Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote his now famous statement in 1931 that has redefined the church’s mission: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning.” As the United Methodist Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the uniting General Conference in 1968 it is a good time to reflect on the mission of the church and purpose of its organizational structure. Sometimes denominations and church structures can experience unintended “drift,” and take on a life of their own. German theologian Paul Tillich cautioned about the important balance between form and dynamics (Spirit) that healthy churches should maintain. Tillich went so far as to caution against an institution becoming too set or rigid in its form and become the object of idolatry.
This reflection will follow-up on my two previous blogs (blog 1 and blog 2) on the global nature of the UMC on the anniversary of Cuban Methodist autonomy. I will revisit the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) that examined the organization of the Methodist and then the United Methodist Church in the 1960s and early 1970s. I think that you will agree that many of the issues studied by COSMOS are still relevant today—if not more so.
John Wesley gave the Methodist movement great vision and direction when he wrote in the "Large" Minutes: "What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land." When American Methodism was launched and ready to become its own denomination Wesley wrote with mixed-feelings:
As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.
This freedom of innovation and the importance of context, as well as connection, has been at the heart of Methodism from the beginning.
In the midst of conversations of unity between The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren, the 1964 General Conference of The Methodist Church continued Wesley’s vision for the global church when it approved this statement: “In the growth and maturing of Methodist churches overseas two basic principles are apparent, in one way or another, in all forms of organization: 1) the principle of freedom, and 2) the principle of fellowship.” Today the conversations of the Commission on the Way Forward still embody these two foci.
To carry out this vision, the 1964 General Conference mandated COSMOS to “study the structure and supervision of The Methodist Church in its work outside the United States and its territories and its relationships to other Church bodies…” Taking up this mantle, the commission held study committees in every central and annual conference outside the United States, as well as consultations with British Methodists and the World Methodist Council. In addition, COSMOS had a major consultation in Green Lake, Wisconsin in 1966. In attendance were 250 leaders from 48 countries including bishops, board executives, clergy and laity representatives from the central and annual conferences around the world. One representative from Singapore, Yap Kim Hao, spoke on behalf of autonomy at the consultation:
Autonomy is not so much a question of self-government or independence as that of the principle of freedom. We are primarily interested and vitally concerned with the Church making her own witness in the social and political environment which is clearly delimited in our world today. We are attentive to the freedom of our people to make an unfettered response to God and His word which is spoken to us in our living situation.
Yap Kim Hao went on to argue at the consultation that Methodist churches in Africa and Asia could not afford to be seen as a western institution imposed upon local people and advocated becoming affiliated autonomous Methodist churches with equal partnerships while still maintaining fraternal relationships with the Methodist Church in the United States. Two years after the consultation, Yap Kim Hao was elected the first Asian bishop of the newly formed Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore in 1968.
Based on its findings from the consultation, COSMOS reported to the 1968 General Conference. They recommended that structural change of world Methodism is “desirable and necessary” and gave the following reasons:
- There has been growth both in membership and in the strength of leadership in Methodist groups outside the United States. These groups want greater freedom to make decisions.
- The spread of nationalism, finding expression in new nations and a greater desire for independence and self-determination, has created a new climate in which the church must carry out its mission.
- Methodist churches outside the United States are now both receiving and sending missionaries. Present structures, created and controlled by a General Conference, 90 percent of whose delegates are from the United States and 90 percent of whose time is devoted to concerns of the American church, cannot give proper consideration to the different conditions of 45 countries involved.
- The emergence of the World Council of Churches and regional conferences such as the East Asian Christian Conference raise questions as to how Methodist groups should be related in these areas and be fully participating members of these bodies and at the same time under the jurisdiction of the General Conference. Similar problems exist in Africa, Latin America and India.
- A deepening conviction that to drift or make minor shifts in present structures is to decide against a world church; by default annual conferences of Malaysia, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Peru and Uruguay become autonomous.
The Uniting Conference that was held in Dallas 50 years ago this month accepted the report of the commission and granted autonomy to those annual conferences outside the United States that had requested it, but did not act on any of the recommendations for greater structural change. After unification, COSMOS continued to work for one more quadrennium until the 1972 General Conference, at which time it was disbanded. The United Methodist structure has remained largely the same ever since.
I would posit that many of the issues addressed by COSMOS are still factors today and the church would do well to use this occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church to revisit our original purpose so that the structure will always follow the mission of the church.
I have argued in other places that we can maintain an international Methodist connection while simultaneously giving freedom to regional bodies to develop a structure more suitable to their context and culture and in obedience to local laws. I believe that we can create a more fluid structure while also maintaining the two principles established by the 1964 General Conference of fellowship and freedom, or in the words of Tillich “form” and “dynamics.”
We can do all this while continuing Wesley’s vision for Methodism “to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.” He gave early American Methodists this same freedom in 1784, and it remains a good organizing principle for global Methodism. Just as Emil Bruner stated “The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by mission.”
 Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, London: World Student Movement, 1931, p.108.
 John Wesley, Works, Jackson Edition, vol.8; Baker, 1978, p. 299.
 This letter was sent with Thomas Coke and distributed to American Methodists in 1784 along with the Sunday Service and an edited version of the Articles of Religion. Letters of John Wesley.
 Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report No. 1, Book of Discipline, 1968, p. 1778.
 Yap Kim Hao, A Bishop Remembers, Singapore: Gospel Works, 2006, 66.
 Ibid, 67.
 Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report No.1, Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1968, 1784.
 The General Conference has created a Commission on the Worldwide Nature of the Church and they have made recommendations to several General Conferences, but no major structural changes have been implemented. See my 3-part blog on “The Cost of Being a Global Church” November 10, 17, and 24, 2015, www.umglobal.org.
 Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, London: World Student Movement, 1931, p.108.