Wednesday, March 23, 2022

What now? Europe Caught Between Crises

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the third in a series examining issues in The United Methodist Church following the further postponement of General Conference to 2024. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Having looked last week at the implications of the postponement of General Conference on African United Methodists, this week I will look at Europe. The context of European United Methodism is complex and varied, as this recent summary of Methodism in Europe put forward by European United Methodists makes clear.

Relative to the main focus of division within The United Methodist Church presently, there are differing views and laws on homosexuality between Western and Eastern Europe. However, views on sexuality are not the only salient part of United Methodist identity in Europe. Instead, there are multiple cross-cutting forces that pull European United Methodists, especially those in Eastern Europe, in different directions.

European United Methodists in all countries are a small minority defined against both largely secular societies and dominant churches from other traditions. In the face of such religious pressures, connections across countries have historically been important in Europe. This was even more true under Communist rule in Eastern Europe, and the emphasis on connectionalism is sustained not just by the machinery of United Methodist polity but by shared ministries and educational endeavors.

This tradition of shared ministry also recognizes Eastern European United Methodism’s financial dependence on Western European United Methodism. The church in most of Eastern Europe is not financially self-sustaining, and the sorts of social witness in which the church is engaged, including ministry with the Roma and other marginalized people, relies on monetary contributions from Western Europeans.

Based on the history of the Iron Curtain, United Methodists (and others) in Eastern Europe fear Russian domination. Therefore, even prior to the Russian invasion, the Ukraine Moldova Provisional Annual Conference had requested to withdraw from the Eurasia Episcopal Area, not because of distaste for Bishop Khegay personally but because of political realities that made being supervised from Russia difficult.

Thus, there are real differences in opinions on sexuality between Western and Eastern European United Methodisms, but there are also religious, connectional, financial, and (for countries other than Russia) political reasons why links between East and West are important.

Given that situation, Europeans have been discussing the future of the UMC in Europe even before General Conference 2019. General Conference 2019, however, certainly intensified questions about that future, with different parts of the European Central Conferences reacting differently.

Three of the four European bishops (Rückert, Alsted, and Streiff) have supported continued connection, though Bishops Alsted and Streiff have also announced their intention to retire. Bishop Khegay has previously indicated that his episcopal area would join the Global Methodist Church.

In May of last year, the bishops worked with other European leaders to lay out a timeline for moving forward as European United Methodists. How that timeline will be impacted by the further delay of General Conference remains to be seen.

Following General Conference 2019, the Germans rejected the Traditional Plan and formed a process of roundtables to discern a system by which the UMC in Germany (German initials: EmK) could remain united, despite internal disagreements on sexuality. That roundtable’s work has been completed, leading to affirmation of removing discriminatory language from the German Book of Discipline and creating a league for traditionalist Germans to support one another. This plan has been ratified by the central conference executive committee, but it has not been affirmed by vote of the Central Conference, which has not yet met due to the delay in General Conference meeting. The further delay in General Conference raises questions about whether German United Methodists will want to convene their central conference to ratify the roundtable’s work.

Both the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference and the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area also announced similar roundtable processes. The work of those roundtables has not progressed as far as the German roundtable, and that work remains ongoing. These roundtables have been complicated by greater variation within those areas of Europe than within Germany.

In the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania have indicated that they may withdraw and join the new Global Methodist Church. However, Eastern Europe WCA leader and Bulgarian District Superintendent Daniel Topalski acknowledged in a WCA podcast all the factors outlined above that make the question of the future of The United Methodist Church in Eastern Europe a complicated one. He also indicated a distrust common across Europe of being treated as an afterthought by Americans making plans for the church’s future. Topalski will be wrapping up his time as district superintendent soon, though he will undoubtedly remain influential in Bulgaria and beyond.

On top of all these layers of complication, the war in Ukraine has added a new dimension of complexity. The war has further cemented Eastern European distrust of Russia (and therefore opposition to ecclesiastic leadership based in Russia). It has made connections between the church in Russia and any Western branch of Methodism—UMC or Global Methodist Church—much more politically fraught for Russian Methodists. And it has galvanized the connectional system so that European United Methodists across countries are working together to respond in generosity and compassion to Ukrainian refugees and other Ukrainians impacted by the war.

Due to the context of complicated religious, cultural, and political factors, a church split in the UMC was never going to be easy for European United Methodists. The timing of the split, coinciding with the war in Ukraine, has made it even worse. Many important questions – about central conference meetings, episcopal elections, roundtable processes, and decisions to stay UMC or leave for the Global Methodist Church – remain up in the air. But unlike American United Methodists, European United Methodists are currently confronted with something much more pressing than church politics: the largest war in their continent in 80 years.

1 comment:

  1. David, an excellent discussion. I’m in Norway currently on sabbatical and I think you point out well that profound secularism and current Ukrainian crisis as essential to understanding the European response to disfunction of the UMC in the USA. For me these observances have been critical as well.I’m left wondering if attempts to divide the church are a result of American privilege and extravagance, a wasteful misuse of our abundant resources. The worldwide diversity of the UMC is truly a precious gift, I hope we can find ways to preserve that.