In the wake of the Special General Conference in St. Louis, American United Methodists, particularly the laity, are talking about the global structure of our church with new vigor. This has led to a lot of questions and confusion about how we arrived at the current global structure, which gives some rights and privileges to Central Conferences outside of the United States which are not afforded to the American Church.
One primary question is how the Central Conferences are able to make adaptations to the Book of Discipline for their local context, yet adaptations to the Book of Disicpline which the American church must live under can only be made at the General Conference, with the influence and vote of global voices. There is currently no structure for the American church to make missional or cultural adaptations to the Book of Disicpline with the influence of only American voices.
Posts over the next several days will explore how this current situation came to be, and how we might approach our Global Structure moving forward.
Central Conference structures outside of the United States pre-date the uniquely American Jurisdictional structure as the level of regional organizing between the Annual and the General Conference. In the 1880’s, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) had two active Annual Conferences in India, which interacted with each other in an official capacity only when together at the General Conference meeting in the US. The missionary and national Indian leadership created a regional delegated meeting to encourage cooperative ministry in their context.
In 1884, the General Conference of the MEC recognized this gathering as a Central Conference. Additional Central Conferences were created, and General Conference permitted these regional bodies to elect their own bishops beginning in 1928. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) first adopted the designation of Central Conference in 1934, allowing for the management of church organization by missionaries and nationals in the field, with relatively little oversight from General Conference.
When the branches of American Methodism reunited in 1939, the expanded rights of the Central Conferences from the MECS tradition were added to the MEC tradition of supervised episcopal election. The rights of Central Conferences came to include electing bishops (under supervision and direction of General Conference); setting the length of tenure for bishops; providing courses of study; making adjustments to the BOD to reflect local ministerial needs, legal structures and land ownership; and allowing the Central Conferences to fix the borders of the Annual and Mission Conferences within their region. The main duties (and restrictions) created in 1939 remain in our current BOD, including the ability to make adaptations to the Book of Discipline for local application.
A representative Committee on Central Conferences proposed the addition of the Autonomous Affiliated designation in the 1940 Conference. Autonomy had become the best course of action for some missions outside the United States for reasons including political circumstance which required separation from any American relations (Mexico in 1930), the need for a national unified front (Japan in 1907 and Korea in 1930) complicated by the the separation of the Northern and Southern American Churches prior to 1939, or the desire for greater local control than the parameters of the Central Conference structure allowed (Brazil in 1930).
These Autonomous churches sought to maintain amicable and missional relationships with the “mother church,” and so the Board of Missions managed relations, and the churches honored non-voting delegates at their respective General Conference meetings.
Autonomous Affiliated Churches and United Affiliated Churches still maintain representative delegates to General Conference with full rights of the floor except for the right to vote. Today there are over 50 Autonomous Affiliated bodies related to the UMC.
Both of these designations, the Central Conference and the Autonomous Affiliated Church, were unique contributions to Methodist polity by American Methodist mission work. Yet they also created new complications. The majority view of missiologists throughout most of modern mission history has been that mission work in international settings should be undertaken with the goal of establishing local churches which are self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.
What was unclear in the early development of Central Conferences and Autonomous Affiliated churches was whether the establishment of “three-selfs” churches was still the intention of American Methodist missions overseas when maintaining Central Conferences with American oversight, rather than encouraging autonomy, or if this new connectional polity might be of greater benefit for the spread of the Gospel.
Our next post will investigate several attempts in our history to alter the global structure to wrestle with the competing goals of autonomy and maintained connection.