In Europe, the mission of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies developed most strongly through migration between Europe and the U.S, and through support from foreign language conferences in the U.S. In continental Europe, such mission was often preceded by British Methodists. In most European countries, indigenous persons soon assumed leadership roles, and missionaries were sent from Europe to Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Between the two world wars, many Methodist churches in Western Europe became self-supporting.
After 1849, the Methodist Episcopal Church began its mission on the European continent. In 1895, a first session of a Central Council of the Conferences and Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Europe was held in Berlin. In 1900, the Bishop assigned to Europe took residence in Zurich. In 1908, General Conference authorized the creation of a Central Conference for all of Europe. Its first session was held in Rome, in 1911. During World War I, episcopal oversight had to be divided between two bishops, along political lines. General Conference 1920 created three episcopal areas for Europe. After 1924, they became three distinct central conferences:
- Central Europe, comprising Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Russia; with Bishop Nuelsen, a German-American citizen (Zurich Area)
- Northern Europe, comprising Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic States; with Bishop Bast, a native Dane (Copenhagen Area)
- Southern Europe, comprising the Mediterranean countries France, Spain, Italy, North Africa; with Bishop Blake, a U.S. citizen (Paris Area). Due to the heavy economic crisis, reduction of work, and the death of the supervising bishop, this central conference was dissolved in 1932. The remaining work joined the Central Europe conference which eventually became the central conference for Central and Southern Europe.
In 1936, Germany became a central conference on its own and elected its own bishop. Again, there were three central conferences in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Europe, but the central conference of Central and Southern Europe was much reduced in membership.
1939: The Methodist Episcopal Church, South had mission in three countries (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Poland) since 1920. It established a central conference which met first in 1927. After World War II, the three countries joined the re-established Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe.
1968: The former Evangelical Association (later: Evangelical United Brethren Church) had widespread work in German speaking countries in Europe since 1850. It was the only region outside the U.S. where this denomination created a central conference (first meeting in 1924). Between the two World Wars, it elected a resident bishop for Europe. At the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, the former Evangelical Association (EUB Church) had local churches in the geographical regions of the annual conferences of the Methodist Church in Germany and Switzerland-France. In 1968, The United Methodist Church continued with three central conferences in Europe: (1) Central and Southern Europe; (2) Germany; (3) Northern Europe and the Baltic. For many decades, collaboration between Methodist churches of British and of American origin is promoted by several entities: The European Methodist Youth and Children Council, The European Methodist Council, the European Commission on Mission, and the Fund Mission in Europe.
Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe
The present central conference of Central and Southern Europe is a combination of the remains of two central conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church: (1) Central Europe (since 1936 without Germany) and (2) Southern Europe, as far as its work continued beyond the mid-1930s; combined with (3) the central conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
In the aftermath of World War II and with the rise of communist regimes in Eastern Central Europe, there was much debate among European leaders of the Methodist Church how best to organize the countries into central conferences. Finally, General Conference 1952 authorized to re-establish the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe. The first session was held in Brussels, Belgium, in 1954. From several communist countries, no delegates were allowed to come. Nevertheless, the delegates in attendance could elect an indigenous pastor as bishop.
Travel restrictions between “East” and “West” continued. Over the years, they became less severe. More and more regularly, the bishop could travel to annual conferences and ordain pastors (including women), and church leaders from Eastern Europe could travel to conferences in the West. Laity from the West were particularly instrumental in keeping the connection alive and bringing help to the “East”. Bulgaria was the only country where the church could only be re-established after the fall of the Communist government.
The union of 1968 influenced the work in Switzerland and France where the Evangelical Association (EUB Church) had ministry for more than a hundred years. Most of the United Methodist churches in France were from this EUB Church tradition. In Switzerland, the EUB Church formed approximately one third of the new denomination. In Belgium, the Methodist Church entered into unions with other Protestant churches (1967 and 1969), thus establishing the United Protestant Church of Belgium, an affiliated united church with The United Methodist Church.
Today, the central conference is made up of seven annual conferences, covering 16 countries of Central and Southern Europe and North Africa. The central conference has always consisted of one single episcopal area, but covers the most diverse political, economic, and religious context for mission within The United Methodist Church. The church in Switzerland has a long-standing tradition of sending missionaries and supporting mission in other parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America.
The mission of the United Methodist Church and its several predecessor bodies began in the following years: Albania (1889/1920, re-established 1990); Algeria (1886/1908); Austria (1870/1897); Belgium (1920-67; Brussels 2008); Bulgaria (1857, re-established 1991); Czech Republic (1920); Croatia (1923/1995-2010); France (1791/1868/1907); Hungary (1905); Macedonia (1873/1921) Poland (1895/1920); Romania (2011); Serbia (1899); Slovak Republic (1925); Switzerland (1840/1856/1866); Tunisia (1899/1908).
Central Conference of Germany
The central conference of Germany covers all the territory within Germany. The mission of the United Methodist Church and of predecessor bodies began in 1830 (British mission), 1849 (Methodist Episcopal Church), 1850 (Evangelical Association), and 1869 (United Brethren in Christ).
Prior to 1936, Germany was part of the Central Conference of Central Europe. General Conference 1936 authorized Germany to form a central conference on its own, following the geographic borders of the German Reich. The new central conference of Germany elected an indigenous pastor as its first bishop. The central conference continued with one single bishop up to 1970. In 1968, a strong presence of churches from the former Evangelical Association (EUB Church) merged with the Methodist Church. In some regions of Germany, the EUB tradition was locally as present, or more, than the Methodist Church.
In 1970, because of political developments, the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany) with one annual conference became a central conference of its own and elected one of its pastors as its first bishop. Thus, there were two central conferences for the two separate parts of the divided country, one in the Federal Republic of Germany and West-Berlin (Western Germany) with three annual conferences, and one in the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany) with one annual conference.
After the political reunification of Germany, the two central conferences again reunited into one in 1992. The bishop from the former German Democratic Republic was appointed by the Council of Bishops to oversee the rebirth of Methodist presence in the former Soviet Union. The bishop from the former Federal Republic of Germany continued as bishop in the reunited central conference. A few years later, the four annual conferences were reconfigured into three annual conferences.
The Western districts have strongly supported the Eastern districts in the economic imbalance within the re-united country. Methodists in Germany remain the strongest presence of The United Methodist Church in all of Europe. They also have a long tradition of sending missionaries and supporting mission in other parts of the world.
Northern Europe and Eurasia
The Central Conference of Northern Europe and Eurasia has received this double name after the addition of a second episcopal area in the early 1990s. In the 1920s, it was created as the central conference of Northern Europe (later: Northern Europe and the Baltic) with one single episcopal area. As for the German speaking areas of Europe, the Scandinavian ones have developed through migration between the Northern European countries and the U.S. Scandinavian Methodists had also formed their own language conferences in the U.S., in the late 19th century. They strongly contributed to the mission back home, in Europe. Northern European Methodists became active in world mission early in the development of the church and have continued to the present day.
At General Conference 1920, three episcopal areas were created for Europe. Among the many bishops elected for the church outside the U.S. was also a native Dane for the episcopal area of Northern Europe. Episcopal oversight over the Baltic States and Russia changed several times in between the two World Wars. The Baltic States finally became a part of the Northern European episcopal area. During communist time, Methodist ministry continued in the Baltic States only in Estonia, despite severe periods of persecution. Episcopal visits were rare, but became more regular towards the end of communism.
During Soviet times, the Methodist presence in Russia was extinguished in the 1930s. With the political changes at the end of the Soviet period, witnesses of surviving Methodist groups became known across Eurasia. In the 1990s, Bishop Rüdiger Minor from the former German Democratic Republic was sent to re-connect Methodist groups in the countries of the former Soviet Union and to re-build the United Methodist Church. A high percentage of the first generation of clergy were women. The new episcopal area of Eurasia was integrated into the central conference of Northern Europe which thus became the central conference of Northern Europe and Eurasia.
The mission of the United Methodist Church and its predecessor Methodist bodies began in the following years: Belarus (1920, re-established 2002); Denmark (1857); Estonia (1907); Finland (1859/1883); Kazakhstan (1999), Kyrgyzstan (2003), Latvia (1908/1911, re-established 1991); Lithuania (1900/1905, re-established 1995); Moldova (2000), Norway (1953); Russia (1889, re-established 1990); Sweden (1854; 2012 becoming an affiliated united church); Tajikistan (2006, now closed);Ukraine (1923/1994); Uzbekistan (2004, now closed).