Today's post is by Rev. Lic. Daniel A. Bruno. Rev. Bruno is a pastor of the Argentina Methodist Church and Professor of Church History. It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) and appears here with the author's permission and in the author's translation.
"We retired, declaring that our holy aspirations are still standing ... maybe tomorrow we will return to the battle through new paths, according to the designs that God has prepared for us, since we have not been given to realize our ideals along the paths we have traveled so far" ... (1919)
With these words which expressed at the same time hope and frustration, one of the most conflicting and least known processes in the history of Rio de la Plata Methodism was closing. Between 1916 and 1918, a strong movement led by lay people and pastors had generated a public debate about achieving autonomy from the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The certainty of that movement was that “as long as our peoples reach the opinion that the Gospel we preach is an exotic doctrine, a religion of foreigners… the seed of the gospel will not develop, nor take root or bear fruit as we expect … ”
That nationalizing movement was a minority and was defeated at the beginning of 1919. But, as the proclamation that opens the article said, God had prepared other ways, although that old story`s leaders were no longer there to see them.
The sixties in the "south cone" of America
Brazil and Mexico were the first Methodist churches to obtain autonomy in Latin America. For fifty years, both countries had the presence of two different Methodist churches in each country (northern and southern Methodism). Towards the end of the 1920s, American Methodism began a process of unification to overcome that division.
The merging of both missions made it necessary now to clarify which of the two mother churches would keep the relationship with local churches. For that reason, the best solution was to declare the new reunified missions to be autonomous churches. After a long process with their respective institutions, both missions achieved their autonomy in 1930.
The history and process in Latin America`s southern cone was different. The churches that came up from the first Methodist mission of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Peru) had to wait until the 1960s to reach that goal. Certainly, the emancipatory atmosphere of the ‘50 and ‘60 in political, religious and social fields had some similarities with the one that lived in 1916. However, the success of the process which culminated in the autonomies of those churches cannot be explained only by its own will and vision. The new shape that Methodism in the US was taking, its context and decisions, also should be taken into account in order to explain the process of autonomy in their missions abroad.
In the mid-sixties, two factors that facilitated the autonomy process came together. On the one hand, there was a progressive need of the missions of the southern cone to adapt the structure of churches to their contexts. They also needed their own space for political decisions out of the control of central interests. Many of their leaders, in clear harmony with that which had been expressed in 1917, claimed that "the effectiveness of their testimony could be annulled because of their historical and organic relationship with American Methodism." Which was true.
But, on the other hand, the structural needs that affected the US Church demanded a redefinition of its objectives and especially its budgets for missions. Since post war time, missions in Africa and Asia began to raise special interest. These were missions which had always been subject to greater attention and budget than that given to those in Latin America, and in this circumstance would be even more.
So, in this context the action of the Commission on the Structure of the Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) began to mobilize the idea about the need for missions in Latin America to separate from the mother church. That would be decisive for the realization of the autonomy process. COSMOS began its work in 1964 and officially concluded it in 1972; however, by 1968 its task was almost totally completed.
In that year, COSMOS sent a recommendation to the General Assembly of the Methodist Church to grant the request for autonomy that the churches in Chile, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay had been asking for.
So, in order to finalize the autonomy processes, these would need to be legitimized in local assemblies, which should create the new national churches. And so it happened: Chile, February 1969, Argentina and Uruguay, October 1969, and Peru, January 1970.
The Iglesia Evangélica Metodista Argentina is born
The preamble of the IEMA Constitution declares:
"In Rosario de Santa Fe, on October 5th of the year of the Lord of nineteen sixty-nine, one hundred thirty-three years after the establishment of the Methodist Church in Argentina,
• "Grateful to God our Lord, whose Spirit`s work, through our parents in the faith, made us be born to the truth of the Gospel in the ranks of this Church, ……
• "Convinced that the present times demand all the fearlessness and creative capacity of a people rooted in the evangelical faith and energized by the power of the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of the mission that Christ has entrusted to his Church
• "Wanting to give a more native and authentic character to our testimony for its greater effectiveness, and feeling the need to be endowed with more autonomy and freedom to give us legislation adapted to the needs and circumstances of our immediate situation,
We declare our willingness to establish autonomously, the ARGENTINE METHODIST EVANGELICAL CHURCH, whose life and action will be governed by the Constitution and General Regulations."
Autonomy with connexionality
It is important to note that because of this process of autonomy of the Methodist churches, the Council of Methodist Churches of Latin America (CIEMAL) was born in February 1969. In its first plenary, it declared:
"The time has come for Latin Americans to demonstrate greater responsibility, consolidating the unity of Methodism in Latin America, to avoid fragmentation, through the autonomy of the Churches of the continent."
The main objective of this entity was to prevent national autonomies from provoking the atomization of Methodism in Latin America. For this reason, the new council would try "to develop a structure that would allow Latin American Methodism to maintain its unity in the mission in a continent as vast and differentiated as ours" without implying that it would interfere with the legislation and politics of each autonomous church.
In the closing sermon of the Constitutive Assembly of the IEMA held in Rosario on October 5-7, 1969, Bishop Carlos Gattinoni said:
"We do not always see the way, but we see Jesus going forward with the great promise, 'just as the Father sent me, I send you.' There was great despair in the work of Methodism in the 30s, when they told me the Methodist church is about to be extinguished ... but it was reconstituted in the 40s and 50s, and it was proposed to extend ... There were new senses of march, new theological concepts, and new social awareness being displayed. But we are sure that we must move forward with more boldness through fields and cities. Our program will be given to us by Christ, because he is the right hand of God."
And that is still our prayer, after fifty years. Throughout this time new questions continue to open, such as those that unveiled the precursors of the beginning of the century. Surely, that process of questions will not stop and probably that is a good thing, for it lets us know that we are still a church in the process of autonomy.
This process manages to shape a church laid out and sustained based on an open mission tailored to the needs of the people, because "our program is given to us by Christ, because he is the right hand of God."