Autonomy, international division mark United Methodist tradition

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Key points:

  • The recent move by the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference to leave United Methodism, along with the creation of the Global Methodist Church, shine a spotlight on the history of autonomy in the United Methodist tradition.
  • A review of that history shows that there are no exact analogies for what the church is currently experiencing.
  • The process of international division is likely to be unpredictable, and existing church processes may not be well suited to the purpose.

“Our World, Our Parish” is a series of commentaries for UM News. UM News is the official news agency of The United Methodist Church. Graphic by UM News. 
Dr. David W. Scott. Photo © Hector Amador. 
Dr. David W. Scott.
Photo © Hector Amador.

Commentaries

UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

In April, the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church upon its launch on May 1.

This action created a disagreement with Bishop Patrick Streiff, the bishop of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, over the proper procedure for the Bulgarians and Romanians to leave The United Methodist Church.

While Bulgarian leaders claimed authority to make such a decision via conference vote alone, Bishop Streiff pointed to Book of Discipline Paragraph 572 as laying out the proper and only means by which an annual conference within the central conferences can leave The United Methodist Church.

Paragraph 572 spells out the process by which a portion of the church outside the United States may become autonomous. Streiff's ruling of law, which references Paragraph 572, is now up for review by the Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church's top court. In the meantime, the Council of Bishops has voted to affirm Streiff’s ruling.

This current debate and its implications for the ongoing process of denominational division have piqued interest in Paragraph 572 and the history of church autonomy in the United Methodist tradition. What branches of Methodism outside the United States have become autonomous, and why? Yet as a review of the history of autonomy shows, there are no easy analogies for the present situation.

The very first example of an international branch of a predecessor to The United Methodist Church becoming autonomous is the Methodist Church in Japan in 1907.

At the time, the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Canadian Methodist Church all conducted mission work in Japan. Japanese church leaders and missionaries came to agree that the divisions between the three churches were not relevant in Japan. Autonomy allowed the three different missions to separate from their home denominations and unite with one another as a new church. The new Japan Methodist Church continued to maintain collaborative relationships with the three denominations from which it was birthed — a trend that would continue in subsequent instances of Methodist autonomy.

The motivation of autonomy for the sake of intra-Methodist merger was repeated in 1930 in Korea and Mexico. In both instances, the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South, supported mission work in the same country. That mission work had grown, developed indigenous leadership, and had taken on increasing internal structure. While those two U.S. denominations were at the time in talks to merge, local leaders and missionaries agreed that it made sense for the branches of the church in Korea not to wait for the U.S. church but instead to separate from the U.S. church and unite with one another. The same decision was reached in Mexico.

In later years, especially in the 1960s, this impulse to seek autonomy for the sake of local merger would extend beyond the Methodist tradition. In Belgium, Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Pakistan and Spain, in Evangelical United Brethren work in the Philippines, and most recently in Sweden in 2012, branches of The Methodist Church, the Evangelical United Brethren Church or The United Methodist Church outside the United States decided to separate from international (and predominantly U.S.-based) denominations for the sake of local ecumenical merger with Christian churches from other Protestant traditions.

If the desire for ecumenical merger represents one major impetus toward autonomy, the desire or need for local independence represents the other major force for autonomy. The first such instance was the decision by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to grant autonomy to its mission work in Brazil, a decision also made in 1930. Methodists in Brazil and the United States agreed that the Brazilian church would flourish better if able to make more of its own decisions locally, though the process by which the general church acted to establish an autonomous Brazilian Methodist Church received mixed reactions in Brazil. At issue was the desire among Brazilians for some sort of continued connection with Methodists in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in the United States.

In the mid-20th century, the push for local decision-making was often entangled with the desire or need to be seen, for political reasons, as separate from Western-dominated church structures. Countries around the world were throwing off the shackles of colonialism, and this extended to the church as well. Churches desired more autonomy from Western decision-making structures or found that they needed such autonomy to escape local political suspicion. As in Brazil, this did not mean Methodists wanted a complete cessation of ties to U.S.-based denominations, and negotiations over the specific form of continued connection were sometimes contested.

This push for national independence kicked off a great wave of autonomous Methodist churches branching off from The Methodist Church, the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The United Methodist Church, especially in Latin America and Asia. This wave began in The Methodist Church in 1964 with Myanmar and Indonesia.

As part of the 1968 merger that created The United Methodist Church, all conferences of the Evangelical United Brethren Church outside the United States became autonomous, though the churches in Sierra Leone and Nigeria have subsequently rejoined The United Methodist Church.

Many national branches of The Methodist Church became autonomous in 1966, 1968 and 1972, including Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Malaysia and Singapore, Peru, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Panama and Taiwan. This wave continued through the autonomy of the Methodist Church in India in 1980 up to the autonomy of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico in 1992.

The current disciplinary provisions for conferences outside the United States to become autonomous date to this era. While affiliated autonomous churches were first recognized in The Methodist Church’s 1940 Book of Discipline, a regular process for becoming an affiliated autonomous church was not added until 1964. What is now Paragraph 572 was added to accommodate either local ecumenical mergers or moves to national autonomy, but its origins are in the era of postcolonial rethinking of what sorts of international relations should characterize Methodism.

The challenge in applying Paragraph 572 to the current situation of international division between The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church is that the separation is neither a local ecumenical merger nor a move toward national independence. This does not mean that Paragraph 572 cannot or should not be applied in the current situation. That is a question for the Judicial Council and other denominational leaders to sort out. It does mean that historical moves toward autonomy are poor analogies for the sort of situation in which the church now finds itself.

If there are no good analogies for the division between The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church in the history of autonomy, neither are there many good analogies in the history of denominational division. As has been widely noted by other commentators, there are plenty of precedents for denominational division in the Methodist tradition. However, almost all the examples frequently cited are limited to the United States. They were not international divisions of an international church.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Methodist Protestant Church all separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church before it operated missions outside the United States.

When the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Free Methodist Church split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination’s foreign mission work stayed with the Methodist Episcopal Church, though each of these new denominations would go on to develop their own foreign mission work. When the United Evangelical Church split from the Evangelical Association in 1891, existing denominational foreign mission work stayed with the Evangelical Association, though again the United Evangelical Church quickly established international work of its own.

To these American splits, one could add a history of denominational divisions in other countries, a process that continues to the present. Church splits in the Philippines, Chile, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and elsewhere are also part of the heritage of division in the United Methodist tradition. Yet these splits occurred within a single country and were not international in scope. Therefore, they are also limited as historical analogies.

The only denominational split of which I am aware in which church members in more than one country had to choose which side to take was the 1889 split in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, which originated in the United States but extended to mission work in Sierra Leone and China. This case certainly deserves additional attention, but there is not space to expand on it here.

To say that there are no good historical precedents for the sort of international division that The United Methodist Church is beginning to undergo does not mean that such division is impossible. The recent decision of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference shows that an international division of The United Methodist Church is not only possible, it is already happening.

What the lack of historical precedents does mean is that the process of international division is likely to be unpredictable, and existing processes and polity provisions may not be well suited to the purpose. Polity is a system of rules, and rules are predicated on an assumption of regularity. Unprecedented circumstances, whether those are a global pandemic or an international church split, challenge existing polity precisely because they are irregular and therefore do not fit within existing practices and procedures.

Therefore, leaders in all parts of The United Methodist Church will be challenged to think creatively about how best to respond to situations for which there are no provisions in existing church law and very few historical models to guide them.

Scott is the director of mission theology in the Office of the General Secretary at United Methodist Global Ministries.

News contact: Joey Butler or Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday (weekly) Digests.


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