The Belgium Mission of the M.E. Church, South was organized in Brussels in 1922 as the result of moves carried out by the Southern Methodist Centenary Movement (USA) at the close of World War I. Development of the work led to the organization of the Belgium Annual Conference in 1930. After a struggle for existence, Unification of American Methodism in 1939 found Belgian Methodism in a state of promising vitality, as shown by the strong delegation sent to Copenhagen for the European Methodist Uniting Conference in August 1939.
A few days after the close of the gathering, the Second World War broke upon Europe, and Belgium was again invaded, with Methodism suffering serious material and moral devastation.
Bishop Paul N. Garber arrived in June 1945 to inaugurate a successful eight-year reconstruction program, and in June 1946 the Belgium Conference was able to resume its regular annual sessions.
In 1952 the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference was organized, at which time the Belgium Conference reported 21 traveling preachers, eight local preachers, 17 charged with 25 churches, 3,410 members and four institutions.
December 1969 marked the union of the Evangelical Protestant Church and the Methodist Church to form the Protestant Church of Belgium. This replaced, to a large degree, the organizational work of the Belgian Annual Conference–which included Dunkirk, France.
In 1978, a second union took place bringing together the two Reformed churches (the Reformed Church of Belgium and the Reformed Church in Holland–Belgian Section) forming the United Protestant Church of Belgium.
The United Protestant Church of Belgium represents a small minority in a mainly Roman Catholic country of ten million people. With 110 local congregations the church’s contribution to the life of the country far outweighs its minority status, especially through its social and diaconal centers.
The Synod of the church has overall responsibility for the teaching of Protestant religion in schools and also administers chaplaincy programs to prisons, hospitals, army and airport.
The United Protestant Church of Belgium is affiliated with the United Methodist Church in the USA, having the status of a united autonomous church.
This church sprang directly from the work of John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1707-1738), which was part of the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. John dedicated himself to serious Christian living in 1725; they met with others at Oxford to form the Holy Club, also nicknamed “Methodists” because of their rigorous approach to Christian life. They were ordained deacons and priests of the Church of England and went to Georgia as missionaries. On the voyage they were greatly impressed by the faith of the Moravians.
They returned to England dissatisfied with their spiritual state. On May 24, 1738 in a room in Aldersgate, John felt his heart strangely warmed; Charles had a similar experience. After this new beginning, reluctantly following the example of George Whitefield they began open-air preaching, despite the opposition of bishops and hostile mobs. Societies were formed, first in Bristol in London and then in many places. Lay preachers were employed; a system of circuits was formed and from 1744 onwards there was an annual conference of preachers, a centralized system geared for mission. John traveled 250,000 miles and preached 40,000 times and by 1791 there were over 70,000 members and over 400 chapels.
John Wesley never intended his movement to separate from the Church of England, but in 1794 he gave legal status to his Conference and ordained ministers for America. Disputes about the status of the traveling preachers and the administration of the sacraments were resolved by the Plan of Pacification (1795) which was a decisive break with the Church of England. Divisions arising from the constitutional disputes and fresh revivals led to the creation of the Methodist New Connexion (1797), to the Primitive Methodists (1812), the Bible Christians (1816) and smaller groups which largely united in the United Methodist Free Churches in 1857. All except the Wesleyan Reform Union and the Independent Methodists united with the main body, the Wesleyans, to form this Methodist Church in 1932.
This Church, which covers England, Scotland and Wales, is the largest of the Free Churches in England. It belongs to the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (CBBI) and other ecumenical bodies and takes part in over 300 local ecumenical projects. It serves local churches through a connexional team, with four coordinating secretaries responsible for church life, church and society, inter-church and other relationship and central services. It has 333 districts, each with a Synod, presided over by a ministerial chairman. It emphasizes education in general and training for varied forms of ministries, both lay and ordained. The traditional Wesleyan stress on evangelism, social concern and the struggle for justice is expressed in its involvement for education and service, with young and older people respectively, through NCH and MHA, its two main social work agencies, as well as many local mission projects in inner city and rural areas.
Our calling challenges the Methodist Church to respond to the present age, in its worship, learning and caring, service and evangelism. Its worship is a mixture of formal and free, with the Wesley hymns still important to a people “born in song”. Its commitment to prayer and bible study in small groups, to youth work, pastoral care and social outreach, are the main characteristics of a Church proud to celebrate over 250 years of Methodist witness and over 200 years of overseas missions as its contribution to the World Church. The rediscovery of Wesley’s message for today and the connection between our Methodist heritage and contemporary mission, as we prepare to celebrate the 300th anniversary of John’s birth (2003), is a vital part of its ongoing commitment to evangelical revival and the quest for holiness, personal and corporate, offering Christ to all through worship, witness, preaching and service.
The first Methodist missionaries came to Bulgaria from the US in the middle of the 19th century, and were received hospitably by the Turks who ruled the country at the time. But they did not merely set up new congregations. It was also one of these missionaries, Dr. Albert Long, who translated the whole Bible into Bulgarian, thus making the Word of God accessible to the Bulgarian population in general for the first time. By choosing the East-Bulgarian dialect fort his translation he tremendously influenced the Bulgarian literature of the following 50 years and even the creation of an official national language. In the years that followed, girls’ and boys’ schools were founded, contributing to the literacy of the country. However, in spite of the success and significance of this early pioneering work, the history of the UMC in Bulgaria in the following decades was like a roller coaster, and, often enough, the Church had to fight for survival.
The period of Communist rule from 1947 to 1989 began with a terrible persecution of all Churches in the country, and was an especially dark era. Many pastors were beaten, thrown into prison for long periods, or even murdered. A law implemented at the time nominally provided for religious freedom, but in reality it rendered practically all Church work impossible. All Email between the UMC in Bulgaria and the international Church was prohibited.
Following the political opening of the country in 1990, only two of the original sixteen congregations still existed, and the pastors were either old and frail, or had already passed on. In spite of this, the UMC was able to reorganize, and relations were renewed with the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe and with the supervising bishop.
Since then, the Church has been growing continuously, thanks to God’s grace and the tireless efforts of many lay people and a few pastors from the new generation. In many places where earlier Methodist congregations once existed, new work is being done after an interruption of many decades.
In carrying out missionary and service work, the UMC in Bulgaria has not forgotten that it has been a minority church since its founding. For one thing, this is reflected in the fact that it makes a point of spreading the Gospel to minorities, such as Turkish gypsies, Armenians, and Rom. Moslems (after decades of atheist teachings, this denomination is more an ethnic and cultural reference than a religious one) also learn about Jesus Christ in personal talks, evangelization meetings, and film viewings.
The goal of spreading the Gospel in word and deed is the motor for many social projects such as soup kitchens, literacy courses, out-patient clinics, prison work, creative or play times for neglected children and youth, etc. Samuel Altunian, one of the young pastors, says: “It’s impossible to imagine being a Church in Bulgaria today without providing these services for the poor and the minorities.”
At the same time, the importance of the literature projects should not be underestimated. These support not only the printing and distribution of Bibles, but also practical guides for the reader.
It may not show outwardly, but many members of the UMC in Bulgaria are very poor. The massive economic changes since 1989 have, for the most part, worsened their situation. Thus the existence of the Church and its credible service among the people continue to present a challenge that should not be underestimated.