Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the fourth 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 last national church to become autonomous as part of the second era indicated was the Methodist Church in India in 1980. One quadrennium later, the UMC would absorb formerly autonomous churches in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Burundi, symbolically ushering in the third era, that of globalization and world Christianity.
Secular globalization has its roots in the 1970s, further developed under the neoliberal policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and really came into its own as a concept and reality in the 1990s, promoting a wave of critique and backlash by the 2000s.
Definitions of globalization vary, but there is broad consensus that it reflects increasing connections in political, economic, technological, cultural, social, and religious matters. Globalization also entails increased movement of people, goods, money, and ideas around the world, movements that are made possible by new technologies.
Secular globalization has always had its critics, but promoters of globalization have seen it as ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity for all, based on spreading acceptance of free-market liberal democracy and human rights, made plausible by the collapse of Soviet communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Whatever its merits, the increased international connections that were part of globalization certainly ushered in a new awareness of the international sphere, an awareness that was reflected in the increased popularity of terms such as “global” and “multinational.” While globalization was a multinational phenomenon, the role of American power in shaping and promoting globalization must be acknowledged.
Within The United Methodist Church in the United States, this era saw an increased interest in the church outside the United States. The balance between autonomy and international structural connection swung back in the direction of structural connection. The UMC absorbed churches in not only Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Burundi, as mentioned, but also eventually Cote d’Ivoire. In the 1990s, United Methodists began new mission work in other countries for the first time in almost 70 years. That work included post-Soviet Russia and the Baltics, as well as Southeast Asia and other areas of the world.
Along with this renewed appetite for international expansion came growing numbers of members in African branches of the church that had long been part of the UMC. These two trends led to a new discussion of the “worldwide nature of the church” and what it meant to be a “global” denomination, a conversation launched at the 1992 General Conference.
Prior to this conversation, in the 1980s, some structural changes were made to allow for greater equality between US bishops and bishops in the central conferences and to allow the various agencies of the denomination to work internationally. GBHEM was the first additional agency granted authority by General Conference to work outside the United States, in 1984, a move which led to the founding of Africa University in 1992.
More sweeping changes, including the creation of some sort of regional structure for the United States, were put forward multiple times in the course of this work on the “global” or “worldwide” nature of the church. The 2008 General Conference, the same one that accepted Cote d’Ivoire into the UMC, adopted a series of amendments that would have accomplished such a restructuring, but the amendments were voted down at the annual conference level. Conservatives stoked fears that such a restructuring would allow for recognition of gay clergy in the United States, and such fears doomed the amendments.
As the number of missionaries declined and as funding shifted to prioritize the central conferences that continued in structural relationship with United Methodists in the United States, connections with autonomous churches atrophied. Autonomous churches were not absent from conversations about the worldwide nature of the church, but the focus of the conversation was clearly on the structural relationship between the church in the United States and the church in the central conferences.
As in previous eras, alongside these concerns for structural relationships, other means of connection fostered international relationships as well. As the boards became more international, they began to include United Methodists from more regions of the world in their membership.
Migration continued to be an important factor of connection and a key one in launching mission in Southeast Asia. The number of long-term missionaries declined, but the number of short-term mission participants from the United States skyrocketed, capitalizing on faster, cheaper, easier travel. Students from around the world continued to study in the United States, and new educational ventures such as Africa University and the Methodist e-Academy brought together students from across Africa and Europe, respectively.
American, and to a lesser extent, European money continued to create forms of connection and cooperation, and these connections were increasingly directly between annual conferences or churches rather than mediated through the boards and agencies. Writings drawing from the new academic field of world Christianity became a new way for United Methodists in the United States to understand their fellow United Methodists from elsewhere.
For all this increased interest in the worldwide nature of the church and these new initiatives in connecting the church, the church did not make significant advances towards connection without control. There was increasing talk of mutuality and decolonization, but there were little structural changes in how annual conferences (the basic units of the church) related to one another.
While United Methodists worked with other, autonomous Methodist churches to establish a new autonomous church in Cambodia, this did not prompt a larger conversation about the nature or value of autonomy in the church. As scholar Darryl Stephens has argued, although the number of members involved were similar, the joining of Cote d’Ivoire to The United Methodist Church did not provoke the same sort of rethinking of structure as the 1968 merger that created The United Methodist Church. The church in Cote d’Ivoire was absorbed into the UMC; it did not negotiate a merger.
The United States continued to set the parameters in terms of structure, funding, program, and focus for the denomination, with other areas adapting, often in an unofficial manner. Fears persisted in the church that adaptation might go too far and allow freedoms that were opposed by majorities at the General Conference, and thus the General Conference, with its US-dominated membership and its legislative and judicial processes based on US models, continued to be the central decision-making body for almost all major issues.
Yet, burdened by highly conflictual questions from the American context that had no other venue in which to be debated, General Conference itself struggled to function effectively as a decision-making body for an increasingly multicultural, multilingual, and international body.
Thus, the era of globalization and world Christianity saw the church struggle anew with questions about local relevance and trans-local connection, with questions about relationship and structure, but these questions were never satisfactorily resolved. In this regard, this era was similar to those that came before it. Even satisfactory answers to questions about local relevance and trans-local connection would need to be renegotiated anew in each new era.
For three subsequent eras, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have failed to really resolve such questions even within the context of that era. As we will talk more about in a few minutes, we are coming to a new era, and so the question remains: Will we do better in this new era than we have in the past?