Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Is the UMC really global? An important book ...

Several weeks ago I was sitting in my living room with an amiable British guest, a Methodist pastor visiting from England. His mood changed, however, when I happened to mention the decision of the Methodist Church of Cote d'Ivoire to become part of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The Protestant Methodist Church of Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) had historically been affiliated with British Methodism. As a result of the efforts of British Methodism to move beyond colonialist models of Christianity, the Cote d'Ivoire Methodist Church became locally governed and autonomous in 1963.

Several years ago leaders of the Cote d'Ivoire denomination approached the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the United Methodist Church to explore the possibility of affiliating with the UMC. During General Conference in Pittsburgh last May, the million members of the Cote d'Ivoire church officially became United Methodists and the UMC grew, in one day, from a 10 million-member denomination to an 11 million-member church. See "Cote d'Ivoire denomination joins United Methodist Church."

My British friend was incensed about this and felt that the General Board of Global Ministry was undermining decades of efforts by British Methodists to reverse the negative effects of colonialism and their work to promote independence and self-determination within the African churches. "This is nothing more than 'rice Christianity'," my friend thundered. The terms "rice Christians" and "rice Christianity" refer to the horrendous practice of forcing people to convert to Christianity in India during the famine of 1837 when Christian missionaries gave starving people rice to eat only if they agreed to be baptized. My British friend was suggesting that the decision of the autonomous Methodists of Cote d'Ivorie to become an Annual Conference of the UMC, and part of the West Africa Central Conference, was motivated by financial benefits that might accrue to them as a result of this affiliation.

This conversation is one reason I recently stopped by my local Cokesbury store to pick up a copy of Bruce Robbin's book A World Parish? Hopes and Challenges of the United Methodist Church in a Global Setting published last year by Abingdon Press.

Robbins, former head of the UMC Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, has written an amazingly frank book about a topic that is one of the most difficult to talk about within the United Methodist Church: the relationship between U.S. United Methodists and United Methodists in other parts of the world who are organized into Central Conferences. (Central Conferences -- there are currently seven -- are organizational units located only outside the United States. The relationship between General Conference, Central Conferences, and Annual Conferences is (how to put this?) peculiar; find information about "Conferences" and links to information about United Methodist organizational structures here).

A World Parish? is a short book -- 120 pages -- but it contains the only history of how Central Conferences came to exist I have ever come across. It also raises hard questions about our relationship with Methodists outside the United States, whether they are part of Central Conferences, autonomous Methodist churches, concordant churches, "Act of Covenanting" churches, churches formerly affiliated with British Methodism, or other member churches of the World Methodist Council. In the book's final chapter, Robbins proposes a new organizational structure for worldwide United Methodism that would balance the tension between the desire for both autonomy and interdependence. All throughout the book, he discusses "the elephant in the room" (as he calls it) of the financial disparity between rich U.S. United Methodists and impoverished (beyond our imaginations) Methodists in other parts of the world, and the way this disparity so often distorts the relationship between United Methodists in the U.S. and in the Central Conferences.

Here are a few of the important points Robbins makes:

1. We are not really a global church in any serious sense of the word. The Catholic Church is a global church, but United Methodism is what Robbins calls (based on a model developed by Janice Love) an "extended-national confessional" church. He defines this as "a particular doctrinal tradition embodied in members primarily in one country with additional churches in other nations or regions." (pp. 28-30)

2. The Central Conference structure, established in 1928, sought equality and empowered the younger churches in a way that was remarkable for its day, according to Robbins. But it has since remained impervious to modification or reform in spite of several major attempts to do so. There are some problems with the structure that we have failed to adequately discuss or address. Many of these have to do with the "elephant in the room" of the financial implications of the relationship.

3. Some Methodist churches, such as the churches of Brazil, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and others, have become either autonomous churches or affiliated autonomous churches. (Definitions of different relationships that autonomous churches might have and the implications for representation at General Conference can be found here.) These churches were promised that their relationship to the United Methodist Church would remain as strong as if they were still Central Conferences, including in the area of financial support. This has not happened, largely, I believe, for political reasons. Because the representation of Central Conferences at General Conference is much greater (in 2004, 184 of the 994 voting delegates or 18.5 percent were from Central Conferences) and because Central Conferences are represented on the governing bodies of UMC boards and agencies as well as on the Council of Bishops, Central Conferences have received significantly greater support from the UMC than other daughter/son churches. Frankly, this seems to me to be an unavoidable consequences of the greater degree of political power Central Conferences have within the denominational system compared to autonomous churches.

4. One example of the "elephant in the room" that Robbins puts on the table is the financial and other benefits to individuals that result from being part of Central Conference structures. Robbins is very frank in his discussion of the fact that the bishops of Central Conference churches are advocating that they be paid the same salary as U.S. bishops. This would seem fair; however, such salaries (paid entirely by U.S. funds since Central Conferences contribute no apportionments to the UMC) would make Central Conference bishops amazingly rich in their home economies. Even the opportunities for bishops and other Central Conference leaders to have expenses paid to travel to the United States to attend meetings and, thereby, to establish relationships with U.S. Methodists are very desirable benefits to people living in countries where people have exceeding low income and very few opportunities. As Robbins hints, it must be very difficult for Central Conference leaders not to be influenced by personal benefits when they make decisions that impact their people back home. He says that Central Conference leaders who have resisted changes in the status quo have been criticized back home. People back home have asked: "Concerning those who support the status quo, are they not the same people who have the opportunity to go to the United States and to take advantage of the opportunities created by the 'world church'?" U.S. United Methodists participating in discussions about possible changes in the status quo do not know what to do, Robbins says. "They (U.S. Methodist leaders) saw the impediments and the concern expressed by other parts of the world Church ... Yet they felt it most important to listen to the voices of the leadership who sat around the table with them. Otherwise, they would be exercising a paternalism far more concrete than the structural paternalism inherent in the present church structure. It was a conundrum that would pass from one General Conference to another up to the present day." (pp. 54-55)

5. One concrete and contemporary example of this unfortunate tension between the desire for both autonomy and interdependence is the Philippines. United Methodists in the Philippines are increasingly leaning toward a preference to become an autonomous Methodist church rather than remaining a Central Conference. (See a UMNS news story here and a GBGM analysis of Methodism in the Philippines here.) The Central Conference includes 19 Annual Conferences and, by current church rules, all 19 would have to vote to become autonomous. If even one conference fails to do so, the status quo remains in effect. (pp. 93-95)

6. One of the strangest quirks of the current arrangement is that Central Conference delegates to General Conference vote on the contents of two Books of Discipline. They vote on the version of the Book of Discipline that applies to the United States church, and then vote on a different version of the Book of Discipline that applies to their particular Central Conference back home. As a group that collectively controls 18.5 percent of the vote (this percentage is expected to increase in 2008), Central Conference delegates have a major influence on policies and practices that they themselves do not necessarily have to follow themselves. Another consequence of this strange rule is that U.S. United Methodists are the only group who do not get to vote on their own version of the Book of Disciple. (pp. 19-20)

Robbins' ultimate hope is that the UMC will move toward a new structure that will both maintain the connection with Central Conferences and repair the connection with autonomous daughter/son Methodist churches. The new structure would not be based on competition for scarce resources but a renewed commitment to mission and ministry. Everyone would contribute their apportionments based on their ability to do so. (There is something unhealthy about a portion of the church not having the opportunity to put their apportionments in the plate, no matter how numerically small their contriutions might turn out to be.) The new structure would respect the need for both self-determination and interdependence.

Robbin's basic proposal consists of a General Conference and Regional Conferences. General Conference would include members from all the annual conferences throughout the world. The work of General Conference would be to develop and maintain a common constitution, including the basic theological tenets and Methodist emphases shared by everyone, and to coordinate worldwide mission and ministry. Then, there would also be Regional Conferences, similar to Central Conferences today, except there would also be a Regional Conference, or perhaps more than one, within the United States. Each of the current U.S. Jurisdictional Conferences might become Regional Conferences, or there could be one U.S. Regional Conference (or any other combination). Each Regional Conference would have its own Book of Discipline (as the Central Conferences outside the United States do today) as long as the content was consistent with the Constitution agreed upon by General Conference.

For those of us who have dear friends within the Central Conferences, all this (especially financial matters) can make for awkward conversation. This very fact suggests there are aspects of the current structures that are not as healthy as they ought to be. Robbins deserves our gratitude for raising the issues so directly, openly, and frankly. Now all of us who love the United Methodist Church must prayerfully contemplate what it would mean to commit ourselves to be a truly global church.


Blogger John said...

Fine blog here. I'll be glad to add it to the Methodist Blogs Weekly Roundup at my blog, as well as my Methodist blogroll. The MBWR will be up every Monday.

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