Today’s post is jointly written by Rev. Dr. Kyle R. Tau, Ecumenical Staff Officer for the Council of Bishops, and Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology for Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are the authors’ own and do not reflect in any way the official positions of the Council of Bishops or Global Ministries.
The United Methodist Church is one of over 70 Methodist, Wesleyan, and United denominations around the world that have their roots in the Methodist movement beginning with John and Charles Wesley. These churches include traditionally African-American churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the AME Zion Church, holiness denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene and Free Methodist Church, united churches including former Methodists such as the Church of South India and the Uniting Church in Australia, and independent, nationally-based Methodist churches, most of which have a historic connection to either British or American Methodist mission.
The United Methodist Church continues to have on-going ministry partnerships with many churches in these last two categories that are based on historic ties. Many united churches and independent, nationally-based Methodist churches were once part of The United Methodist Church or its Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, Methodist, and Evangelical United Brethren predecessors.
Starting in 1909 and most recently in 2012, annual conferences outside the United States and occasionally entire central conferences have chosen (or have been pushed) to separate from The United Methodist Church and its predecessors. This has happened for a variety of reasons, including the desire for ecumenical mergers, local political pressures, and post-colonial impulses.
The Book of Discipline includes provisions whereby an annual conference outside the US or a central conference can, with approval by the General Conference, leave the denomination and become “autonomous,” a church polity term that means self-governing. All independent denominations are autonomous, but the process in the UMC and its predecessors often spoke of “granting autonomy” to departing portions of the church.
The Book of Discipline, however, also provides a variety of possibilities for on-going relationships between The United Methodist Church and separate Methodist denominations. Part of the process for an annual or central conference to become autonomous includes establishing the terms for such an on-going relationship. Yet there are also other relationships that can be established between the UMC and any other separate Methodist denomination.
The Council of Bishops and Global Ministries are both primary agents of The United Methodist Church in maintaining these ecumenical partnerships with our sibling denominations. These partnerships are in many cases vibrant collaborations that facilitate a great deal of joint mission and ministry. Both the Council of Bishops and Global Ministries value other Methodist denominations as essential mission partners.
The Book of Discipline uses a variety of language to describe these partner denominations, but much of that language has not been updated in decades, and in some places, it is unclear or no longer reflects the realities of 21st century global Christianity. Therefore, the Council of Bishops and Global Ministries have jointly proposed two resolutions to General Conference 2020 to update that language - Petition # 20651 (pp. 962-964 of ADCA) and Petition 20645 (pp. 991-992 of ADCA).
These two petitions work together to change the term “affiliated autonomous Methodist church” to simply “affiliated Methodist church” and to eliminate the term “autonomous Methodist church,” a term that presently does not have a clear meaning or function in the Book of Discipline. An explanation of both changes is in order.
By changing “affiliated autonomous Methodist church” to “affiliated Methodist church,” The United Methodist Church sends a signal to its partner denominations that what is important is our on-going mutual ministry, i.e., our affiliation, and not the status of those partners as previously subject to the General Conference, i.e., having been granted autonomy. We feel that to continue to emphasize the term “autonomous” in these relationships functions primarily to re-emphasize these denominations’ previous role in a system dominated by United Methodists in the United States. In this regard, the term feels outdated – a product of the de-colonization of the middle of the 20th century and not a reflection of the equality and mutuality that we hope will characterize relationships between The United Methodist Church and partner denominations in the 21st century.
The term “autonomous” is also unnecessary in the phrase “autonomous affiliated Methodist churches.” Affiliation already implies that the two parties are separate. We do not describe annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, or central conferences as “affiliated Methodist churches.” We reserve that language only for separate denominations. Since “affiliated” already implies separate, self-governing denominations, it is not necessary to repeat that implication by including the term “autonomous.”
The term “autonomous” is unnecessary for another reason – all denominations are autonomous, so it does not add any definitional clarity to the ecumenical relationships described in the Book of Discipline. This is a reason not only to remove it from the term “autonomous affiliated Methodist church” but to do away completely with the term “autonomous Methodist church.” That term does not have a clear and consistent meaning in the Book of Discipline, and in most instances can be either simply removed or can be replaced by more explicit references to other Methodist/Wesleyan churches.
In submitting these two petitions to General Conference, the Council of Bishops and Global Ministries hopes that these changes will create greater clarity about these valuable ecumenical relationships – greater clarity in the technical language of the Book of Discipline, but more importantly, greater clarity about the spirit of humility, equality, and partnership with which the UMC should engage other Methodist/Wesleyan denominations.