|Methodism has history in Latin America, Caribbean|
Robert Harman presents a history of Methodist mission work in Latin America and the Caribbean. UMNS photos by Larry Nelson.
By Linda Bloom*
March 20, 2007 | PANAMA CITY, Panama (UMNS)
The first Methodist congregation established outside of England and Ireland was in the Caribbean and its members were slaves.
Nathaniel Gilbert, a lawyer influenced by Methodism founder John
Wesley, brought his witness to the island of Antigua, where the
congregation was born in 1759.
During the next century, Methodists from the United States, embracing
the American spirit of "manifest destiny," spread their own missions in
various parts of South and Central America.
The history of Methodism in Latin America and the Caribbean was among
topics discussed during a March 1-4 consultation of churches from that
region and The United Methodist Church.
Robert Harman, a retired staff executive of the United Methodist
Board of Global Ministries, presented a comprehensive chronology of the
"expansionist plans" of Methodist evangelism, beginning with a call for a
missionary survey of South America in 1832.
Difficult mission field
Eventually, mission work was established, beginning in the 1830s in
Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, by the predecessor bodies of The United
Methodist Church – the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal
Church South and Evangelical United Brethren Church.
But obstacles, most notably the prevailing Roman Catholic culture, made Latin America more difficult as a mission field.
"They (missionaries) relied heavily upon the English language in
their offerings of worship and educational opportunities and failed to
penetrate deeply held indigenous values," Harman writes. "Their efforts
did not experience overwhelming results but barely established a toehold
in the countries where they poured out their hearts and labor."
The 1892 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church called
for the establishment of a South America Conference, which covered the
districts of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile and Peru
(including Bolivia). Four years later, more than half the total
membership – 1,100 members – lived in Argentina.
The mission focus on Central America began after Benito Juarez
established a republic in Mexico in 1857, receiving the backing of the
United States. "Religious freedom from dogmatic authority of the Roman
Catholic Church was widely welcomed and Protestants from the north began
to focus their missionary efforts on Mexico," according to Harman.
"Times have changed. In the past, mistakes
were made, yet the experience we are witnessing at this gathering is
–Bishop Juan Vera Mendez
Early in 1885, the Mexico Conference of the Methodist Episcopal
Church was organized. But despite assurances of religious freedom, the
Catholic Church often prevailed locally. "Since there were few places
without a Roman Catholic presence, Protestantism was interpreted as a
force for proselytism within the faith. This reduced the appeal."
The 1920 Methodist Episcopal General Conference reorganized mission
relationships in South America, Central America and Mexico into the
Central Conference of Latin America. Included were Argentina, Uruguay,
Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico. The two
Episcopal areas were based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.
Road to autonomy
The road to autonomy began in 1930 when Brazil, part of the Methodist
Episcopal Church South, and Mexico, which had mission work from both
denominations, became autonomous churches.
In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church
South and Methodist Protestant Church united to form the Methodist
Church. The 1944 Methodist General Conference established a Commission
on the Structure of Methodism Overseas to administer worldwide mission.
In the decades that followed, social and political changes in Latin
America led Methodists there to conclude that "the effectiveness of
their witness may be compromised by their historical and organic
relationship to American Methodism," Harman reports. The churches also
wanted a structure more relevant to the cultures of their own countries.
During the 1960s, the Methodist overseas commission, known as COSMOS,
took a look at how to repair or replace the central conference system.
It asked the Latin American conference to consider four structural
options: a perfected central conference structure, autonomy for
individual churches, an international church with regional general
conferences and a World Conference of Methodist churches consisting of
autonomous regional churches.
The commission’s recommendations to the 1968 General Conference,
which also united the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren
churches, called for the granting of requests for autonomy, which then
occurred in 28 of the 54 countries where United Methodist work had been
Bishop Sante Uberto Barbieri of Buenos Aires spoke to the requests for
Latin American autonomy by endorsing a world Methodist conference of
regional bodies "so that all the churches therein involved could learn
from each other on an equal basis and … belong to a larger fellowship in
pursuit of the final aim of coming to be one flock under the leadership
of the one Pastor."
Bishop Juan Vera-Mendez leads the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.
But the recommendation from COSMOS that would also grant regional
autonomy to the U.S. church and create a new worldwide structure for
Methodist conferences and churches never came to fruition. The newly
formed Council of Evangelical Churches of Latin America and the
Caribbean (CIEMAL) did provide a way for those churches and The United
Methodist Church to continue collaborating.
In 1976, the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas was
recognized as a "Concordat Church" by The United Methodist Church,
granting it representation at the denomination’s highest policy-making
bodies. The same status is given to the British Methodist Church.
Later, the 1988 General Conference established a new category of
relationships called "A Covenanting Church," which would involve mutual
spiritual growth, cultural attentiveness, sharing of resources and ideas
for mission. "The nurturing intent of the proposal was attractive, but
the effect of moving into this new or additional relationship was
uncertain for those autonomous and affiliated autonomous churches with
an historic tie to United Methodism," Harman writes.
When the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico became autonomous in 1992,
it also was granted a concordat relationship, assuring full
participation and vote at United Methodist General Conference sessions.
In an interview, Puerto Rican Bishop Juan Vera Mendez noted that
while gaining autonomy was a difficult process for many churches in
Latin America and the Caribbean, his church’s experience was different.
"We have made the autonomous process with a new paradigm, a new model
of cooperation and mission ties that have been a blessing for the
Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and, I understand, for The United
Methodist Church," he said.
Today, Methodists and United Methodists have the opportunity to look
at issues of autonomy and connectionalism with a different perspective.
"Times have changed. In the past, mistakes were made," Vera pointed out,
"yet the experience we are witnessing at this gathering is very
refreshing. It is something new and it launches us to new expectations.
We hope for a better future."
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.
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