Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The Central Conferences and Current UMC Politics

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.

United Methodists are anxiously waiting this week to learn whether General Conference will meet this year in August, or whether it will be again postponed until 2024. The Commission on General Conference met last Thursday to make a decision and promised an announcement within a week.

As we wait, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how recent events have revealed the ways in which United Methodists from the central conferences have become central to current UMC politics.

The basic question behind whether General Conference will happen this year or not is whether Central Conference delegates can participate in sufficient numbers to make a 2022 General Conference a acceptably representative body for the church as a whole.

While there are differences of opinion as to how much participation is necessary and how to best facilitate that participation, pretty much all voices in the debate about General Conference recognize that at this point in the denomination's development, it is impossible to fairly make decisions without the inclusion of United Methodists from outside the United States. The central conferences are a crucial part of the UMC's body politic.

Whenever the General Conference does meet again, one of the major pieces of legislation it will consider is the Christmas Covenant. This legislative package, designed to regionalize the governance of The United Methodist Church, was developed and submitted by United Methodists from outside the United States. It is the first major legislation in the denomination to originate in this way.

Whatever the fate of the Christmas Covenant legislation will be, it is a sign that United Methodists from outside the United States are committed to shaping the agenda of the denomination, not just content to comment on an agenda developed by groups within the United States.

Recent debates about both whether to hold General Conference and the legislation before it have revealed a diversity of opinions among General Conference delegates from outside the United States. United Methodists from Africa both decried and lauded the WCA's vaccine mandate. United Methodists from Africa, the Philippines, and Europe wrote and signed on to letters both asking for General Conference to be held and asking for it to be delayed. United Methodists from around the world have spoken for and against the Protocol and the Christmas Covenant.

It's not just that Europeans have different opinions than Africans. There are differences within regions too. The Africa Initiative and the Africa Voice of Unity have different opinions. Not all Nigerians agree on the church's future. There are diversities of opinions across continents, between countries, and within national branches of the UMC.

United Methodists from the central conferences are not just raising a voice within the denomination; they are raising many voices, which are saying a variety of things about what the denomination should do and be. Indeed, the diversity of positions taken by United Methodists around the world show the fallacy of referring to "the central conferences" as a single entity (as this article admittedly does).

All of these developments represent a departure for The United Methodist Church. For decades, United Methodists outside the United States were an afterthought for those within the United States.

Then, when US United Methodists began to recognize the significance of General Conference delegates from the central conferences, they frequently treated those delegates as votes to be wrangled on whatever US-defined matters were before the General Conference. Too often, these votes were also seen as a bloc, or at least delegates from each continent were viewed as a bloc. How will Africans vote on such-and-such an issue, US United Methodists wondered?

Recent developments have shown that the time in which US United Methodists can think in this way is over. Not only do such views betray colonialist attitudes and assumptions on the part of US United Methodists, they do not reflect the realities of the denomination as it now is. United Methodists from Africa, the Philippines, and Europe are asserting their views and shaping debates about the denomination, as they should.

These are necessary developments. For a variety of theological, ethical, practical, and demographic reasons, the United Methodist Church can no longer afford to be a US-dominated denomination. It must learn to live into a new reality as a multinational, multicultural entity with a variety of contributions and perspectives from around the world shaping it.

Fortunately for us all, United Methodists from the central conferences--that is, from many countries and cultures in Africa, from throughout the Philippines, from a variety of contexts in Europe--are leading the way into this future.

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