Archives for March 2018

Big Picture Status of United Methodism – Part III (Europe/Asia)

Students from Wesley Divinity Seminary, Wesleyan University, flash smiles and signs of affirmation during a march and rally in Quezon City, Philippines. Photo by SJ Earl Canlas and Jimuel Mari.

Over the last several weeks of Perspective, I have been surveying the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The statistical report is available here. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. In Part 1, I went into more detail about Africa. Two weeks ago, I surveyed the situation in the United States.

Rounding out our big picture look at the denomination, our attention turns to Europe and Asia. Observers of membership statistics will notice a dramatic dip in the Philippines from 216,300 in 2015 to 140,235 in 2016. That represents more than one-third drop in membership.

According to sources in the Philippines, the difference does not reflect a sudden one-year decline in membership but is due in part to more rigorous attention to accuracy that began several years ago (not solely due to the change in reporting requirements instituted by the 2016 General Conference).

As it stands, the current membership of United Methodism in The Philippines is roughly equivalent to the size of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference or Upper New York or Alabama-West Florida.

There are three episcopal areas within the Philippines Central Conference. The northern area (Baguio) consists of nine annual conferences averaging 7,200 members each, ranging in size from 2,800 to 16,750 members. This area lost 14,750 members or 20 percent of its membership. The central area (Manila) consists of 12 annual conferences averaging 5,600 members each and ranging from 966 to 14,800 members. This area lost 65,600 members or 50 percent of its membership. The southern area (Davao) consists of five annual conferences averaging 2,575 members each and ranging from 1,260 to 4,560 members. This area gained over 1,200 members for a growth of nearly 11 percent. This growth came despite being in an area beset by a violent Islamic insurgency (Mindanao).

Paradoxically, even with this loss of membership, the Philippines will gain delegates in the 2020 General Conference. They added a new annual conference for 2016 and another one in 2020, so they have gone from 48 delegates in 2012 to 52 in 2020. (Each of the 26 annual conferences is entitled to a minimum of two delegates to General Conference.) The Philippines has considered breaking off from The United Methodist Church in the past and becoming an autonomous Methodist church (similar to the Methodist churches in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America). Their future course of action will depend upon the outcome of the 2019 General Conference.

The most exciting development in Asia is the growth of mission work in Southeast Asia, currently under the supervision of the Bishop of Texas, Scott Jones. These areas have not yet formed into annual conferences, but are moving toward that point over the next several years. There are over 300 churches in Vietnam, 100 in Laos, and over 150 in Cambodia. They face obstacles in working with the government, hostility to foreigners, and in some cases even religious persecution. But these areas are growing, and most will seek to maintain a relationship with The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Christhard Elle leads an outdoor worship service in northern Germany. Photo courtesy of World Methodist Council.

The three European regions lost about 5,500 members, or 9.3 percent of their membership. All the European and Central Asian annual conferences are tiny. The Germany episcopal area is the oldest and largest of the three European areas. It has three annual conferences ranging from 6,400 to 15,500 members. The Germany annual conferences lost 2,000 members or 6 percent of their membership. The Central and Southern Europe area has seven annual conferences, four of which are provisional and not fully able to stand on their own. They range in membership from 468 to 6,763 members, with the largest being Switzerland-France-North Africa. This area lost 2,200 members or over 14 percent of their membership. The Northern Europe and Eurasia area has ten annual conferences, five of which are provisional. They range in number from 174 to 4,237 members, with the largest being Norway. This area lost 1,300 members or 12 percent of their membership.

It is important to remember that the European and Central Asian annual conferences are subject to adverse political conditions, ranging from the armed conflict in Ukraine to religious repression in Russia and Muslim countries. The churches and conferences there are very fragile, and they are likely to be affected more severely by whatever course of action is adopted by the 2019 General Conference. They experience theological differences between more conservative areas and more liberal areas, but have been able to continue working together because of their small size and need for each other. This dynamic could change, depending upon the outcome of the 2019 General Conference.

All of the parts of the UM Church outside the U.S. are striving to become more financially self-supporting. Some parts of Europe and the Philippines have contributed to the global work of the church for many years. Other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa are just beginning to make those contributions. Many have helped to support their own bishop and annual conference expenses, while not being fully self-sufficient. Their desire is to move in that direction, which led to the 2016 General Conference assigning apportionments to the churches outside the U.S. for the first time, based on a formula that takes into account economic conditions and membership.

The move toward self-support is not an attempt to marginalize United Methodists outside the U.S. (as I have heard some people worry). Instead, it is a desire to build their capacity, so that they can fully support the work of their churches and extend that work in their own countries and around the world.

One of the gifts for me to be a member of the Commission on a Way Forward has been to learn from members from other countries and to learn about their challenges and victories. The United Methodist Church is the only mainline Protestant denomination that is a truly global church, having members who serve equally from more than 50 countries in the world. I believe that can be a real strength of our church and help us to broaden our understanding of the Christian faith. Our brothers and sisters can teach us ways to grow our faith and our churches in an adverse environment (which many of them are experiencing). Awareness of our global Methodism can strengthen our church and give us a foretaste of heaven, where there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

What the Bishops’ Meeting Means 

Social media is all abuzz in the aftermath of the Council of Bishops meeting that ended Wednesday. The special four-day meeting was called to enable further discussion of the Commission on a Way Forward report – updating and refining two of the three options it had previously presented to the bishops. In a press release [link] and news story [link], we learned further details about the way forward the bishops are envisioning.

This meeting marked the most extensive and frank discussions the bishops have ever had on the issue of the church’s ministry to and with LGBT persons. It is disturbing that such discussions really did not begin until the church was on the brink of separation in 2016. It is good that these conversations are finally taking place.

The two options currently under consideration by the bishops are:

* A One Church Contextual model that is a repackaging of the local option. Under this plan, the language around marriage and homosexuality would be removed from the Book of Discipline. Each annual conference would be able to decide whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary and whether to receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination would not be required to do so. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.

* Multi-Branch in One Church model that envisions the creation of three new branches based on theology, one progressive, one traditional, and one following the local option approach. These branches would replace the current five geographical jurisdictions and would each cover the entire United States. The current central conferences outside the U.S. could form their own branches or could join one of the three theological branches. The traditional branch would maintain the current stance prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination, with robust accountability within that branch. Other branches could modify or remove the language prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination in their branches. All the branches would share a few common services and agencies, and there would still be one Council of Bishops. Each annual conference would decide which branch to belong to, and only those local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s choice would need to vote to join a different branch. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.

This means that the bishops are no longer considering the possible model that would have kept the language on marriage and homosexuality in the Discipline the same, with enhanced accountability to ensure that bishops and annual conferences live by the Discipline. Under this sketch, annual conferences and local churches that could not live by the current Discipline would be encouraged to exit the denomination under generous terms.

It is not surprising that the accountability model is not being considered, since more than half of the bishops favor changing the Book of Discipline’s position to allow same-sex weddings and ordination. For the bishops, the accountability model is too much like separation, and their overriding value is unity.

For the same reasons, it is not surprising that the rhetoric coming from the Council president and other bishops is weighted toward the One Church Contextual model. This fits the desire of many bishops to change the Discipline and still stay together in one church. They cannot comprehend that many evangelicals could not continue in a denomination that condones what the Bible calls sinful behavior. And they believe that somehow the local option plan can pass the special General Conference, even though it failed in the past three General Conferences.

So what does all of this mean for the way forward for our church? The short answer is: not much. Regardless of what plan or plans the bishops put forward, other plans will be on the table to be considered at the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. It is not the bishops who will decide the way forward, but the General Conference delegates. A plan for keeping the Discipline the same with enhanced accountability, or a plan incorporating those features, is likely to be put forward despite the bishops’ disapproval. The Council of Bishops has a fairly low influence on U.S. delegates, due to the high level of distrust for the Council, despite the individual regard some delegates have for their own bishop. It is highly unlikely that evangelical delegates in Africa, the Philippines, and Eurasia will vote to change the position of our church, even if it is said that such a change would not affect them.

From my perspective, it is not time for traditional evangelicals to bail out of the United Methodist Church. Nothing has been decided, and the power remains in the hands of the General Conference delegates. We had hoped that the Council of Bishops would present a plan that evangelicals could support. It now looks more likely that will not happen. But for 50 years evangelicals have operated at a disadvantage, and the Lord has enabled our biblically based position that welcomes and loves LGBT persons while teaching against sinful behavior to prevail. We expect that to continue. And if not, we believe that Jesus Christ is still on the throne, and he will guide us into a way in which we can remain faithful. What he asks of us is to stand strongly on his Word and remain faithful.

Please continue to pray for the bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and for Good News and the other renewal groups, as we all seek to discern the faithful way forward for our church.