From Colonialism to Globalization: Global Governance in the UMC

“Global governance is dead,” declared Mark Holland, Executive Director of Mainstream UMC, in a recent blog post. He described a 30-year experiment in global governance within The United Methodist Church (UMC) and called for its end. Mainstream UMC is rightly concerned about the politics of globalization in the UMC. The history of this situation, however, is more complex than that Holland depicted in his support of regionalization. The UMC’s attempt to balance globalism and regionalism is rooted in a history of colonialism dating back to the nineteenth century.

Variations and adaptations of UMC polity among Central Conferences.

One of the major proposals to be considered at the April 2024 General Conference would allow the United States to hold its own regional conference and determine its own details of governance—a power already given to seven other regions of United Methodism around the world. According to the UMC’s Connectional Table, “The regionalization proposal aims to address what many United Methodists see as a longstanding problem limiting the denomination’s missional effectiveness—namely that the church in the U.S. and the central conferences have unequal standing in decision-making.”

What is this unequal standing? “Reference to a Central Conference, then called a Central Mission Conference, is found first in the Discipline of The Methodist Episcopal Church [MEC] in 1884” (Judicial Council Decision 155). Central Mission Conferences were encouraged to take initiative in education, publishing, and other activities, though “never in contravention of the book of Discipline or Rules of the General Conference.” Central Conference powers were expanded in 1924, giving them “power to make such changes and adaptations as the peculiar conditions on the fields concerned require”—as long as they adhered to the shared book of Discipline. In 1948, Central Conference powers were expanded yet again, allowing them to adapt the General Discipline of the church. A similar provision remains in the UMC constitution, allowing Central Conferences to adapt the laws and rules legislated by General Conference (UMC, Discipline 2016, ¶ 31.5).

Effectively, Methodist delegates from around the world could vote on legislation binding on Methodists in the United States but change that legislation once they returned to their home countries.

What began as an exception for a small minority of Methodists overseas now applies to the majority of the UMC.

How does privileging other countries relate to a history of colonialism? A resolution by the 1867 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church (from which Methodism arose) explained the relation of the “Mother-Church” to its overseas outposts:

That, in order to the binding of the Churches of our colonial empire and the missionary Churches beyond them in the closest union with the Mother-Church, . . .

United Methodism’s colonialist roots exposed! The resolution continued, “. . . it is necessary that they receive and maintain without alteration the standards of faith and doctrine as now in use in that Church. That, nevertheless, each province should have the right to make such adaptations and additions to the services of the Church as its peculiar circumstances may require.” The exceptional status of Central Conferences in the UMC is a direct lineage from the British colonial empire and its “Mother-Church.”

The effect and reality of this asymmetrical arrangement of power remain, despite near-continuous studies of Central Conference relations to the US church since 1948. United Methodists in central conferences, located in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, now outnumber those in the United States.

For this and other reckonings within the UMC, see my forthcoming book, Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church (Cascade, spring 2024).