By David F. Watson
I take it for granted that the UMC will begin a formal division after the 2020 General Conference. We no longer practice a common polity, and thus we cannot hold together as an institution.
As the Academic Dean of a seminary, I have lots of conversations with pastors. Most understand the reality we now face in the aftermath of GC 2019. When I ask them what their plans are moving forward, one common answer is, “We’ll probably just go independent.” Given all the denominational woes we have endured, this answer is understandable. We should bear in mind, however, that to “go independent” as a long-term strategy is deeply un-Methodist.
Churches that “go independent” may of course retain certain Weslesyan emphases, such as preventing grace, the freedom to accept or reject Christ, and entire sanctification. What they will lose, however, will be connectionalism, and without connectionalism, there is no Methodism. (And yes, I know that some people like the British spelling, “connexionalism,” but I’m from Texas, and we’re just not that sophisticated.)
When Wesley said that there is no holiness but social, he meant that holiness is something we receive in community with each other. When we pray together, worship together, encourage one another, and confess our sins to each other, we grow in holiness. In short, Wesley felt that “watching over one another in love” was essential to our formation as Christlike people.
This principle applies not simply to individuals, but to communities. Baptists affirm the “autonomy of the local church.” It is a core element of Baptist polity. Methodists do not. We affirm connectionalism. We believe that churches, just like individuals, may become more Christlike through connection, hence our episcopal polity and system of conferences. The fact that our polity has broken down does not meant that connectionalism itself is flawed. It simply means we have not lived connectionally.
Connectionalism also means that we share in mission. For example, as we engage in ministries to help the poor and provide education, we are much more effective through an organized, shared connection than we would be as individual churches. Despite the brokenness of our denomination, it is true that we can do more collectively than we can by ourselves.
Unfortunately, we’ve made some critical mistakes in our implementation of connectionalism along the way. In 1939 the Methodist Church in the United States formed the Central Jurisdiction as a way of segregating African-American Methodists. I doubt that any reader of this post will disagree that this decision goes into the World Series of Bad Ideas. At its formation in 1968 The United Methodist Church eliminated the Central Jurisdiction, opting instead for geographical jurisdictions.* These geographical jurisdictions, however, have no real accountability built into them. As we have seen, if a jurisdiction decides to reject the decisions of the General Conference, there is really nothing to be done about it. In this sense, jurisdictionalism has undermined connectionalism. (H/T to Scott Kisker for this insight.)
In the Next Methodism(s), I hope that we will learn from our past mistakes. The connectionalism of the UMC had a broken link from the get-go. Broken connectionalism, however, doesn’t mean that connectionalism is bad. It just means that we made a critical mistake in the past that we should avoid in the future.
I still believe in conferences–charge conferences, annual conferences, and general conferences. I still believe in bishops–the episkopoi, or “overseers,” commended to us in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers. (The office of bishop, as we have conceived it in the UMC, needs serious conceptual revision, but it will be nonetheless crucial to our life together moving forward.) I believe local churches need accountability, as do clergy, as do laity. At every level of the church, we need cooperation, mutual prayer and support, and accountability. We need to watch over one another in love. That is an essential part of what it means to be Methodist.
So whatever happens denominationally, if you decide that your future is as a freestanding, independent congregation, you may still be a very fine church, but you will not be Methodist. To be Methodist is to be connectional.
* Correction: When the UMC was formed in ’68, we retained regional jurisdictionalism implemented in ’39, rather than implementing regional jurisdictions for the first time.