This is the fifth 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. Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
This series of blog posts comparing the various approaches to being a global Wesleyan/Methodist denomination has thus far looked at four denominations and compared them to The United Methodist Church and each other: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene. While it might be possible to continue the series by looking at other churches (the AME Zion, the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, etc.), these four and the UMC cover significant and distinct examples of how a Methodist/Wesleyan church might approach being a global denomination.
After surveying these various examples, what are the overall takeaways from this exercise in comparative polity? There are two main ones related to being a global church:
1. There are several ways to be a global Methodist/Wesleyan body, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages.
The AME, the Wesleyans and Free Methodists, and the Nazarenes have each taken distinct approaches to trying to craft a global denomination that is not just dominated by Americans but fully supports and recognizes the gifts, ministries, and voices of members around the world.
The AME pursues that goal through denominational bodies (the Global Development Council and Committee on Global Development) with significant power to make changes in the denomination to better accommodate non-US members.
Both The Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church pursue that goal by allowing the creation of separate General Conferences with separate Books of Discipline, united into one International Conference with a common kernel of shared doctrine and polity.
The Church of the Nazarene pursues that goal through emphasizing three-self theory and the creation of Phase 3 districts around the world which are self-supporting, self-led, and self-propagating.
The United Methodist Church has elements of the AME approach (in the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters) and the Wesleyan/Free Methodist approach (in the provision for central conference adaptation of the Book of Discipline) but has not gone as far as any of these denominations.
Yet the takeaway should be that there are many possible models for The United Methodist Church to adopt as well as the possibility of crafting a unique model of its own.
2. There are windows of opportunities for denominations to make changes to structurally reflect the global/international nature of their membership more fully.
Surveying the other four denominations as well as United Methodist history, it seems there have been three eras in which questions of how to be a global denomination have been particularly pressing.
The first is an era of early missionary expansion. Especially for the Church of the Nazarene, but also for the Free Methodist Church, mission was integral to the beginning of the denomination, and questions of global polity were already being worked out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner of the UMC, was also experimenting with its global polity at the same time, creating central conferences and missionary bishops, but the MEC stepped back from fully thinking through the implications of these new structures because it wanted to focus on the upcoming merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church.
The second is an era of decolonialization, staring in the early 1960s and running through the early 1970s. For the Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes, this period was an important time for beginning to shift structures to reflect a more international membership.
The Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren has such conversations at the same time, especially through the Committee on the Status of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), but real changes were sidelined because the major focus of the time was on working out the merger between the two denominations.
The third is an era of world Christianity starting in the 1980s or 1990s and running through the present. All four other denominations have made significant changes in their polity in response to shifting trends in membership, with overseas membership increasing significantly and American membership declining or growing slowly.
The UMC has changed the mandates of some of its general boards and agencies and adjusted formulas for membership on boards of directors but thus far has not made the same sort of significant changes the other denominations have. While such changes (including creating a US central conference) have been proposed and even passed by General Conference, major changes have been sideline by ongoing conflicts about human sexuality (which has been much less a debate in the other traditions).
We are not yet done with the era of world Christianity, though. There is still a chance for The United Methodist Church to join with its Methodist and Wesleyan sibling denominations to try to more fully live into the goal of being a global church that unites members from around the world while recognizing and enabling the variety of vital ministries each engage in. Focus on mergers prevented Methodists from taking such opportunities in the past. The question for us today is whether focus on separation will do the same thing.