Monday, July 1, 2019

The World Methodist Council and World-Wide Methodism

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.

One of the reasons why the COSMOS proposals for an International Methodist Church or a World Methodist Council of Churches never really got off the ground was the existence of the World Methodist Council (WMC) as an alternative avenue for relationship. At the same time, some United Methodists now have suggested that the WMC could be a means for maintaining relationships in the likely event of a breakup of The United Methodist Church. Thus, it is worth describing what the WMC is, how it is structured, and what is does.

The World Methodist Council is made up of over 70 participating Methodist, Wesleyan, and United denominations. Some of these are autonomous Methodist churches in the British Methodist tradition. Some are autonomous Methodist churches in the American Methodist tradition. Some are world-wide churches in the African-American Methodist tradition. Some are world-wide churches in the American Wesleyan/holiness tradition. Some are nationally-based united churches that were formed from the merger of Methodist and other Protestant churches.

One very important member denomination of the WMC is The United Methodist Church. The UMC is the largest participating denomination in terms of membership, and it provides a lot of the personnel, organizational structure, and drive that enable the work of the WMC.

The UMC also contributes the largest amount of funding to the WMC. The UMC contributes about two-thirds of the total dues from participating denominations, which collectively make up 83% of the WMC's operating budget. Put another way, the UMC is responsible for over half (57%) of the WMC's total budget. This doesn't include indirect subsidies, such as the UMC covering the expenses for representatives from autonomous churches to attend the World Methodist Conference. Any future in which there is less UMC money to support shared ministry is quite likely a future in which the WMC takes a substantial financial hit and is less able to facilitate shared ministry.

There are several means by which the WMC promotes intra-Methodist relationships and shared ministry. Perhaps the most visible is the World Methodist Conference, which happens every five years. The origins of the WMC as an organization lie in the World Methodist Conferences, which have been meeting periodically since 1881. The next Conference will be in 2021 in Sweden. This group has no legislative power over participating denominations. It focuses on fellowship, worship, electing officers for the WMC, and overseeing the WMC's committee structure.

Carrying forward the work of the WMC in between conferences are a council president (currently J. C. Park of South Korea), a very small staff led by the General Secretary (currently Ivan Abrahams of South Africa), a steering committee, and a system of program committees.

Because of the extremely limited personnel resources in the WMC itself, much of the work that the organization does, it does through its program committees. Yet the committees vary greatly in the extent to which they function effectively and facilitate significant shared ministry among participating denominations. More effective committees are often dominated by a few strong individuals with clear ideas about what they want to accomplish and an understanding of the WMC as a salutary way to accomplish it.

In addition to the committee structure, the WMC serves as an umbrella for "affiliate" programs, which are operated mostly independently, but which have at least a nominal connection to the WMC. That connection can help draw in a wider variety of Methodist/Wesleyan/United participants to these programs and can also serve as evidence for or a justification of the "world-wide" nature of such programs. In reality, much of this programming originates in, is led by, and is funded by (mostly United Methodist) Americans or British Methodists.

The work that the WMC carries out generally falls into a few categories: education, evangelism, ecumenism, history, and peace-making. In education, the WMC is the origins of the International Association of Methodist School, Colleges, and Universities, which is mostly supported by GBHEM of the UMC, and other affiliate scholarly programs. In evangelism, the WMC serves as an umbrella for World Methodist Evangelism and the World Methodist Evangelism Institute, both American organizations with origins in the work of Eddie Fox and Maxie Dunnam. In ecumenism, the WMC operates the Methodist Ecumenical Office in Rome and the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem (funded and staff mostly by Americans and Brits) and represents Methodists in discussions with other world faith communions. In history, the WMC maintains the World Methodist Museum in Lake Junaluska, NC, and has connections to some other affiliate programs. In peace-making, the WMC awards the annual World Methodist Peace Award.

As one can see, the WMC is often dominated financially and programmatically by The United Methodist Church and its American members, but in ways that often depend upon the current structures of apportionments and boards and agencies. Moreover, this domination by American United Methodists causes tensions with other participating denominations, who may resent this dominance or may have a different sense of what world-wide Methodist priorities should be.

Thus, there are three main challenges to the WMC serving as a means of continuing currently internal UMC international relationships in a post-UMC world. First, without the UMC as it currently exists, the WMC is likely to be a less robust organization that is less able to facilitate relationships and shared ministry. Second, if (post-)United Methodists try to remake the WMC for their own purposes, this could encounter strong resistance from other Methodist/Wesleyan/United denominations who already to some extent resent UMC domination of the WMC. Third, the priorities that the UMC might have for the WMC in serving as a means of continuing relationships may clash with priorities other denominations (some of whom already have internal international collaboration) may identify for the organization.

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