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Latin American Methodists: separate but connected

By Linda Bloom*
March 20, 2007 | PANAMA CITY, Panama (UMNS)

Bishop Paulo Lockmann of Brazil says Methodists in Latin America and the Caribbean “can construct a new view about the United States through the mission of the church.” A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson.
Bishop Paulo Lockmann of Brazil says Methodists in Latin America and the Caribbean "can construct a new view about the United States through the mission of the church." A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson.

In the 1960s, after Methodists in Latin America had expressed the desire for greater freedom to make their own decisions, a special task force of the U.S. church came up with a solution: autonomy.

So, through the 1960s and ’70s, churches in the region formally separated themselves from their U.S. brothers and sisters. They also forged new connections with each other in 1969 by creating the Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches of Latin America and the Caribbean (CIEMAL).

The history of those actions, along with considerations of what it means to be autonomous but connected, was explored during a March 1-4 consultation between The United Methodist Church and the Methodist churches of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The event was sponsored by a study committee created by the 2004 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, to examine relationships with Methodists in Latin America and the Caribbean.

One concern is a perceived weakening of those relationships. "We are, in many ways, so separate," Bishop Paulo Lockmann of Brazil, the current president of CIEMAL, told United Methodist News Service.

CIEMAL helped push for the General Conference resolution to establish a study committee, said Lockmann, noting that his organization feels somewhat abandoned by the larger denomination. "Our relationship now is just through one or two agencies of The United Methodist Church," he added.

Path to autonomy

The process of autonomy for Latin American churches actually began in 1930 when Mexico and Brazil were given the status of affiliated autonomous churches. Affiliated churches originally were related to the mission work of the U.S. Methodist or Evangelical United Brethren churches while non-affiliated autonomous churches were started by other Methodist bodies.

"We are, in many ways, so separate."
-Bishop Paulo Lockmann

Eventually, the path to autonomy was taken by the remainder of the churches in the region, according to a paper presented in Panama by Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen of Argentina, chief executive of CIEMAL.

Those churches had been part of the U.S. denomination’s Central Conference of Latin America. But they sought freedoms that the U.S. structure would not allow at the time – local and regional decision-making, a more indigenous bureaucratic structure and a greater sense of national and cultural identity.

Autonomy seemed the only solution. "The image that was used and compared to autonomy was that of the process whereby a plant is taken out of a pot and planted in the soil where it can grow stronger," Etchegoyen wrote.

Joining Mexico and Brazil in CIEMAL were Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Panama and Costa Rica. Later, the British-related Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas became part of the organization, along with Methodists in Ecuador, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. Emerging Methodist churches are those in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Honduras.

Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen

A Confederation of Methodist Women’s Societies also organized within the region and held its first congress in 1942. Today, the confederation has about 30,000 members in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Staying in touch

Speaking during the consultation, Etchegoyen said the connection between The United Methodist Church and Methodist churches in the region never ended. "This connectional relationship has always been present," he said. "Pure autonomy does not exist."

Contact provided through mission program support, assistance from the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Volunteers in Mission, the exchange of visitors and various consultations "are all forms of a connectional relationship … that we need to value and appreciate," he added.

Lockmann said Latin American Methodists can help United Methodists work with Hispanics in the United States and can promote a better understanding of Americans among Latin American people. "We can construct a new view about the United States through the mission of the church," he said.

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Interviews

Bishop Minerva Carcano: "There's some woundedness."

Bishop Minerva Carcano: "…what it means to be connectional yet autonomous."

Bishop Juan Vera Mendez : "It was a slow, painful process." Also: En español

Bishop Juan Vera Mendez : "We hope the whole church will be involved." Also: En español

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Latin American, Caribbean Methodists share insights

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Committee examines ties with Latin American/Caribbean Methodists

Roots of Latin American/Caribbean Methodism go deep



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