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Committee Examines Ties with Latin American/Caribbean Methodists

by Linda Bloom

United Methodists need to have stronger connections with independent Methodist churches in Latin America and the Caribbean.

That’s the premise underlying a special committee created by the 2004 United Methodist General Conference to study the denomination’s relationship with autonomous churches in the region. Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Phoenix is the committee chairperson.

“No one is satisfied with where the relationships are at the moment,” said the Rev. Sam Dixon, a Board of Global Ministries executive who serves as staff for the committee.

The Rev. Aida Fernandez, a Board of Global Ministries director from Lawrence, Mass., serving on the committee, believes its efforts “may help to heal some broken relationships.”

A proposal to the United Methodist Connectional Table -- submitted by the Rev. R. Randy Day, the Board of Global Ministries’ chief executive, in collaboration with the Rev. Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity -- established a time table and process for the committee to follow.

Bishops Carcaño, Joel Martinez and Ann Sherer supported the proposal. A grant of $68,700 was approved to fund its work.

“The aim of this work is to engage in conversations about the future of our relationships,” Pickens told United Methodist News Service. “This is another opportunity for the United Methodist Church to address the global and ecumenical nature of our communion.”

He acknowledged the “explosive church growth” in the region. “It is clear that Latin America and the Caribbean are growing in their significance in the ecumenical world,” he said, adding that socio-political and environmental issues “beckon our advocacy and voice as the church responds to justice concerns in the region.”

Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen of Argentina said he considers the study committee “a very positive step toward a greater unity” and appreciates the fact that committee members represent all aspects of the work that needs to be done.

“We are living in a dynamic time in which new challenges and opportunities constantly open up before us, particularly in relationship to the care for life and human dignity in the midst of so much violence,” the bishop added.

“We have a merciful God who calls us to transform the world and society by following a path of mercy and love. We can face this great challenge on the pathway toward our unity in a much better way without the boundaries that mark North and South, East and West. And our unity must not forget our diversity. Jesus Christ has already given us unity. All we have to do is live it.”

As outlined in the proposal, the study will find additional ways to engage the autonomous churches with General Conference; suggest ways for autonomous churches to relate to United Methodist boards and agencies; provide representation on the United Methodist Council of Bishops and invite Latin American and Caribbean Methodists to participate more fully in world mission and resource-sharing.

So far, the study committee has reviewed the history of the relationships with the various churches, according to Dixon. “A lot of time and discussion has been about the localized decisions to be autonomous,” he added.

Part of that discussion occurred during the committee’s most recent meeting, which was Feb. 23-25 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The churches in Mexico and Brazil were the first to become autonomous, in 1930, followed by churches in other countries in the late ‘60s.

Etchgoyen, who is one of the committee members representing the Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches of Latin America and the Caribbean (CIEMAL), noted that the churches had not sought autonomy, but requested greater freedom in decision-making. “When this request was not granted, they began the process toward autonomy,” he said.

Bishop Juan Vera-Mendez of Puerto Rico shared with fellow committee members how his church’s experience with autonomy “was significantly different” than other churches in the region. The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, which became autonomous in 1992, has a “concordant” relationship, which means it has full participation and vote at the United Methodist General Conference. Methodists in Mexico and Britain have that status, as well as the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and the Americas.

Fernandez believes the Puerto Rican experience provides “a very good model” for other churches that might consider autonomy in the future.

Past decisions related to the Latin America/Caribbean region were not so helpful, in the view of many. The Rev. Wilson Boots, who is serving as a consultant for the study committee, said the action by the 1968 General Conference on autonomy was a critical factor in the decline of the Latin American connection.

Although that General Conference made a commitment to continue supporting these churches, that did not happen, he explained.

“In spite of the special historical ties and deep faith relationships between the Latin America/Caribbean churches and the United Methodist Church, and very significant people-to-people relationships, the lack of vital organic relationships is a major issue confronting all of the churches,” Boots said.

Affiliated autonomous churches were originally related to the mission work of the U.S. Methodist or Evangelical United Brethren churches and include some united churches. Churches in that category from Latin America and the Caribbean include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Uruguay. They have voice but no vote at General Conference.

Non-affiliated autonomous churches, started by other Methodist bodies, include Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. Honduras is in a transitional relationship and currently is a mission of the Board of Global Ministries.

A March 1-4, 2007, consultation is planned in Panama with representatives of each of the 21 member and emerging churches of CIEMAL. The goal is to hear the views of each church about their current relationships – with each other and with the United Methodist Church – and share visions about future relationships.

In Vera’s opinion, United Methodists can benefit from the spiritual and missional experiences of their brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean. “My prayer is that the result of these conversations will be well received, discussed and accepted,” the bishop said.

“I know the leadership in the churches in Latin America and the Caribbean – our theologians, heads of churches, pastors and laypersons – will put deep thought into how we can seek new ways of strengthening our relationships,” Etchegoyen said. “We must do our work with hope and vision. Not only does the Gospel ask this of us but also the present time in which we live requires it.”

Other study committee members are Bishop Martinez of San Antonio; Bishop Lloyd Knox of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Bishop Paulo Tarso de Oliveira Lockmann of Brazil; the Rev. George MacD. Mulrain of Antigua; Lonnie Brooks of Anchorage, Alaska; and Marcia Fitzner of Willard, N.M. The Rev. Jorge Domingues, a Board of Global Ministries executive, also serves as staff.


Date posted: Apr 06, 2006