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.
Questions and uncertainties about the future of The United Methodist Church as a world-wide denomination are swirling at the present moment. But this isn't the first time United Methodists and their predecessors have wrestled with such questions. In the 1960s, the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) tried to discern how the Methodist Church should structure itself across national and regional boundaries in the future.
The time in which COSMOS operated was in many ways different than our own. Those discussions were heavily influenced by pressures for more autonomy from Asian and Latin American branches of the church, operating in parallel with processes of political decolonization. The expectation of increasing ecumenical unity up to and including denominational merger, both in the US and elsewhere, significantly influenced the contours of the discussion as well.
Nevertheless, perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the varying models of world Methodism considered by COSMOS. Questions of the tensions between connection and autonomy, concerns about rising nationalism, and debates over what types of decisions are best made at which levels of the church characterized discussions then as they do present-day discussions.
Here are links to descriptions of the four main alternatives that COSMOS considered. The text is taken from a COSMOS document generated in 1965. The original is held by the General Commission on Archives and History in Drew, NJ.
COSMOS discussed these alternatives in a series of meetings throughout the 1960s, most notably at a consultation held in Green Lake, WI, in 1966. That consultation included 250 participants from around the world, including representatives from the Evangelical United Brethren.
Although there was a Congress held in Atlantic City, NJ, in 1970 to consider forming an International Methodist Church, that proposal never came to fruition. Instead, The United Methodist Church took both of the first two approaches: full autonomy for those Asian and Latin American annual/central conferences desiring it, and a continuation of the central conference system for those who stayed in The United Methodist Church.
Americans were not convinced of the value of a reworking of structure and questioned whether COSMOS even had the authority to suggest such a new structure. Many were preoccupied with finishing the work of the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren. Many outside the US who had pushed for a rethink of structure had become autonomous by 1970, and organizations like CIEMAL and the World Methodist Council provided other avenues for collaboration in the absence of an International Methodist Church.
That has led us to where we are today as a world-wide denomination. Yet where we are was not inevitable, as COSMOS shows us. Nor is the future ahead of us inevitable, either.