Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: The Era of Political Independence and Church Autonomy

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 five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Questions of local relevance and trans-local connection and of connection and power within the church have played out for Methodists in three separate historical eras: the colonial mission era, the era of political independence and church autonomy, and the era of globalization and world Christianity.

The second era in which questions about local relevance and trans-local connection were fiercely debated was the era of political independence and church autonomy, beginning after World War II, but coming to its full force in the 1960s and early 1970s. In this era, the international structures—whether political or churchly—that had been established in the first era were critiqued as a form of dominance and, in some instances, dismantled.

In the secular context, this took the form of nationalism and decolonization leading to political independence for formerly colonized nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Leaders in politics and society critiqued the structures of European and American empires and the unjust exploitation and lack of self-determination that were a part of these structures.

The solution to this problem was seen as the creation of independent nations, a process that required developing a sense of nationhood within colonies, even when the boundary lines of those colonies cut across historic groupings of tribe and religion.

Thus, while nationalism rejected international connections through colonial systems, new nationalisms in the 1960s often bound people together across religion, culture, and ethnicity. Moreover, nationalist movements in one country drew inspiration from nationalist movements in other countries. There was an international edge to 1960s nationalism. While at times nationalism could result in violence or exclusion, commentators of the age spoke of “healthy” versus “unhealthy” forms of nationalism.

This push toward self-government was reflected in the church as well. Branches of Methodism outside the United States were not content to remain dominated by mostly American missionaries, an American mission board, American bishops, and an overwhelmingly American General Conference.

This same trend would impact British Methodism as well, along with other American expressions of Methodism such as the AME Church, AME Zion Church, Free Methodists, Wesleyan Church, and Nazarenes. The British responded to this movement by eventually granting autonomy to branches outside Britain associated with the British church’s mission agency. Other American denominations all made adjustments to their polities to ensure greater international equity within their structures.

For its part, the Methodist Church launched the Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas, or COSMOS, as it was called. COSMOS was charged with rethinking the relationship between Methodists in the United States and those elsewhere around the world. Through several quadrennia of study and international conferences in Green Lake, WI in 1966 and Atlantic City, NJ in 1970, COSMOS explored models of international connection and responded to requests for autonomy by branches of Methodism outside the United States.

COSMOS considered several possibilities for international structure: national autonomy for all branches of the church, continued central conference status for churches outside the United States, the creation of a central conference for the United States with corresponding changes to General Conference, and the creation of a worldwide council of Methodist Churches.

Ultimately, only the first two possibilities—autonomy or central conference status—were pursued, and COSMOS recommended its own disbanding in 1972. The Methodist Church/EUB Church merger in 1968 took away attention from COSMOS’ work, and other polity possibilities were seen as too difficult and costly. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is the successor to COSMOS.

When offered the choice of autonomy or central conference status, most branches of the church in Asia and all branches in Latin American requested autonomy from The Methodist Church or United Methodist Church between 1964 and 1980. For the Evangelical United Brethren tradition, autonomy and ecumenical merger were the expectation for branches outside the United States, though churches in Switzerland and Germany remained part of the newly created United Methodist Church in 1968.

In all countries, autonomy reflected a desire for greater local decision-making to ensure local relevance. In some countries, it also reflected a desire for greater ecumenical connection within that country. In all instances, conferences choosing autonomy were promised that connection with the UMC would continue after autonomy, both through the mission board and the bishops. The World Methodist Council also helped to foster on-going relationships between the newly autonomous churches and the remaining Methodist and then United Methodist Church.

While the focus of this time period was on questions of structure, including what autonomy meant for the ability to choose one’s own episcopal leadership and make decisions locally in one’s own conference, we must not forget other, more relational forms of connection that bound the church together.

As in the earlier era, missionaries, missionary writings, and mission funding continued as important forms of connection, especially after autonomy, though the number of missionaries deployed around the world began to decline, especially outside Africa. Students from outside the United States studying in the United States became an increasingly important form of international connection and relationship-building in this period, as did migrants to the United States following changes in US laws in 1965.

Theological exchange continued to happen through writings, including through the rise of new liberation and contextual theologies around the world. Such theological exchanges again illustrate the connection between means of local relevance and means of trans-local connection. Contextual theologies were developed for the sake of local relevance, but they also generated a great deal of international interest and discussion.

Despite such innovations in maintaining connection and local relevance, the failure of The Methodist Church and subsequently The United Methodist Church to really make changes to its structures of connection meant that, as in the earlier era, the church continued to be characterized by US dominance. Formal, structural connection meant control by US United Methodists. The General Conference, Judicial Council, and Council of Bishops all continued to be controlled by US Americans. The United States continued to set the pattern and the agenda for the denomination, and the church in other areas could perhaps adapt or adjust as they saw fit.

Central conferences did slowly win increased powers of adaptation, but the range of officially recognized adaptation was still small. Moreover, the church continued to operate with a center-periphery style of thinking in which the church in the United States was the center, and all other branches were peripheral.

The next post will look at the era of globalization and world Christianity.

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