One-third of the membership of The United Methodist Church now lives outside the United States. But the denomination’s structure remains decidedly centered both in and on the United States itself.
How to respond to the new global reality was the topic of a panel discussion during the Oct. 8-11 annual meeting of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
This was the lead in a recent article from UMNS on the latest meeting of the General Board of Global Ministries. Scott Brewer, director of research for GCFA, reviewed the latest membership statistics in the attempt to argue for a single standard for counting members throughout the world wide church.
More interesting, however, are the petitions being sent to General Conference 2008 regarding how to identify the divisions in the church:
Rena Yocom, a consultant for the Board of Global Ministries, noted that petitions submitted by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table would replace the term “central conference” with “regional conference.” The denomination’s central conferences are groupings of annual conferences outside the United States.
There also is discussion that the United States might become a regional conference. Such changes require a constitutional amendment, which has to be passed by two-thirds of the denomination’s annual conferences.
This raises some interesting issues. First, if the U.S. were to become a regional conference on par with the current Central Conference, would we be given the flexibility that the Central Conferences have to create our own U.S. specific Book of Discipline. Most UM’s today don’t recognize that the Central Conferences have been given the flexibility to produce their own culturally specific Discipline, some of which have provisions that would probably fly in the face of American cultural standards (the one from the Congo offering suggestions on how to treat one’s multiple wives is the best example). As it stands today, Central Conference delegates have full voice and vote on the formation of the Book of Discipline that members in the United States function under, however members from the U.S. have no input into the Discipline’s that the Central Conferences function under.
Secondly, why do we need to create a new designation of “regional conference?” Instead, why don’t we simply fold the Central Conferences into our current language and practice of “jurisdictions,” with each Central Conference becoming another jurisdiction. These jurisdictional boundaries could be determined by a number of factors, and would maintain their current right to elect Bishops within their jurisdiction.
Finally, in what I know is anathema to some, I wonder if we don’t need to engage in a long conversation regarding the nature of what it means to be a global church, and whether that is preferable to encouraging autonomous regional expressions of Methodism joined together in a union not unlike the Anglican Communion. I find myself afraid that the current structure we are proposing is in fact a remnant of colonialism, and would create a system by which the ones with the money end up controlling those who don’t.
This was addressed at some level my Bishop Carcaño:
Relationships with autonomous Methodist denominations also are being considered. United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño spoke with directors about continuing and deepening ties with the independent Methodist churches in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Latin American/Caribbean Methodists regret that the autonomy they received “did not have more flexibility” to allow for unity, the bishop said. In fact, she added, being autonomous “stands in direct conflict” with Methodism’s connectional identity and the concept of being one in Christ.
I respectfully disagree with Bishop Carcaño on this. Unity in the Body of Christ does not depend on functional or administrative connections. Unity in the Body of Christ is created through mutual belief and respect, recognizing that all have unique callings which contribute to the entire universal Body of Christ. Likewise, I would suggest that the Methodist Church of Great Britain would believe that we are connectional together even though we don’t maintain direct administrative ties. Bishop Carcaño seems to be to be confusing the political structure of the church with the theological reality of what unifies us — a belief in the transformative power of Jesus Christ, and a common heritage focused around the Wesleyan balance of personal piety and social holiness. Before I could be convinced of the points that Bishop Carcaño is trying to make, I would need a deeper explanation of how the lack of “flexibility” stood in opposition to unity.
What does it mean for you to be a part of a Global Church? Is the great hope expressed in “the success” of our mission around the world simply a last minute grasp for help in a denomination that is struggling in the country in which it was founded, or are there benefits to global relationships? If we are to be a global church, are we then ready to spend the resources needed to make that a reality through hosting General Conferences overseas, investing in more effective translation services, and using technological means to create deeper connections throughout the world? Is the notion of being a global church simply a slogan that sounds nice, but something that we really aren’t ready to spend our money on?
Finally, is there something we should be learning from the current divisions in the Anglican Communion as we continue to attempt to be more global in nature?