By Rich Peck*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)–– The United Methodist Church is likely to continue its decades-long struggle to define the relationship between churches in the United States and congregations in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The 2012 General Conference, top legislative body of the United Methodist Church, asked the Connectional Table to work with other denominational groups to propose legislation to the 2016 General Conference that might clarify relationships. The Connectional Table is responsible for coordinating the denomination’s ministry and resources across general agencies
Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area provided a history of those international relationships to members of the Connectional Table, meeting Nov. l8-20 at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. Streiff is also the chair of the denomination’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters.
In 1880, the Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the predecessor denominations of The United Methodist Church, first used the term “central conference” in relation to churches in other nations. That term continues to be used today.
The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church were planning to merge in 1968. A member of the 1964-68 Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas said, “We are in reality not a world church in structure but an American church with overseas outposts… If we are to be a world church with a world mission, our structure must reflect our nature and task.”
Using nearly identical language, the 2008 General Conference tried to replace the term “central conference” with “regional conference,” but a proposed change in the constitution was not ratified by two-thirds of the voting members of annual (regional) conferences.
The 2012 General Conference asked the Connectional Table to take up the work of the Study Committee of the Worldwide Nature of the United Methodist Church.
Other groups involved in the discussions include the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the Committee on Faith and Order. Those groups were also asked to revise the denomination’s Social Principles so they would be truly global in nature and would include clear linkage to biblical and Wesleyan principles.
One of the recommendations under consideration is to propose that the U.S. church also be called a “central conference.” The proposal would allow the U.S. church to continue its five jurisdictions and permit central conferences outside the United States to do the same.
One of the small Connectional Table groups discussing the proposal suggested that each jurisdiction should be considered a separate central conference.
The Connectional Table will also be reviewing a proposal that some of the general agencies would be global and others, regional. Streiff noted that before 1984 only the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries was engaged in mission work outside of the United States. Today many of the general agencies have ministries in other nations.
The General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency, will also consider plans to reconfigure funds, so some are global and under the authority of General Conference and others are local and under the authority of a central conference. That group will also consider plans whereby economics within episcopal areas will be taken into account in determining bishops’ salaries.
*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. He now lives in Nashville.