Friday, June 21, 2019

Blair Trygstad Stowe: The History of the Global Connection, Part 2

Today’s post is by Rev. Blair Trygstad Stowe. Rev. Stowe is Lead Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Ontario, CA, and Community Cultivator of Open Space Inland Empire. It continues a series on the historical attempts to consider global structure of the United Methodist Church. You can find entry 1 here.

The American Methodist Church has investigated the question of our global structure and representation several times throughout recent history. Rev. Bruce W. Robbins in his 2004 book, A World Parish? Hopes and Challenges of the United Methodist Church in a Global Setting,[1] outlined the first two major investigations of an improved global ecclesiology by the UMC.

The first was shortly after the inaugural Central Conference episcopal election in 1930. The Committee on Central Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) returned with three options for possible ways forward:

1) The Central Conferences could all be developed into independent General Conferences, giving each church autonomy for self-governance without oversight, but not demanding that missional commitments between Conferences end.

2) Form a Central Conference in the United States as a regional body. All the Central Conferences would then relate in a smaller General Conference to maintain the connection and handle Methodist relations with other church bodies.

3) Maintain the structure as it stands with the American General Conference as the final authority and the Central Conferences as mission bodies of the “mother church”[2]

The Committee claimed the voices of Central Conference representatives spoke most strongly for the final recommendation, to maintain the current polity (option #3) for the time being until more transition could take place in the organization of the Central Conferences.[3]

It does us well while reflecting on this first discernment process to remember that American missionaries were often the representative delegates from the Central Conferences they were serving during this era of Church history, and it benefited the missionaries to remain connected to the American processes. Whether this was an implicit preference or an explicit act of colonialism we can not know, but it resulted in retention of an American-centric system into the next era of Methodism.

In 1948, the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) replaced the Committee on Central Conferences in managing the connections of the international Methodist Church post-World War II.[4] The decolonization process saw a preference for ecclesial autonomy, as peoples in newly established countries sought to have their churches reflect developing nationalism.[5]

In 1951, the World Methodist Conference, started by the British Methodist Church, responded to decolonization by reorganizing as the World Methodist Council and relocating its headquarters to the United States.[6]

But economic stability did not follow political independence for much of the world, making autonomy financially inviable, and political tensions between Capitalist and Communist powers added further tensions to international loyalties[7].

Responding to the changing climate of international governance, COSMOS began a major investigation of international structures in 1960[8]. For the first time in 1964, Central Conference representatives were invited to partake in every meeting of COSMOS, rather than just the meeting preceding General Conference[9].

With the unification of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) at the 1968 Conference, an unprecedented 25 international Annual Conferences requested autonomy, a majority from Latin America[10].

The COSMOS recommendations to the 1968 Conference proposed familiar options for the future structure of the UMC:

1) Encourage autonomy for international conferences

2) Support regional General Conferences in the place of Central Conferences, each of which would create their own Discipline and organization, including a Regional Conference for the United States

3) Create a World Conference of the autonomous General Conferences for discussing global needs and continued mission partnerships

All of these suggestions were adopted by the 1968 General Conference and consultations were planned for the development of the World Conference.

However, by 1972, somewhat inexplicably, COSMOS reported its belief that the World Methodist Council would become a sufficient body for handling the connectional needs of global Methodism and that the establishment of a separate World Conference should be discontinued.

COSMOS also proposed its own discontinuance and the reestablishment of a Committee on Central Conference Affairs to deal with legislation relating to the Central Conferences and Autonomous Affiliating bodies[11]. Over a decade of study, conferencing and relationship building between the most diverse decision making body of the UMC to date was simply dissolved. Additonal information on COSMOS will be provided in future posts.

A new directive to study the Global Nature of the United Methodist Church was given by General Conference in 1992,[12] yet few substantive changes have been seen at the General Conference over the last seven quadrennia.

The Committee on Central Conference Affairs was re-established in 2008 as the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters,[13] chaired for the first time by a Central Conference Bishop, and has begun to undertake global investigation with a seriousness resembling the broad study initiatives of COSMOS in the 1960’s.

The designation of a Global Book of Discipline was established in 2012, and the Standing Committee is working in consultation with groups of clergy and laity across the connection on further revisions and simplifications to make the BOD more accessible and applicable cross-culturally[14].

Previous inquiries into the global structure of the church seem to have held an underlying assumption that the church in the United States would always maintain the majority at the General Conference, thus creating no need for the American Church to be designated as its own Central or Regional Conference. While it was recognized by members of COSMOS that issues at General Conference were unfairly weighted on American issues, this was not impetus enough to modify the structure.[15] The focus on American issues at General Conference was considered an inconvenience for the 10% of delegates from outside the United States. The members of COSMOS likely could not have imagined that in just over 50 years 42% of delegates would come from outside the United States.[16]

This global expansion is of course to be celebrated, but it has created a structure that may now be threatening the missional activities of the church in the American context. The Central Conferences maintain autonomy to modify decisions made by General Conference in their local context. No such process is afforded to the UMC in the US.

Within a few more quadrennia, the American UMC may become the minority at General Conference. Without a serious resurgence in action to reconsider the global structure, this could result in a flipped disadvantage where the mother church is left to carry out decisions made by her children, with no autonomy of her own.

[1] Bruce W. Robbins, A World Parish? Hopes and Challenges of the United Methodist Church in a Global Setting. Nashville: Abingdon, 2004.

[2] Robbins, A World Parish?

[3] Ibid.

[4] R. Lawrence Turnipseed, “A Brief History of the Discussion of The United Methodist Church As a ‘World Church,’” The Ecumenical Implications of the Discussions of “The Global Nature of The United Methodist Church”: A Consultation on the Future Structure and Connection of the UMC (New York: General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, 1999).

[5] Robert J. Harman, From Missions to Mission: The History of the United Methodist Church, 1968-2000 (New York: GBGM Books, 2005).

[6] “History of the World Methodist Council”, World Methodist Council: Who We Are,, accessed 26 March 2015.

[7] Harman, Missions to Mission.

[8] Turnipseed, “A Brief History”.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Robbins, A World Parish?.

[11] Robbins, A World Parish?

[12] Turnipseed, “A Brief History”.

[13] Bishop Minerva C. CarcaƱo, interviewed by Blair Trygstad, in person, Pasadena, California, 12 March 2015.

[14] Heather Hahn, “Plans Underway to Make Discipline Truly Global,” United Methodist News Service, Published 16 March 2015, accessed, 26 March 2015.

[15] Lawrence Turnipseed, “New Structures for Methodism Overseas,” 10 February 1966, accessed from the United Methodist Church General Archives, 15 May 2019.

[16] “2020 General Conference delegate distribution by annual conference now available,” Commission on the General Conference, Published 26 January 2018, accessed, 20 June 2019.


  1. This may be a useful point to note what I heard as a missionary in the period from 1984 to 2004, living in both Asia and Europe. 1. Central conferences bishops didn't want autonomy because they would lose their large salaries paid by the US. 2. Central conferences feared that autonomy would lead to local marginalization. This was particularly true in Europe and Eurasia where they were tiny compared to established churches wholly or partially sponsored by the state. They felt the need to be a part of a large, visible, global church.

    I note that carefully cultivated ecumenical relationships both in the UMC and in the autonomous churches began to crumble in this period (at least outside of Europe). A major driver was UM bishops wanting more power and autonomy and finding that with continued US funding they had not need to attend to ecumenical relations. AND on the flip side, after the 70's a declining US church desperately needed ecclesial colonies to maintain its growth - really the major factor in abandoning ecumenical relations.

    Whatever was in the hearts and on the lips of leaders, the process of decolonization ended because at least some United Methodists either never felt themselves colonized (Europe) or found some aspects of a colonial relationship beneficial (Philippines, Africa), or frankly wanted to continue the process of colonization for their own ends (the US UMC, which is a thoroughly colonial institution.)

  2. Thanks for these excellent reflections, Robert! I'd be interested to know where your information comes from for my further research. Do you have access to notes or minutes from Central Conference Bishops? Or is this hearsay from the era? Either way, I'd love to know more!