Monday, May 9, 2022

Robert Hunt: Methodism Unraveling

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert A. Hunt. Rev. Dr. Hunt is Director of Global Theological Education and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. This post was originally published on Hunt's blog, The Crossroads of Christianity and Culture, and is republished here with permission.

Polity will never give you unity.

The current United Methodist polity is in crisis, the result of a failure to adopt to emerging global realities. The General Conference is once again delayed, congregations are departing, and denominational finances continue to fall. Most importantly, in the very practical matters of institutional maintenance we face unprecedented hurtles:

Methodism was born on the cusp of the creation of the current international order. As it grew beyond England and the United States, its polities reflected that order, with an organization based on both emerging national boundaries and the essentially colonial nature of the new order. The structures of the American Methodist church were fundamentally colonial, with ecclesial colonies (mission annual conferences within larger mission central conferences) managed by American bishops, run by American missionaries, and reporting to the General Conference funded and dominated by the United States.

The long end of the colonial era offered American Methodists two choices for continuing as a world wide organization. The first would be to develop into a kind of commonwealth of autonomous national Methodist churches related by a common heritage, pledged to mutual support, and engaged when possible in common missions. Such a structure fit well into a decolonizing world, even if it would have its own difficulties related to financing the newly autonomous national churches.

All of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia followed this pattern, and annual conferences became autonomous affiliated national Methodist churches. These churches have thrived, formed their own associations and cooperative ministries, and generally enjoyed the fruit of independence while remaining affiliated with the Methodist and then United Methodist Church.

However, the American Methodist church didn't require or encourage autonomy, and some Methodist central conferences chose to remain part of the Methodist Church and its successor, the UMC. They would elect their own bishops and appoint their own clergy, but remain dependent for both their polity and their funding on the UMC structures, with only minor changes possible. Churches in the Philippines, Europe, and Africa went this route.

There were reasons. In the European social setting, isolation from an international church polity invited being dismissed as a mere sect. You needed to be historical and international to be taken seriously. In the Philippines, long ties to the US of many types, not least a common language (English) for those with a tertiary education and patterns of migration, made staying part of the UMC seem a natural choice.

(The entire story of the complex formation of the central conferences can be found at:

Yet these central conferences (with the possible exception of the Philippines) possessed neither national nor cultural integrity. They were international without having ever been national; multi-cultural without ever having had a culture of their own. And in Africa they were intermixed with autonomous Methodist churches out of a British Methodist tradition.

Most importantly, as the report on episcopal elections above makes clear, they remained financially dependent on US funding for every aspect of not just ministry, but organization. United Methodist business would always be international business and conducted at the same great expense and uncertainty as international business. The COVID pandemic has made this clear.

As Europe rebounded after WWII, European Methodists were largely able to fund themselves. Exceptions in Eastern Europe remained, but stronger Western European economies and the formation of the EU made the European central conferences a more organic expression of unity than in Africa. It also gave them far greater autonomy vis-a-vis the United States.

Africa -- Here we see the real fallout of the failure to create autonomous national Methodist churches. It is almost perfectly characterized by this map. Only the Congo Central Conference possesses national integrity, and that spread over a geographical and cultural area 1/3rd the size of the continental United States. While French is the language of government, there are four other national languages and 400 spoken.

The other African central conferences are each a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-cultural hodgepodge lacking geographical integrity or a common history. What unites them is the fiat of organizational convenience, funding by American Methodists, and the rubric of a global United Methodist Church. These central conference structures possess no organic relationship to their pastors, congregations, and people.

Small wonder then, that with the combined crisis of division within the UMC and the COVID pandemic they are becoming organizationally dysfunctional. And look what happens when they don't function! An American bishop has to be brought in to supervise (in name at least) peoples and congregations he scarcely knows. Colonialism redux.

The idea of a global UMC was misconstrued, based on the false understanding that polity creates unity.

Polity will never give you unity.

As we see even within the US, a common Discipline binds no hearts together and works only so long, and no longer, as it provides political and financial benefit to those who embrace it. When the money and power are gone, and even before, those who can leave, will.

As the UMC now unravels, we are beginning to see what really makes for unity: long established relationships of cooperation and mutual love that manage to transcend and make room for theological disagreement. The unity of the Methodist movement will depend on these, not an outdated and untenable polity held together by American dollars.

Instead of clinging to an unworkable "global" structure we should instead work, at whatever institutional level we are able, to establish real patterns of co-working and cooperation among those of the Methodist tradition.

The General Conference will face the hard task of restructuring the UMC in a way that is financially and organizationally tenable. The recent Christmas Covenant plan offered by the central conferences is certainly a good start, particularly since it comes from those most affected by disunity, most in need of better solutions, and most desirous to build real partnership across differences.

But while we wait for the General Conference, we do not need to wait to build Methodist unity. That must be rebuilt from the bottom up, seeking joint projects and more intimate institutional relationships than can be either managed or even supported by General Conference agencies.

In theological education, where I have been involved for 40 years in both autonomous national Methodist churches and the central conferences, the need is clear. Instead of ad-hoc admission of "foreign students," US seminaries should seek direct partnerships with leaders of United Methodist seminaries in the central conferences to both strengthen those local seminaries and craft the kinds of degree programs and admission standards that best serve particular churches and regions.

The era of a "global" UMC is ending. Let us pray that an era of genuine Methodist unity will begin.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Robert, for the keen appraisal of the history of polity decisions that colonized rather than globalized the UMC mission relationships.

    I have been pondering whether the Christmas Conference proposal for moving forward will adequately address the issues of underperformance and financial dependence that dominate the history of central conferences, especially in Africa. As you point out, the unilaterally imposed membership/boundary lines of the African central conferences have introduced language, ethnic and cultural barriers to building cohesion. Only the European colonizers protecting their acquisitions by drawing national boundaries at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference have contributed more to the political disharmony that reigns across the continent.

    The African central conferences are “conferences” in name only. Because they only meet quadrennially, at the expense of General Church funds, with a single aim of blessing the selections of candidates for bishops from the receiving episcopal areas, their purpose is basically duplicitous. Issues like resetting boundaries for the growing annual conferences are sometimes addressed as needed. However the independent Congo Central Conference was created solely by General Conference action, not the Africa Central Conference where the imitating authority resides. There is an agreed upon protocol not to engage in the internal issues of the member conferences or to exercise accountability from the elected bishops as evident in the lingering case of East Africa Bishop Wandabula’s alleged fiscal irregularities by the Africa Central Conference.

    Autonomy remains the favored juridical alternative to the worn out colonial central conference model. When the African bishops communicated their decision to retain their standing central conference status to the reform oriented Commission on the Status of Methodism Over Seas in 1968, they recognized the need for more independent decision making authority while asking for more time to accomplish the financial security needed to successfully function independently. Have fifty plus years changed that opinion? Voices of African UMs are being raised about colonial behaviors exhibited by traditionalists in the denomination seeking supporters for their separation agenda. But not so bold in affirming self determining autonomy. They need not look afar to find indications of successful functioning autonomous churches. British Methodist founded churches that embraced autonomy and the indigenous African Independent Churches make that statement in every place on the continent where UMs still prefer compromising linkages to church structures abroad.

    Not to be discouraged, you offer an alternative proposal favoring new program initiatives to polity reform for realizing the global nature of the beloved community. Cooperative ventures, north and south, in exploring cutting edge experiences in theological dialogue, leadership development, missional engagement, spiritual nurture sounds inviting! Employing the communications technologies that the pandemic has taught us about crossing boundaries, should make the possibilities abound. Initiating models for successful development will require a spirit of mutuality and partnership. Seminaries with a history of disciplined study and cooperation would certainly be a good start. Popular short term voluntary mission movements with a history of unilateral initiatives might not.

    Some final thoughts. If a pattern of global reform through program not polity is the aim, need the engagement be limited to the fraternal Wesleyan heritage? Could it become a new beginning for ecumenism where the truly global reach of the witness of the Christian community is recognized and credible?