The Reporter: Worldwide church raises "insurmountable' issues (June 19)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Worldwide church raises 'insurmountable' issues

Yap Kim Hao, Jun 19, 2008

Yap Kim Hao
By Yap Kim Hao
Special Contributor

It was a revealing experience for me to be in Fort Worth as a visitor at the United Methodist 2008 General Conference. I participated for the first time as an elected delegate from the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore in the General Conference in 1964. I attended as the first Asian bishop of the affiliated autonomous Methodist Church of Malaysia and Singapore until I resigned from the term episcopacy in 1973 to serve for 12 years as the General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia, which brought together the Christian denominations within Asia—including Australia and New Zealand—for fellowship, witness and service.

What was new for me in 2008 was the issue of homosexuality. I joined in the Common Witness as a Soulforce and Reconciling Ministries Network volunteer. The Silent Witness at the plenary was a memorable and moving experience for me, and it showed the increasing maturity of the delegates of the United Methodist churches in the United States. Hopefully the delegates, especially those from the Central Conferences, may be inspired by such a witness.

Worldwide nature

What was old for me was the discussion on the worldwide nature of the United Methodist Church. I was an active participant in the '60s in the Methodist Board of Missions Asia Consultation followed by the Global Consultation in Green Lake, Wis., which brought together the other regional consultations in Africa and Latin America. It was sponsored by the Commission of the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS).

The significant outcome of that consultation was the wide support for the move toward the structure of affiliated autonomous Methodist Churches overseas. The move was implemented in the Methodist Churches throughout Latin America and of Asia, with the exception of the Philippines. Other Methodist churches in Asia, which were the result of the work of the missionary society of British Methodism, had followed its policy of setting up autonomous churches earlier.

Looking at this development from the Asian perspective, the countries in Asia that were colonies of the United Kingdom entered into the period of de-colonization. The rise of independent nation-states came about with the disintegration of the British Empire. (British Methodism had also set free the Methodist Churches in the American colonies after the War of Independence).

For political reasons, the Methodist Churches in Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia and Burma have had to cut off connections at times with the United Methodist Church in the U.S. Foreign connections were detrimental to the development of Christianity.

The forces of history brought about the autonomous Methodist Churches throughout Asia with the exception of the Philippines. We have developed new relationships with one another that went beyond our previously exclusive connections with London and New York. We recognize now that close neighbors are more meaningful than distant relations.

A Fellowship of Asian Methodist Bishops/Presidents has since evolved into the Asian Methodist Council. The council recognizes the sovereignty of each member and restricts itself to common issues of witness and service.

Regarding the current discussion of the United Methodist Church's worldwide nature, it is highly unlikely that the affiliated autonomous Methodist Churches will desire to be re-integrated into the denomination's General Conference structure. It is more likely that we will welcome the partnership with the United Methodist Church on specific issues and programs of witness and service that are mutually beneficial.

It will be a relationship of mutuality without the past dominance of American Methodism over the other former Central Conference churches, even though they may change their names to Regional Conferences.

In re-structuring the United Methodist Church, what would be acceptable to the present Philippines Central Conference as well as other affiliated autonomous churches in Asia? What is the formula for representation at General Conference? Can we develop a rationale for disproportionate representation?

Questions to consider

How do we measure the apportionment from the churches in the different Regional Conferences? What is the level of participation in the Episcopal Fund? How do we support the enlarged General Conference budget, which will require convening in different parts of the United Methodist Church around the world?

To me, it seems these are insurmountable questions that defy answers.

The reality is that we have a different world today. Methodism responded to the colonial and post-colonial period. But in this time of globalization, what does it mean to develop a worldwide nature of the church?

Those who command resources and power will continue to dominate others who have less. Is the United Methodist Church in a position to develop a more equitable connection and mutually beneficial relations? This will call for affirmation of diversities and a commitment to change from its privileged status. Is there a willingness to learn from other already established Methodist Churches and an openness to partner with one another on an equal basis in witness and service?

It seems to me that the time has passed for the Methodist Churches in Asia to come together under one governance of one General Conference, either in the projected United Methodist General Conference or the Asian region. General Conferences in each country in Asia will continue to exist and develop connections not only with the United Methodist Church but with other churches in pursuit of our common mission and service in the world.

The Rev Yap is a former bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.