Connectional Table Considers Church's 'Global Character'
By the Rev. Kathy Noble*
VARNA, Bulgaria (UMNS) - United Methodists claim to be part of a "global church," but what does that phrase mean? How can international relationships be enhanced so that the church will be more effective in carrying out its mission?
The Connectional Table, the 60-member forum created by the 2004 General Conference to set and guide the direction of denomination's mission and ministries, discussed these and similar questions at its April 27-May 1 meeting. The meeting marked the first time the body met outside the United States.
Bishops and Connectional Table members from the United Methodist Church's central conferences - groups of annual (regional) conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines - joined the Rev. Robert J. Harman in plenary sessions that fueled group conversations. Harman is a former staff executive with the church's Board of Global Ministries.
Bishop John Hopkins of the Ohio East Area, forum chairman, said the discussion would be part of the table's contribution to conversation at the 2008 General Conference.
United Methodists find it easy to discuss what they enjoy in connectional relationships, but some issues are avoided, Harman said. Those include the impact of membership growth, especially in Africa; a deeper understanding of the need for inclusiveness; how partnerships are to be developed; and pleas to be in solidarity with the suffering.
Bishop Patrick Streiff, leader of the church in Central and Southern Europe, addressed membership growth in some of the central conferences. He said he experienced a "culture of openness (and) hospitality towards central conferences" when he was a first-time General Conference delegate in 1996 and a member of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
"But I will be very open and frank with you," he continued. "The central conference representation, which grows to 20 to 25 percent, may become a danger for you in the U.S. It's no more just a small minority. It's a powerful part of the church that has its needs, its interests, its challenges, what it wants to bring in."
Streiff said he feared the attitude of United Methodists in the United States would become one of asking, "Why do all these central conference people want to influence us in the U.S.?"
Global vs. regional concerns
"You, as a U.S. church, need a place to talk and discuss and decide on your U.S. matters, and you need that place where you are among yourselves as we have it in central conferences," he explained.He supported both "that global gathering where we bind each other together in what unites us as a connection" and regional gatherings "where each group, can address its own needs in order that the mission can best be done in its region." The global gathering was a reference to the General Conference, the highest legislative body of the denomination, which meets every four years.
Bishop Solito K. Toquero of the Philippines addressed the desire of United Methodists in that country to become an autonomous church."We say that we can be more mature if we become autonomous," Toquero said, "and, perhaps, work out some connection and interdependency not only with the United Methodist Church but with other Methodists all over the world. We want to become mature and work with the United Methodist Church in the U.S., not as a child but as someone who can stand on its own and then cooperate."
Connection is gift
United Methodists in Africa have no desire to become autonomous, said the Rev. Forbes Matonga, a Connectional Table member from Central Africa. The "connectional structure is one of the best things we offer to the Protestant world," he said.
"The real difficulty is (that) the structure of the central conferences is not working well, not really informing what we do," he said. Bishops are elected at central conference meetings, but "critical issues are not discussed," in part because of language barriers. "Maybe it would be ideal to devote some of the functions of the central conferences to annual conferences."
Bishop Hans Växby of the Eurasia Area told the body that he is "not a big believer in big restructuring" but does "believe in small incremental steps." He encouraged the denomination's Council on Finance and Administration to continue plans to include current statistics from the central conferences in reports, including The General Minutes. He also wanted to dispel the "myth that (central conferences) can adapt The Book of Discipline just as we want. We cannot. It's very limited." He said central conferences should "become contributors to general (apportioned) funds to be totally integrated into the one church we are." Matonga agreed. "Even if we are poor, we want to enjoy the spirit of giving. It is not good to always be on the receiving end."
"I want us to remain as a United Methodist Church and not develop into another World Methodist Council," Växby commented. "I want us to remain in one church, so when I go to Korea, when I go to Germany, when I go to U.S.A., I can go to my church."
Table members also discussed strengthening relationships with autonomous Methodist churches as well as with denominations that have Methodist and Wesleyan roots.
Need for sensitivity
At the April 27-May 1 meeting of the Connectional Table, the Rev. Robert Harman (right) speaks about "Our Global Character" as Bishop John Hopkins, chairman of the table, listens. The 56 members and staff of the Connectional Table discussed the global connection of the church, growth in the central conferences and what it means for the future of the denomination. The meeting marked the first time the forum, created by the 2004 General Conference, had met in one of the United Methodist Church's central conferences - regional units in Africa, Europe and Asia. Harman warned against thinking changes in church polity or structure will let the church live as a worldwide denomination. Central conferences, he said later, grew out of the 19th -century church structure as a way "of centering relationships to the (missionary) sending church, which was the North American church."
"The North American church is no longer the sending church. Mission belongs to the whole church," he added. He urged table members to listen to requests from the central conferences to "be a bit more sensitive to what is happening regionally, to have structures of integrity that can respond to the gospel in each place."
Matonga, Dora Washington of Jackson, Miss., and Kristina Gonzales of Seattle will present a summary of the conversation and learnings to the table's fall meeting for further discussion and possible action.
The Connectional Table also:
-Heard reports from Streiff, Växby and the Rev. Reiner Stahl, member from the Germany Central Conference, on churches in their areas.
-Heard the Rev. Ruby-Nell Estrella, district superintendent in Manila, Philippines, report that members who traveled there in January in response to human rights violations provided "a very good and significant expression of the global nature of the (church). Filipino brothers and sisters felt solidarity."
-Expanded the scope of the State of the Church report.
-Elected the Rev. Carl Schenck, St. Louis, as its treasurer.
-Recognized Bishop William Morris, who has served as interim general secretary for the Commission on United Methodist Men.
-Approved a three-phase process for assessing the work of each general agency for the current quadrennium, or four-year period of work.
During the gathering, members and guests experienced an evening of Bulgarian culture presented by the United Methodist Church of Varna and worshiped at area congregations.
The Connectional Table will next meet in October in Fort Worth, Texas.
*Noble is the editor of The Interpreter, the magazine that highlights mission and ministry in the United Methodist Church.