Monday, August 10, 2020

UMC Ecumenical Partnerships: Multilateral Partnerships

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

Last week, I wrote about the variety of one-to-one bilateral ecumenical partnerships in which The United Methodist Church is engaged. This week, I will share some information about the UMC’s multilateral partnerships, that is, the groups or consortia of which the UMC is a member along with several other denominations. Some of these are Methodist-specific. Some are more broadly ecumenical.

The multilateral Methodist group that jumps first to many people’s minds is the World Methodist Council (WMC). The UMC’s membership in the WMC is stipulated in ¶433.1 of the Book of Discipline. The WMC includes 72 distinct Methodist, Wesleyan, and historically related united/uniting denominations. Some of these denominations are nationally based and some are international. In the WMC’s listing of denominations, some regional bodies of international denominations are listed separately, so the cited number of members varies. There are some very small Methodist denominations around the world that are not members of the WMC, but it includes almost all of any significant size. This blog has produced maps of the members of the WMC.

The WMC originated as the Ecumenical Methodist Conference, first held in 1881. The Conference gave way to the Council in 1951. The WMC continues to host a conference every five years, along with working groups and other programming. The WMC has a number of related organizations, such as the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women, and programs, such as the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies, that further promote intra-Methodist collaboration, but these are all built upon the framework of the WMC.

The World Methodist Council, however, is not the only group that brings together multiple Methodist denominations. There are also regional groups separate from, though associated with, the WMC. The UMC participates (through Global Ministries) in the Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches in Latin American and Caribbean, or CIEMAL by its Spanish acronym. It participates (through the European central conferences) in the European Methodist Council. It participates (through the Philippines) in the Asian Methodist Council. Most, if not all, members of these regional groups are also members of the WMC, but the regional organizations allow for more regular meetings and closer collaboration on certain matters. CIEMAL and the European Methodist Council are particularly active.

In the United States, there are two further multilateral Methodist ecumenical partnerships in which the UMC participates. The Pan-Methodist Commission brings together the UMC and the five historically black Methodist denominations (the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Union American Methodist Episcopal and First African Union Methodist Protestant Churches). Although the AME, AME Zion, and CME are also international denominations, most of the work of the Pan-Methodist Commission is fairly US-focused. UMC membership is stipulated in ¶433.2 of the Book of Discipline.

The Wesleyan Holiness Connection brings together the UMC and historically related Wesleyan/Holiness denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Assemblies of God, Brethren in Christ Church, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Church of God in Christ, Church of God Ministries, Church of God - Cleveland, Church of the Nazarene, Free Methodist Church, Grace Communion International, International Pentecostal Holiness Church, Shield of Faith, The Evangelical Church, The Foursquare Church, The Salvation Army, and the Wesleyan Church. Most of the work of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection is US-focused, but it does have regional networks in the Philippines, UK, and Brazil. The UMC tends to be a minor participant in this group.

The UMC is also a part of a number of broadly ecumenical partnerships with denominations beyond the Methodist family. Many of these take the form of “Councils of Churches.” The UMC is, as required by Book of Discipline ¶434.3, a member of World Council of Churches. The World Council of Churches brings together Protestant, Orthodox, and indigenous churches from around the world and is one of the most significant international ecumenical bodies.

The Book of Discipline indicates in ¶434.2.a that the UMC will be a members of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, a group of Protestant and Orthodox denominations. ¶434.1 requires that the UMC be a part of Churches Uniting in Christ, another US-based ecumenical organization of predominantly white and predominantly black mainline denominations seeking to “live into unity.” ¶434.2.c directs the UMC to seek observer status in the National Association of Evangelicals, the main ecumenical body of evangelical denominations in the United States. Many, though not all, US Annual Conferences are also members of statewide councils of churches, though that is not addressed in the Book of Discipline.

¶434.2.b leaves open the possibility that the UMC may be part of other national councils of churches, at the discretion of leaders of the UMC in those countries. The Council of Bishops has identified at least seven other countries where the UMC is part of national councils of churches, as well as the All-Africa Conference of Churches, Christian Conference of Asia, and several Europe-wide bodies, but this may not be a complete list. The difference between official recognition of US-based ecumenical relationships and the lack of awareness of ecumenical relationships in other countries should be noted as another example of the denomination’s US-centric nature.

There are numerous other ecumenical partnerships in which parts of the UMC participate. These include those focused on work on a particular topic (for example, Religions for Peace International), to programmatic bodies supported by multiple denominations (for example, Church World Service), to groups for ecumenical dialogue (for example, the Global Christian Forum), to regional bodies (for example, European Methodist Youth and Children). I will not attempt a comprehensive list here, though readers can find more information on the Council of Bishops’ website.

The thing to keep in mind about all of these multilateral ecumenical partnerships is that they do not necessarily imply close, direct collaboration between any two given member denominations. Often, the UMC will send one person or a handful of people to conferences or other meetings that may happen as infrequently as once every 5-10 years. This sort of arrangement does not yield close relationships.

Where these ecumenical partnerships tend to be more robust is those that involve ongoing cooperative work in which the UMC and other denominations meet frequently and each contribute resources. These sorts of partnerships work because they have active buy-in from boards, agencies, central conferences, annual conferences, or other units of the church designated to carry out programmatic activities. The downside of this sort of relationships is that other United Methodists outside of these units of the church tend to be uninvolved and often unaware of these partnerships. That problem may not be entirely solvable, but through greater exchange of information, awareness can be increased.

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