Reenvisioning Christian Ethics, edited by Darryl W. Stephens (MDPI, 2020)
A featured publication on the American Academy of Religion website for October:
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”Jeremiah 6:14, NRSV
Distrust. Acrimony. Abuse. Division. This is the current state of The United Methodist Church. Yet, amid all of this, I heard my bishop “calling the church to be united in love.” Hours later, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference voted to approve my congregation’s request for disaffiliation from the UMC. I was one of architects of our Grandview Church’s disaffiliation resolution. Nevertheless, my heart remained heavy, pondering the mirage of unity and the violence it engenders.
Church unity is an elusive goal. Christians have divided themselves throughout the entirety of our history, beginning the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas ultimately could not continue to work with each other: “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company” (Acts 15:39a). Early ecumenical councils, such as Nicaea in 325, were significant as much for who they excluded as for the consensus they reached. Declaring the four marks of the church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” in 381 did not make it so. Orthodoxy is determined by the winners, it seems. The Great Schism of 1054 saw the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church part company. Luther’s 95 Theses posted in 1517 precipitated the fracture of the Western church into multiple, competing, protesting sects. US Methodism, it cannot be forgotten, parted ways with Anglicanism as soon as US political independence was secured. Despite Jesus’s Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, in which he prayed “that they may be one” (17:21), his followers have not, in fact, achieved this elusive unity.
In the meantime, what violence we inflict when we insist on unity at all costs! We preach “unity, unity,” when there is no love. We call for peace without insisting on justice. We strive to maintain the structural integrity of an institution whose moral integrity has long ago deteriorated.
For example, a number of United Methodist leaders from Africa, Europe, and the Philippines issued a call for denominational unity December 18, 2019:
I wholeheartedly agree with much of this call, which celebrates “unity in diversity,” seeks “common ground,” affirms universal grace, and asserts contextualization and mutuality as essential to carrying out the church’s mission. This call is based on several “guiding principles and values,” the first of which is, “We are all children of God,” meaning we must “consider one another siblings of equal stature and rights.” Amen. However, to move from this first principle to the conclusion that the UMC must remain intact as an institution is a commission of violence.
The UMC, as it stands today, does not, in fact, ensure “equal stature and rights” among its members and leaders. The burden of our maintaining ecclesial unity is not equally shared. This denomination categorically discriminates against married gay and lesbian persons called to ordained ministry, despite our doctrinal standard asserting that clergy shall “marry at their own discretion” (Article of Religion XXI). This church categorically denies same-sex couples the right to marry, despite asserting in our Social Principles, “equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.” These structural injustices within the UMC cause real violence to real persons.
To insist on church unity under these conditions is analogous to insisting that an abused spouse remain in that relationship in order to “preserve the marriage.” In a situation of spousal abuse, the marriage is already broken. The marriage vows were violated at the first physical blow, the first psychological terror, the first emotional coercion. To leave an abusive relationship is to recognize the reality that unity has ceased to exist and to love oneself enough to say, “No more!” To counsel someone to remain within a situation of intimate partner violence is cruel. The loving response is, first, “do no harm,” by offering protection and, second, empower the survivor-victim to take control of their own life again, initially by removing themselves from the situation of abuse.
Friends in the UMC, this denomination is already broken; it is already wounded; members are still being abused. To the authors of “A Christmas Covenant,” I counter their assertion, “we do not believe dissolution is the right way to heal the wounds that cause us pain as Christ’s Body,” by proclaiming that neither is unity the right way to heal these wounds. I join my bishop, for whom I have great respect and appreciation, in “calling the church to be united in love.” But love without justice is not love at all.
Grandview Church recognizes the violence of this continued call for unity and is choosing to say, “No more!” Disaffiliation is no more the salve for these wounds than divorce is the answer to repairing a broken marriage. Others have made this argument before. But when “estranged beyond reconciliation,” it is, as our Social Principles declare, “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.” We cannot treat this wound carelessly, “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14, NRSV). Love with justice requires treating “one another siblings of equal stature and rights” as a precondition to unity.
dis·so·lu·tion /ˌdisəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n/ noun. 1. the closing down or dismissal of an assembly, partnership, or official body.
In a previous post, I explored the possibility that General Conference might not ever meet again. I am not the first to raise this possibility. Indeed, more than a few other church leaders and scholars have called for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church (UMC). However, my discussion dissolution of the denomination differs in an important way from previous proposals: rather than construct and prescribe future connectional relationships through protocols and agreements, I believe new relationships can emerge organically if we allow them.
The possibility of new beginnings requires an end to what was. There are many reasons for the divisions currently tearing the UMC apart, not the least of which have to do with a white, US, imperialistic mindset. The denominational structure has become an obstacle to our ecclesiology, a hinderance rather than an enabler of connectional relationships.
I am not the first or the only one to reach this conclusion or something similar. In March 2017, Professor Mark Teasedale recommended “dissolving United Methodism as a denomination”—but he lost our ecclesiology by proposing every congregation become independent. More recently, Professor Tom Frank also advocated for terminating “a global denomination with common governance” in favor of “mov[ing] authority for ministry closer to where it is practiced”—albeit through a US denominational structure. My consideration of dissolution differs from Teasedale’s congregationalism and Frank’s US-denominationalism by suggesting the annual conference, “the basic body of the Church,” be the largest institutional entity.
Envisioning the dissolution of the UMC is not a call for ecclesial anarchy or the end of connectional relationships. Rather, this path forward can maintain the essence of what our clergy and laity recognize as the United Methodist way of being church. I am in agreement with Bishop Bob Farr, who declared, “It is time to find a way for The United Methodist Church to separate.” He suggested, along the lines of what I am discussing, “convert[ing] all [annual] conferences into affiliated autonomous conferences.” Likewise, Amy Valdez Barker, former top executive of the Connectional Table, argued for “a connection based on relationships” centered in the local congregation and annual conference. “General Conference is not a system that allows for conflicts to be resolved through relationships and, therefore, it needs to change,” she asserted.
Despite differences in strategy, each of these leaders recognizes the importance of subsidiarity—allowing decision-making to occur at a more local level of authority. We need to deal with divisive issues locally, face-to-face, and among those who live side-by-side. The denominational level is no longer (if it ever was) an effective place for deliberation, discernment, and decision-making.
Dissolution is not the same as schism or restructure. Dividing up the denominational spoils among competing caucuses through a negotiated “Protocol” would exacerbate United Methodist divisions, focusing on money and property rather than mission. Jeremy Smith described the differences in an informative post, “What does it mean to Dissolve The United Methodist Church?” Restructuring the denomination into affinity conferences through the Connectional Conference Plan, Bard-Jones Plan, or a similar negotiated arrangement would also fail us ecclesiologically, enshrining our differences over homosexuality into the very structure of our church. Furthermore, both schism and restructuring for the sake of US ecclesial politics would leave in place the inequities of central conference structures.
Dissolution of the UMC is not a last-ditch effort to “save” this denomination or to orchestrate its demise. Instead of euthanasia by Protocol, dissolution pulls the plug on artificial life support and allows a natural death. In doing so, we may find that the UMC, like the late Terri Schiavo, had ceased meaningful functioning and any chance of resuscitation long before we allowed death to occur. No hopeful covenant for unity can change the fact that church law, for nearly 50 years, has categorically denied the first principle of unity, that “we are all children of God.” Resurrection cannot occur prior to death. We must allow this denomination to die in order to experience rebirth as a Church.
Dissolution is an intentional means of allowing new relationships to form while being true to our ecclesiology. Getting back to basics by centering our connectionalism in the annual conference can renew United Methodism. Removing the denominational overlay could actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of building new relationships—this time truly recognizing our equal dignity and equality as children of God.
United Methodists are facing the very real possibility that General Conference will not meet in 2021, as scheduled. David Scott has explored the near-term implications, examining denominational division in one post and budgets, boards, and bishops in another. Here, I explore the question, What would happen to The United Methodist Church (UMC) if General Conference never met again?
For those church members worried that such a possibility would mean the end of the UMC, it is important to recognize that the UMC does not currently exist—nor has it ever existed, at least not in a legal sense. According to our own Discipline, the UMC “as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes” (General Discipline 2016, para. 141). In other words, the general church is a fiction.
To be sure, General Conference is a real thing. It met May 10–20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon and again February 23–26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. It even passed legislation and approved a general church budget to fund the work of boards, agencies, and commissions between sessions of general conference. However, General Conference ceased to exist as soon as the meeting came to a close, February 26, 2019. It will not exist until it meets again—if it ever does. The boards, agencies, and commissions mandated to carry out work on behalf of the General Conference continue to exist between sessions of General Conference. They are independently incorporated legal entities, and most have positioned themselves to serve multiple, splinter denominations in the event of a denominational schism. But that which we know as “The United Methodist Church” or “the general Church” does not exist.
What does this fiction mean? The UMC is a figment of our collective imagination, or to put it more theologically, the UMC is a covenantal agreement. The Discipline is our “book of covenant”: “It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together” (General Discipline 2016, p. v). The UMC “exists” only as a covenant. The only thing animating the idea of the UMC among United Methodists is our mutual buy-in. Consider funding: apportionment formulas are precise and much debated, but actual payouts are unenforceable. Congregations and annual conferences pay what they choose to pay to the general Church.
The UMC is only as “real” as we allow it to be. When we participate faithfully and with integrity in this covenant, the denomination takes on life. Our covenantal life together can become a wondrous instrument of God’s grace. To whatever extent we fail to be in covenant, the UMC also fails to be the general Church that we so value. For many in the UMC, that covenant has already been broken; the UMC has failed to be a church for many years. Thankfully, the general church is not the essence of United Methodism.
United Methodist ecclesiology is based on connectionalism. Connectionalism, that “vital web of interactive relationships” (General Discipline 2016, para. 132), distinguishes Methodist polity from congregationalism. Connectional relationships between the general Church and every annual conference and congregation embody the functional and financial relationships of the UMC. However, we do not need a “general Church” for connectionalism. There are more immediate levels of covenant within United Methodism. This is why United Methodists claim that “The annual conference is the basic body of the Church . . .” (General Discipline 2016, para. 33).
If General Conference never met again, most of what we recognize as United Methodism would continue uninterrupted. The annual conference is the heartbeat of connectionalism. United Methodist congregations are connected to each other in an annual conference through participation in an itinerant ministry; clergy are connected through the Order of Elders and Order of Deacons; laity are connected via elected members to annual conference. In practical terms, the annual conference is where ministerial candidates are evaluated and nurtured, where clergy are commissioned and ordained, and where elders itinerate and receive pensions.
Some aspects of connectionalism would change. Political wrangling in the quadrennial arena of General Conference would cease, along with the vitriol practiced there. Annual conferences in the US, independent of the general Church, may choose different means of inculturation for Methodist polity, adapting the Discipline to their own missional needs, as conferences outside the US do currently. The process by which certain elders are elected, consecrated, and assigned as bishops would be opened to adaptation—perhaps within a pan-Methodist or wider ecumenical environment. It is also possible that some annual conferences might follow the example of the Methodist Church of Great Britain or the erstwhile Methodist Protestant Church, choosing to forgo an episcopacy. General apportionments would cease. Annual conferences would still be free to send money to general agencies, boards, and commissions to support ministry and mission around the globe. True, those payouts would be unenforceable. But is that not actually the case today?
If General Conference never met again, new relationships would be allowed to form while remaining true to the core of United Methodist ecclesiology. Old, forced relationships could be allowed to end rather than fester in acrimony within a divided denomination. Removing the denominational façade might actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences—especially across national borders. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of relationship building. The dissolution of the UMC by abandoning General Conference would open new possibilities. Recentering our connectionalism in the annual conference could renew United Methodism in ways we have yet to imagine.