The Commission on a Way Forward has been worked to develop plans for a new way of structuring The United Methodist Church to preserve some degree of connection and shared ministry while accommodating different and at times fundamentally opposed views of homosexuality. The commission has indicated that their plan will likely entail a “loosening” of the current UMC connection.
Generally, this “loosening” of the connection has been assumed to imply separate groups (mini-denominations? semi-denominations?) in the United States under some sort of common umbrella. Chris Ritter has provided an analysis of what such a scenario could look like in the United States. Part of the debate currently seems to be over whether there will be two (conservative and progressive) or three (conservative, moderate, and progressive) such denominations.
All discussions that I have seen so far either ignore the question of what will happen to the Central Conferences under such a scenario or assume that the Central Conferences will continue as they currently exist while the US church splits apart (Chris’s piece, for instance, makes this assumption). Nevertheless, if the connection will change, it’s worthwhile to carefully examine the question of what the various central conferences might do in such a loosening of the connection.
This question of the impact of the Commission’s work on the central conferences includes not just the question of where various parts of the UMC stand on issues of sexuality, but also what sorts of changes in structure might be prompted globally by a period in which United Methodists are rethinking the nature of their connections to one another. The debate over homosexuality might be primarily American, but if the church is revamping its structures, that process can play out in different ways around the globe. It would be wrong to think that changes in the structure of the church in the US will not lead to any changes in the structure of the church elsewhere.
This post and a following one will give my attempt to analyze the possibilities. This post will examine Europe and the Philippines, while the following one will examine the three African central conferences.
Many assume that on the issue of sexuality, Europeans are progressive. This is because when Americans think of Europe, they tend to think of Western Europe and assume that the church has the same progressive views on sexuality as the majority of Western Europeans do. Both parts of this assumption, however, are not fully accurate.
It is true that some European Annual Conferences have progressive views on sexuality. The Denmark Annual Conference was one of two challenging the constitutionality of the Book of Disciple language on homosexuality. Yet, I have seen indications that French United Methodists are more conservative on this question than French society as a whole.
Moreover, within Europe, there is a significant divide between Western European and Eastern European views on homosexuality, both within society and within the church. The Estonia Annual Conference passed a resolution affirming marriage as between one man and one woman. Denmark and Estonia are in the same central conference and even the same episcopal area. Hence, significant differences of opinion on sexuality exist within Europe.
Yet to assume that homosexuality is the most pressing issue for the churches in Europe is to misunderstand them on a more fundamental level. The branches of the UMC in Europe are small and exist precariously in the shadow of various state churches. Connections to international United Methodists elsewhere are crucial for European UMs to legitimize their existence in their home contexts.
Because there are three central conferences in Europe, not all European United Methodists need take the same option. Nevertheless, connections amongst European United Methodists tend to be tight, especially between those from the Germany and Central and Southern Europe Central Conferences. Because of the importance of international connection for all European United Methodists, it is reasonable to expect the European Central Conferences to all choose a common path.
That path could, therefore, be the status quo. It could, however, also include the adoption of some sort of local option in Europe that would accommodate the differences of opinion that exist there. It could also include the formation of some sort of regional body that would unite the separate central conferences. Especially if their ties to the US and Africa are loosened, it may be more important for Europeans to strengthen ties with one another. Another version of this possibility would be for European United Methodists to strengthen ties with other European Methodists (British, Irish, Italian, etc.) to compensate for loosened ties with United Methodists elsewhere. Full union with other Methodist churches in Europe would be unlikely because of the amount of work involved, but there might be other forms of possible closer ties.
The Philippines are a single Central Conference with a great deal of cohesion as a central conference. The overlap between national and ecclesiastical borders reinforces a sense of Filipino United Methodism. There are several shared institutions and agencies that serve all parts of Filipino United Methodism. While in the US, it can be argued that annual conferences are the basic level of polity, in the Philippines, most of the programmatic activities of the church, which would be annual conference-level programs in the US, are organized at the episcopal area or central conference level. Certainly, there are ethnic and language differences among different groups of Filipino United Methodists, but the sense of solidarity among Filipino United Methodists is fairly high.
The majority of Filipinos are still generally conservative on the issue of homosexuality, but the Philippines has been willing to hold conversations about sexuality at which a range of viewpoints are represent. I don’t expect the Philippines to press for radical change in their own or any other United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality, but neither is homosexuality the presenting issue for debates about orthodoxy in the Philippines. United Methodism in the Philippines largely preserves an older strain of Methodism in which traditional theology with a revivalist twist goes hand in hand with a progressive stance on social issues such as poverty, indigenous rights, and the climate. Filipino United Methodism doesn’t experience the same sort of culture wars and theological wars that the US does.
Thus, the Philippines could likely be willing to continue on in their current arrangement as a central conference with the current BOD restrictions on sexuality. Another possibility, however, would be that a loosening of UMC connections might prompt the Philippines to become autonomous. The Philippines were the only branch of Asian Methodism that did not elect to become autonomous between 1964 and 1972. There have occasionally been pushes for autonomy since then, though they have never resulted in a vote in favor of autonomy. Nevertheless, if the UMC is rethinking its structure, that may present an occasion for Filipino Methodists to rethink their relation to the UMC.