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United Methodist European churches meet amid diversity

3/22/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: UMNS story #137 may be used as a sidebar with this report.

By United Methodist News Service

While the 110 delegates attending the March 14-18 United Methodist Central Conference of Southern and Central Europe represented a multitude of languages and cultures, they shared a common circumstance: being part of a minority church in each of those 13 countries.

How they work as a denomination, both individually and collectively, was a major topic of discussion at the meeting on the outskirts of Zurich, Switzerland.

Bishop Heinrich Bolleter, leader of the central conference, said that much of the focus was on the adaptation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denominational set of laws and regulations, to the context of southern and central Europe.

For years, United Methodist entities outside the United States have been allowed to alter parts of the denomination's rules to fit their own situations. But an October 2000 ruling of the United Methodist Judicial Council, the church's top court, regarding the Norway Annual Conference threw that power into question.

"We are working on this issue," Bolleter said. "We are waiting for a second answer by the Judicial Council." A reconsideration petition by the denomination's Council of Bishops is on the court's spring docket.

Other discussion points included the need for theological training and the desire to work with the denomination's Board of Church and Society on the role of the church's Social Principles in different cultural arenas, he said.

Spanning from Algeria in the South to Poland in the north, and from the French Atlantic coast in the west to Bulgaria at the Black sea in the east, the Central Conference of Southern and Central Europe covers 13 countries. Those are Algeria, Tunisia, France, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Austria, Hungary, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

In all, the churches represent about 40,000 adult members, organized into seven annual (regional) conferences.

Despite their minority status, the churches in many of the former communist countries have grown. Peter Siegfried, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries executive who attended the central conference meeting, said the most impressive progress was reported from Bulgaria, where the two churches left open in 1990 have mushroomed to more than 30. "This is not the case in Western Europe, where the churches are struggling to keep their numbers," he added.

However, with that growth comes a financial burden. It was reported that 200 of the 340 pastors in the central conference must have outside support in order to receive a minimal salary. Gifts from the Europe Mission Funds, Board of Global Ministries and various individuals have provided so far for the most urgent needs, Siegfried said.

Financial resources also are needed for leadership education and theological training. New models of ministry, especially encouraging volunteer work, are being discussed.

While the Eastern European churches have enjoyed new religious freedom in recent years, restrictions in some countries can put small minority churches at a disadvantage. Because of that, ecumenical relations are very important, Siegfried pointed out. Conference delegates welcomed the new guidelines for growing cooperation among churches in Europe found in a document approved at a January meeting of the Joint Committee of the Conference of European Churches and the Council of the Conference of European Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.

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