Given current separations from the denomination and questions about the future for those who stay, The United Methodist Church is in a time of reconsidering what it means to be connected as a church. Therefore, past reflections by two former Methodist Bishops - Aldo Etchegoyen of the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina and Emerito Nacpil of the UMC in the Philippines - on the relationship between connectionalism and autonomy struck me (David) as once again relevant, especially for the question of how remaining United Methodists should relate across national and continental boundaries.
Bishop Etchegoyen, writing in 1997 in "Connectionality and Autonomy" in The Ecumenical Implications of the Discussions of "The Global Nature of The United Methodist Church" rooted the concept of connectionalism not in Methodist history but in theological principles: "We believe in a connectional God who has moved outside himself to create all things. God's creation is a connectional phenomenon in which earth, sun and water serve the plants, the flowers and the fruits, as also the animals and humanity." "The opposite of connectionalism," he continued, "is separation." (p. 163)
Therefore, Etchegoyen wrote, "We cannot speak of connectionality and autonomy in the same breath. Each of these terms excludes the other. I believe this contradiction has done us much harm." (p. 164)
In contrast, he proposed, "I am defending a connectionality with responsibility in which each church may take account of its own identity, may be able to perform its own government but at the same time may show clearly its historical, theological and ecclesial unity, which we already have. On the opposite side of this conception is the dangerous possibility of falling into an irresponsible autonomy of which we have several examples. ...
"We must come to a moment when we will not be autonomous churches seeking to express our connectionality, but connectional churches on an equal footing. This, by no means signifies a leap backward into the past, but rather a leap forward in search of a new situation in which we can truly express our genuine connectionality in service of life, in maturity and in coherence with the Gospel. A connectionality that surges up from our national roots and is enriched by the diversity of world Methodism in the setting of the great ecumenical family." (p. 165)
Bishop Nacpil, in a 1994 Episcopal Address entitled "Developing a Truly Global Church," contained in The Secularity of the Word, Vol. III of A Spirituality that Secularizes, took up similar themes:
"The vision of a global church relates or links autonomy and connectionality organically and essentially. In a global church one cannot have the one without the other. They mutually entail each other in a global vision." (p. 440)
Speaking in the context of Filipino debates over voting to become autonomous, he continued:
"Connectionalism connects the local and the global. Connectionalism does not stop connecting one local church with another church within a nation which is what a purely autonomous structure will do! It goes on connecting with all the local churches of the one global United Methodist Church which is what globalization seeks to do. Moreover, it does not only connect one local church to another local church, but the local to the global and the global to the local. That is to say: between parts and whole and between the whole and its parts! Connectionalism entails globalization. And there cannot be globalization without some form of connectionalism which is expressed locally with autonomy. But autonomy alone restricted by national boundary cannot and can never be global and connectional!" (p. 450)
After commenting on a then-current plan for restructuring the UMC along lines similar to those proposed in the present-day Christmas Covenant, he concludes, "One can see that connectionality starts from the charge conference and moves vertically and horizontally through annual, regional, and general conference levels. Autonomy also is exercised from the local, annual, regional, and general levels within the framework of global connectionality."
While the two use the term autonomy differently, what both bishops argue for is an understanding of Methodism that entails local and national decision-making alongside international connection. One is making that argument from within the UMC and one from outside its formal structures, but both believe such a balance of local freedom and international connection is essential to Methodism.
Such a vision is relevant both as The United Methodist Church considers how to structure itself going forward and as it considers how to relate to historically-connected churches, such as those Methodist churches in Latin America and parts of Asia.