1968 was a momentous year of change in recent history. The time of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., Black Power, and growing nationalistic independence and self-determination movements around the world. The Vietnam war was well underway with greater U.S. involvement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in April and June, respectively, and the Soviet Union repressed a group of protesters in Czechoslovakia, which became known as the Prague Spring. It was also an important year of the space race with implications for the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. In Mexico a protest rally was met by the army killing 300-400 students on October 2nd, just 10 days before the world descended on Mexico for the 1968 Olympics. The Latin American Council of Roman Catholic Bishops met in Medellin, Colombia to interpret the changes of the Second Vatican Council to their context making a “preferential option for the poor.”
A lesser known, but nonetheless significant event in Methodist circles was the decision of Cuban Methodists to become autonomous from Methodists in the U.S. The first Cuban bishop, Rev. Armando Rodriguez, was consecrated 50 years ago on February 11, 1968.
This coming Saturday, February 10th at 7:00pm there will be a celebration held at the Iglesia North Hialeah, 5559 Palm Ave. in Miami in recognition of 50 years of Cuba Methodist autonomy.
An Early Vision of Autonomy for Mission Churches
Early missionaries and mission executives envisioned all international mission churches would become autonomous. Pioneer Methodist missionary to India, Bishop James Thoburn, wrote in 1893:
“We may accept it as certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that in every nation under the sun our Christian converts will want to assume the management of their own affairs as soon as they are permitted to do so…Accepting, then, a fact so obvious as this, it requires the highest wisdom on the part of all missionary managers to co-operate with the natural tendency of events on the mission field, and to develop our indigenous government of every Christian church as rapidly as possible.
While Bishop Thoburn (1836-1922) was writing about Asia, his findings and beliefs were relevant for mission everywhere.
Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas
At the same time as the world was changing in the 1960s, the Methodist Church in America was also going through some internal changes. The denomination was having conversations internally to integrate the all-African American Central Jurisdiction and externally to merge with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church. In addition to these eventualities, the 1964 General Conference commissioned the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) to “study the structure and supervision of the Methodist Church in its work outside the United States…and prepare recommendations as it considers necessary for presentation to the General Conference of 1968.”
The COSMOS commission met in November of 1965 to plan for a major consultation in the fall of 1966. This larger gathering brought together 250 people including all the members of COSMOS, all American and overseas bishops, General Conference delegates from the U.S., the General Board of Missions, the Judicial Council, theological professors and representatives from the EUB Church, the World Methodist Council, and the World Council of Churches, among others.
The five-day gathering heard and discussed four main options: 1. Keep the present basic Methodist Structure, 2. Encourage Methodist units outside the U.S. to become autonomous churches, 3. Create a truly international Methodist Church that would have several Regional Conferences (the U.S. being one of several) and one General Conference with balanced representation between the U.S. and Central Conferences abroad, and finally 4. Organize a world fellowship of autonomous Methodist Churches. This gathering did not have the authority to choose one of these options—only to make a recommendation to the 1968 General Conference.
One of the problems facing the Methodist Church was the structure of the world church that covered 46 countries and very different contexts. In Cuba and elsewhere, opponents of Christianity attacked local Methodism as being an appendix of the United States. In a report prepared for the 1966 COSMOS conference, Lonnie Turnipseed wrote “…it is easy to see how persons opposed to the Christian faith can use them to brand the church as a foreign rather than an indigenous church.” This concern was certainly a reality in Cuba among many people fighting for self-determination and the end of foreign interference.
COSMOS also recommended to 1968 General Conference the autonomy for the Methodist churches in Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Peru, Malaya, Sarawak, and Uruguay, in addition to the prior recommendation for Cuba. These were the first since the churches in Mexico and Brazil had become autonomous in 1930.
Besides these churches, the recommendations from the 1964-1968 COSMOS commission have largely not been pursued by General Conference. Methodism overseas was overshadowed by the efforts to incorporate the all-African American Central Jurisdiction and unite with the Evangelical United Brethren into the United Methodist Church. Nevertheless, the recent crisis on the United Methodist stance toward human sexuality and the deliberations of the Way Forward Commission have highlighted the ongoing importance of the worldwide structure and the influence of context on church effectiveness.
In the second part of this blog, I will examine how this process toward autonomy played out in Cuba. In the third and fourth parts to this blog, I will examine in greater detail the four suggestions for the international structure of the United Methodist Church and explore what happened in other regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America with implications for the current dilemma that the UMC is facing about organizational structure.
** This article was corrected from an earlier version that listed secular events as happening in 1968 that actually occurred in 1967 or 1969.
 Daniel Johnson Fleming, Devolution in Mission Administration: As Exemplified by the Legislative History of Five American Missionary Societies in India, New York: Fleming Revell Co., 1916, 72.
 The Journal of the 1968 General Conference, Nashville: TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report no.1.
 Lawrence Turnipseed, “New Structures for Methodism Overseas,” paper prepared for the COSMOS conference, February 10, 1966.