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Navigating differences: UMC’s new structure to empower regional variance

Key Points:

  • The United Methodist Church (UMC) has voted to restructure into four regional parts: Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States.
  • Each region will have the ability to tailor the church’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, to local needs, including different practices around ordination and marriage.
  • The restructuring plan must be ratified by two-thirds of the annual conference delegates by the end of 2025 to take effect.

The United Methodist Church, in a significant move, has approved measures to restructure itself into four regional segments, aiming to grant each the freedom to adapt church operations to their cultural and traditional contexts. This decision, made during the General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, alters the church’s constitution to create equal regions—Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States—each with autonomy over certain doctrinal and operational aspects, like clergy ordination standards and marital rites.

This restructuring requires ratification by two-thirds of the delegates at their respective annual conferences by the end of 2025. If successful, it could deeply impact the church’s global unity and operational effectiveness, responding to cultural and theological differences that have historically challenged its uniformity, especially concerning views on LGBTQ inclusion.

This move comes after a significant schism and is part of ongoing efforts to manage diversity within the church while aiming to keep global unity intact.

Religion News Service reports:

According to the plan, each region would be able to customize part of the denomination’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, to fit local needs. While church regions in Africa, the Philippines and Europe have already enjoyed some leeway in customizing church life, the United States has not.

The vote on the constitutional amendment passed 586-164, or by 78%, which means it surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional amendments. It must now go before each smaller church region, called an annual conference, for ratification by the end of 2025.

If ratified by two-thirds of delegates to the annual conferences, the restructuring would allow the four regions to set their own qualifications for ordaining clergy and lay leaders; publish their own hymnal and rituals, including rites for marriage; and establish its own judicial courts. A new Book of Discipline would have one section that could be revised and tailored for each of the four regional conferences.

The two-week worldwide meeting is the first meeting of the General Conference in five years, due mostly to delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. It follows a painful schism that has split some 7,600 U.S.-based churches from the denomination — a loss accounting for 25% of all U.S. congregations.

Read the full article.

Themes Pros Cons
Decentralization Allows tailoring of practices to local cultural and theological contexts. Potential for increased fragmentation within the church.
Cultural Sensitivity Respects and incorporates regional differences and needs. Could lead to inconsistent practices and theological interpretations across regions.
Autonomy Empowers local leaders and congregations to make decisions best suited for their communities. Risks diluting the global identity and unity of the church.

Questions to Consider:
  1. How will the decentralization affect the global unity of the United Methodist Church?
  2. What are the implications of allowing regions to differ on key issues like marriage and ordination?
  3. How might this restructuring impact the church’s mission and outreach in different cultural contexts?

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