Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Primer on Methodist Autonomy

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.

As United Methodists continue to grapple with what the church should and will look like in the fallout of General Conference 2019, one possibility is that some portions of the UMC will become autonomous, that is, separate, self-governing bodies. Thus, it is worth reviewing the history of, process for, and varieties of relationships with autonomous Methodist Churches.

When the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church South, United Brethren in Christ, and Evangelical Association started mission work outside the United States, those churches were initial part of the founding denominations, either through control by their mission agencies and/or by organization as an annual conference within the larger denomination. Yet as they grew, some of these areas of mission work became autonomous from their founding denominations, generally for one of three reasons:

1. Desire for ecumenical merger. This was an important impetus behind most of the early autonomous churches - Japan (1907), Korea (1930), and Mexico (1930). All three of these merged the MEC and MECS before the US bodies were ready to do so. (Japan also included the Canadian Methodist Church.) Ecumenical merger with other Protestant groups was also an incentive for Belgium (1968) and Pakistan (1970).

2. Desire for local control. All of the Methodist Church annual conferences in Latin America and all Methodist Church work in Asia except the Philippines became autonomous between 1964 and 1980 because of a desire in those churches for local control. This desire was fueled by political decolonization, and thus there was a strong anti-colonial motivation in autonomy.

3. Missiological strategy. In some places, autonomy was the goal of mission work. This was true for MECS work in Brazil (1930) and for EUB mission work, all of which became autonomous upon the merger in 1968. EUB work in Sierra Leone and Nigeria later rejoined the UMC, while EUB churches in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and the Philippines merged with other denominations.

Autonomy is not only part of United Methodism's history; it is still an option for churches outside the US, sanctioned by the Book of Discipline. Paragraphs 570-575 of the BOD govern autonomous status. To become autonomous, the process is as follows (P. 572):

1. The Central Conference in which the departing part of the church (the entire central conference or just one annual conference therein) is located must approve autonomy.

2. That decision is ratified by a 2/3 or greater majority of all votes at all annual conferences within the central conference in question.

3. The departing conference works with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to develop a statement on why they’re choosing autonomy and mutually agree on a statement of faith and constitution for the new church.

4. General Conference, on the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, votes by simple majority to grant an enabling act that bestows autonomy.

Historically, General Conference passed enabling acts before all of the requirements in step 3 were completed and before the vote in step 2 took place. It is not clear to me whether the current language of the BOD now requires steps 2 and 3 to be complete first. Depending on meeting schedules of various bodies and the rate at which work is done, the whole process could take 1-5 years.

For all forms of autonomous Methodist churches, the Book of Discipline (P. 571) allows for mutual recognition of membership, mutual recognition of clergy when ordination requirements are comparable, episcopal visitation, and “cooperation,” facilitated by the Council of Bishops, OCUIR, and Global Ministries, which serves as the “agent” of the UMC on issues related to mission, finance, and personnel. Autonomy does not preclude missional cooperation!

The UMC provides for three additional “add-on” levels of relationship between the UMC and autonomous Methodist churches: affiliated, covenanting, and concordat:

1.    “Affiliated” autonomous churches are entitled to send 2-3 (depending on membership size) non-voting delegates to General Conference. (BOD P. 570, 572) Affiliation is generally selected at the time of autonomy, though there’s at least one historical example of it being awarded retroactively (the Evangelical Methodist Church of the Philippines).

2.    “Covenanting” autonomous churches, which may or may not be affiliated, are in full communion with the UMC – they recognize each other’s baptisms, ordinations, and performance of the sacraments. The covenanting process is overseen by the Council of Bishops.

3.    “Concordat” autonomous churches have entered into a specific ecumenical treaty, as it were, with the UMC. The terms of the concordat are approved by the General Conference on simple majority vote. The four current concordat churches exchange voting delegates between General Conference and their highest bodies, though the only terms of a concordat currently required by the Book of Discipline are the transfer of members and mutual episcopal visitation.

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