The following are excerpts from a piece written by Methodist theologian and missiologist D.T. Niles entitled "World Methodism: A Memorandum." That piece was written on April 4, 1965. These excerpts provide some of the theological convictions behind Niles' proposal for a World Methodist Conference of Churches, considered by the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) of the Methodist Church, predecessor to The United Methodist Church. The original document is held by the Commission on Archives and History in Madison, NJ.
1. The Church throughout the world is one family and is under compulsion to seek to live a common family life. Jesus Christ is enough to maintain this unity, as well as to support the diversity that must exist within the family.
In terms of structure this will mean an autonomous church in the “locality” which is open at both ends: towards Church Union in the locality and towards participation in an international community. Indeed, no structure must be created, and no posture adopted which will make more difficult the quest for Church Union going on in different parts of the world than it is already. Particularly, financially strong churches must remember that they can unwittingly create a situation in which it is felt that gratitude for financial aid must be expressed by accepting policies which will please the donor churches.
2. A Church has no meaning apart from its task in Mission. In some countries the weakness in secular terms of the Church there is its main missionary asset. An international church structure must never be intended or used to destroy this asset.
A further factor is that a church engaged in mission has to be mindful of how it looks to those to whom it is seeking to commend the gospel. It is important, for instance, whether the Buddhists in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] think of the Church in Ceylon as belonging to Ceylon or as part of what to them looks like a religious empire. (The Roman Catholic Church is increasingly facing this problem. The Doctrine of Collegiality of Bishops is an attempt to meet this problem within the context of the Doctrine of the Primacy of Peter. There is no reason why Churches in the Reformed tradition cannot find a more satisfactory solution.)
3. The problem of autonomy is misconceived when the issue is raised, either in the form “we must be autonomous in our several countries”, or in the form “autonomy is a dangerous state into which you can trust only certain churches”.
The question always is a double one.
(a) What kind of autonomy must a church have in order that it may most effectively discharge its task and mission, maintain its image in the eyes of those among whom it is set and be conscious of its own selfhood?
(b) To what extent can a church in one region be a governing authority over a church in another region without distorting its own life? The necessity to govern raises as many problems as the necessity to be governed.
4. The truest safeguard against the dangers of nationalism in church life lies in strengthening the missionary movement. Churches live and work in countries. Countries have their own political and social dynamism. Churches must therefore be free to make their witness where they are. Otherwise they are deprived of an essential condition for obedience. But, at the same time, the church in the region must itself be an international community. This is one of the results achieved by the missionary movement.
It should not be forgotten that internationalism as such is also of various kinds. A colonial structure is also an international structure. In other words, true internationalism in a church structure cannot be achieved by side-stepping the autonomy issue.
5. There is an essential part which confessional groupings of churches can play and have to play in the search for Church Union, in the quest for contemporary re-statements of the Faith, in pressing forward the Christian Mission, and in helping their related churches in their various regions to maintain living contact with their particular spiritual heritage. Distortion arises only when confessional loyalties are so structured as to make the quest for local Church Union seem like a deviation or to make the attainment of autonomy seem like a lapse into isolation.
6. Also, the structure that is agreed upon, whether for the region or for the world, must be such as to be open to the future. It must be realized especially in the contemporary scene that not only are the present structures of church life under theological criticism, but that they are also being seriously corroded by the pressures of social change.
7. Whatever structure is agreed upon, provision has to be made for the Methodist Churches in the several countries themselves to become members of the World Council of Churches.
The fact must remain that there is serious questioning of the theological validity of creating a world-church which is at the same time a denomination. In the COSMOS plan [for an international Methodist church], the contrast is made between the de-centralized nature of this church and the nature of the Roman Catholic Church. The whole point is that no Roman Catholic will accept that his Church is a denomination. The issue is not as between centralization and de-centralization. The issue lies at a much deeper level. If the church is in the world and for the world, then the question must be squarely faced as to what secular realities should be taken into account in determining the churches’ structure. This is not the place to argue this question. The point has simply to be made that, however satisfactory the constitutional adjustments may be, there are those who cannot conscientiously belong to a world-church which is also a denomination.
The COSMOS plan, it is suggested, is to give to churches “overseas” a choice between two alternatives – autonomy and participation in a truly International Methodist Church. Here again the problem is that the matter is thought of in constitutional terms. What is needed is not a choice between two alternatives but a “both and”. Autonomy for a church is not a choice. It belongs to its very nature. It is simply one of the quirks of history that the modern discussion of autonomy for churches is following the same lines as independence for countries which once belonged to a colonial set-up. Both autonomy and internationalism must go together. It seems much more prudent, therefore, to try to achieve what is intended and what is agreed to generally is needed, i.e. churches effective in their regions which are at the same time safe-guarded against the dangers of nationalism and isolation by the creation of a structure which is theologically plural. This will have the advantage of drawing together the two main streamsof Methodism, British and American, from the very beginning, without having resolved what must remain an on-going theological debate.