A World-Wide Church?
During the 2009 Florida Annual Conference, members will be voting on a large number of amendments to the constitution of The United Methodist Church ( the constitution is on pages 21-39 of the 2008 Book of Discipline, Paragraphs 1-61). Many of the amendments pertain to a general proposal that The United Methodist Church become structurally a world-wide Church. The amendments would mandate a new structure in which the General Conference would consist of delegates from regional conferences, and the Church in the United States would be represented by delegates from a regional conference. In other words, the annual conferences in the United States would no longer be represented directly by delegates to the General Conference, but they would be represented by delegates of a new regional conference in the United States. (Presently, annual conferences outside the United States in Africa, Europe and the Philippines constitute central conferences, which would be called regional conferences if the constitutional amendments are approved.)
The amendments have already been approved by a two-thirds majority of the 2008 General Conference, and they come to the members of all annual conferences as recommendations. The amendments will have to be approved by two-thirds of the aggregate votes of members in all of the annual conferences.
The proposal to become structurally a world-wide Church is a major change in the philosophy of The United Methodist Church and its predecessors. Our philosophy up until now has been to encourage United Methodists to form autonomous Methodist churches which may choose to have a formal affiliation with The United Methodist Church. There are 26 autonomous Methodist churches and 4 united churches (churches which consist of a union of several Protestant denominations, including Methodist churches) which have an affliation with The United Methodist Church. Methodists in Latin America and in Asia, except for the Philippines, formed autonomous churches in the middle of the 20th century. The reason why our Church has encouraged the development of autonomous churches is because autonomy frees the churches to be idigenous to their national, social and cultural context.
Why has this philosophy not been implemented lately? Beginning in 1972, the General Conference has given more freedom to central conferences and encouraged greater participation of central conference representatives in boards and agencies. Because of greater inclusion, United Methodists outside the United States feel more at home in the Church and think of it as more of a world-wide Church than an American Church.
It is my personal guess that United Methodists outside the United States favor the proposal. They view the Church as being a world-wide Church, but they think that making the structural change will create equality among United Methodists around the world. It would enable them to better overcome perceptions in their own regions that The United Methodist Church is an American Church with "colonial" outposts. Some of them are not interested in autonomy since they believe that they will be stronger to accomplish their mission if they remain a part of The United Methodist Church. If this proposal is not affirmed, then many United Methodists outside the United States, particularly in Africa, will feel hurt by the refusal of the Church to create a structure that is based upon equality.
Many people want to understand the practical implications for approving amendments to the constitution. The fact is that the General Conference has not yet considered a specific plan for a new structure. Efforts are underway to begin to study a new structure for approval by the 2012 General Conference. The reason why the 2008 General Conference adopted the amendments without a plan of structure is because it would not be wise to invest time, money and energy into working on a plan of structure without, at least, adoption of constitutional changes by the General Conference. A two-thirds majority vote for the amendments at the General Conference provided some justification for investing in the development of a plan for a new structure.
People have many different perspectives about this proposal. Some are excited about the vision of a Protestant Church becoming intentionally a world-wide Church. Some question the ability of our Church to really function effectively with many languages and situations across the globe, especially with boards and agencies trying to serve all parts of the Church equally. Some think it is good to trust the process and approve a specific plan of structure later. Some think it is not wise to approve amendments to the constitution without having a plan for a new structure consistent with the spirit and content of the amendments. Some dream of autonomous Methodist churches one day re-uniting with The United Methodist Church as a world-wide Church. Others worry about harm to ecumenical relationships throughout the world if a world-wide United Methodist Church is involved in new ways in areas where there are other Methodist churches.
There is always a debate going on in our Church about certain controversial subjects, such as how the Church should view the practice of same-sex relationships. It is no surprise that this controversy affects the way that "progressives" and "conservatives" approach this proposal for a structure of a world-wide Church. Some progressives oppose the proposal because they think that it smacks of "globalization" and a culturally imperialistic attitude by United Methodists in America. Some conservatives oppose the proposal because they fear that it is a Trojan Horse for letting each regional conference adopt its own discipline regarding same-sex relationships and other issues such as gambling, etc. Some progressives favor the proposal because they think that it will bring equality to sectors of the Church and enable the Church to deal with cultural issues in their own national or continental context. Some conservatives favor the proposal because the present concept assumes that only the General Conference will make decisions on doctrine and discipline, and a world-wide General Conference will be more conservative on issues such as same-sex relationships than is the present General Conference.
For the record, as I understand it, the present proposal is that the General Conference is the body that would determine doctrine and discipline. However,I also assume changes could be made in the process of adopting a specific plan of structure. Moreover, if the proposal is approved, it is likely that the General Conference will have to revise the Social Principles since they are quite related to only the American context in many ways, and the process of revision will provide another opportunity to debate controversial matters. One way or another, I am sure we will debate familiar controversies as we vote in annual conferences on the amendments and at General Conference on a plan of structure, if the amendments are approved.
I know that many persons feel some frustration because there is no one who can answer all their questions, such as how the Church would be re-structured, how it will be financed, and how much freedom regarding matters of discipine will be permitted to the regional conferences. All that can be asked of any member is prayerful consideration of the issues involved and a vote according to one's conscience. I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church during this season of decision-making regarding the consitutional amendments.