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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.
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 very refreshing."
–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 established.

Maintaining ties

Bishop Juan Vera-Mendez leads the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.
Bishop Juan Vera-Mendez leads the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.

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."

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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