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. This piece originally appeared as a commentary on the United Methodist News Service site and is republished here with permission.
The war in Ukraine has brought renewed worldwide attention to Europe and, among United Methodists, to branches of The United Methodist Church there.
The denomination’s presence in Europe is small but significant, diverse and distinctive. It includes around 50,000 members across two dozen countries grouped into 20 annual conferences in four episcopal areas and three central conferences.
One of the important factors influencing both United Methodist responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and debates over the future of The United Methodist Church in Europe is a commitment among European United Methodists to connectionalism as a church principle, especially in the form of connections among Methodists within Europe.
Connectionalism is a fundamental theological and practical conviction for Methodists around the world, emphasizing that the church’s nature is primarily rooted in the connections among local congregations, not within local congregations themselves, and pointing to partnerships for collaboration in ministry, mission and mutual accountability.
Yet the history, context, structure and relationships among European United Methodists have given understandings of connectionalism in Europe a distinctive European spin. Given the centrality of connectionalism in how Europeans think about what it means to be Methodist and the importance of that principle for current developments in European Methodism, this piece will dive into the historical context that has shaped this emphasis on connectionalism in European United Methodism.
Intra-European Methodist connectionalism has its roots in the origins of continental Methodism. Given the multitude of countries and denominational traditions involved in the current shape of The United Methodist Church in Europe, it is not possible to recount all the details of the origins of Methodism in each European country. Repeatedly, though, Methodism spread to new places in Europe through the efforts of other Europeans. Europe is a continent largely self-evangelized when it comes to Methodism.
Some of those historic roots include British Methodist outreach to the continent in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. Another very significant set of European Methodist origins lie in the influence of Germans and Scandinavians who emigrated to the United States, encountered Methodism there, and then spread it back home, either through writing to relatives, sending missionaries back to their homelands or return emigration. The spread of Methodism through these transatlantic migrant networks meant that a strong, indigenous form of Methodism was established in Germany (through the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Association) and in Denmark, Norway and Sweden (through the Methodist Episcopal Church) in the middle of the 19th century.
From these bases in Germany and Scandinavia, Methodism spread to other areas of Europe, carried by European Methodists. It spread from Germany south to Switzerland and Austria and then east to Hungary and Serbia. It spread east from Scandinavia to Finland and then Russia and the Baltics (in the first wave of Methodism to appear in these areas, prior to the world wars). Even recently begun work in Albania and Croatia has its roots in connections to Germany.
This pattern stands in marked contrast to the development of The United Methodist Church in most other areas of the world, where the driving force was American missionaries sent out by missionary societies in the United States.
There are a few areas of Europe where American missionaries were important to establishing Methodism: the Methodist Episcopal Church began work in Italy, Bulgaria and what is now North Macedonia in the 19th century; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, began work in what was then Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1920s; and the post-Soviet extension of Methodism to Romania and revival of Methodism in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania was led largely by Americans, though Estonian Methodism also played a crucial part in the redevelopment of Methodism in Latvia and Lithuania.
Despite these few American counterexamples, the majority of European United Methodists live in areas where Methodism was first introduced by Europeans and developed through European initiative and European solidarity.
Already by the end of the 19th century, Europe had become such a missionary powerhouse within Methodism that European Methodists were not just carrying Methodism to other parts of Europe but around the world, working with missionaries from the United States and elsewhere to extend Methodism in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Europeans continue to serve as missionaries (or mission partners) in Asia, Africa and Latin America through both Global Ministries and European Methodist mission societies in Germany, Switzerland and Norway.
Although Methodism spread far throughout Europe, it never developed a large following, due in large part to social and political opposition from state churches (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox), which historically dominated Europe. Methodist preaching and gatherings were initially illegal in many places and frequently harassed in others. In this context, Methodism was one of the early forces pushing for religious freedom in many European countries. Beyond government policies, many individual Europeans looked at Methodism as a strange and unwelcome religious intruder. In light of this widespread political and social opposition to Methodism, connections among European Methodists gave them strength and succor, both at the beginning of European Methodism and still to this day.
For Methodists in Eastern Europe, the importance of such supportive connections only increased behind the Iron Curtain after World War II. In some places, such as Russia, communism wiped out Methodism. In other places, Methodism was barely able to hang on, despite government hostility, confiscation of buildings, harassment and other obstacles. Connections among European Methodists were an essential means of support for those Methodist congregations that were able to survive under communist rule.
European Methodism was thus largely born through intra-European connectionalism and sustained by intra-European connectionalism. It remains committed to intra-European connectionalism in a variety of forms today.
When many in the United States hear the term “connectionalism,” they think of structures created by United Methodist polity: conferences, agencies, apportionments and bishops. These structures exist in The United Methodist Church in Europe. Three central conferences bring together United Methodists from various national and cultural backgrounds. Various committees continue the work of those bodies between meetings. The bishops play a large role in coordinating within and across central conferences.
The structures of Methodist connectionalism extend beyond those listed in the Book of Discipline, though, and many of them embrace Methodists from other denominations. The European Methodist Council brings together multiple Methodist denominations and reflects ongoing important connections among United Methodists, British Methodists and Methodists elsewhere in Europe. The Methodist-related Theological Schools in Europe also operates interdenominationally, though the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry is a key supporter. Theological education through Reutlingen School of Theology and the Methodist e-Academy is another significant ministry that brings together mainly United Methodists from various national and cultural backgrounds.
The Fund for Mission in Europe is a major means by which European Methodists across countries and denominations cooperate to financially support the ongoing mission and evangelism work of fellow European Methodists. Through an annual list of projects, the fund collects donations from Methodists across Europe and distributes them to Methodist ministries in Europe. The latest project book emphasizes that the purpose of the fund is to “keep connected across national borders” and create “solidarity among Methodist churches in Europe.”
Beyond these formal ties, connectionalism subsides in the personal connections among European Methodists — both United Methodists and those from other Methodist denominations. These connections may be forged by joint participation in conferences, committees, mission work and theological education, but they are sustained as friendships, a sense of Christian sisterhood and brotherhood, and a shared identity among what is, in the end, a rather small group of people.
In recent years, migrants from around the world have added another layer to this sense of connectionalism as being about relationship and identity. As Methodists from elsewhere, especially from Africa, have moved to Europe as students and migrants, they have become connected to Methodist congregations there and even started some of their own. These students and migrants bring with them a sense that Methodism means something more than just polity structures. It is a fellowship that extends across geographic distance.
Connectionalism is deep in European Methodists’ roots and central to the European Methodist ethos today. It is a connectionalism that sustains a sense of common identity and theological discourse that crosses linguistic, cultural and national boundaries. It is a connectionalism that is closely tied to mission and to mutual support. It is a connectionalism that has thrived through regional initiative and independence.
Whatever forms European Methodism takes in coming years, it will carry this heritage of connectionalism with it. And for those willing to receive it, this understanding of connectionalism is a gift that European Methodists offer to their sisters and brothers elsewhere around the globe.