice is actually prohibited in the Free Methodist Church, which does not allow for more than one General Conference (and thus more than one contextual polity) in a single nation.
Looking at these three models, then, there are two correlated dimensions to the question of the bodies creating contextual polity: whether such bodies need be limited by national borders and whether it is possible to have multiple contextual polities within a single nation. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to various answers. Nation states are not God-given, but their legal and political frameworks provide a reasonable set of contextual factors around which to adapt polity. Once these two questions are answered, then the question of size becomes in large part a practical matter based on the number of adherents within a particular subnational, national, or multi-national region.
Since the UMC is in the process of creating its General Book of Discipline, these comparative lessons from the Free Methodist Church and The Wesleyan Church are timely ones, and we would do well to learn from our sibling denominations.