-Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter
I have put forth my best proposal for amicable unity in The United Methodist Church and it calls for re-envisioning the role of jurisdictions in United Methodism in the U.S. I have been encouraged by the positive response and am not at all surprised that the concept of utilizing separate jurisdictions has been met coolly by some. Jurisdictions have a long and troubled history in our church. Because we have used jurisdictions to manage our deepest disagreements, our jurisdictional story is forever intertwined with some of our most troubling chapters.
One African American colleague told me, “When black pastors see anything that reminds them of the old Central Jurisdiction, they want to push away.” These feelings are entirely justifiable. The Central Jurisdiction was created as part of the 1939 merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church (South), and Methodist Protestant Church as a way to address “the question of the Negro.” Race and segregation were issues that perpetually frustrated negotiations for denominational reunification following the north/south schism in 1844.
African Americans, in the 1930’s, had hoped for a full seat at the table in the newly forming denomination. Realities in the Jim Crowe South dictated otherwise. The Methodist Episcopal Church (South) had addressed the race issue in 1870 by encouraging Southern African American Methodists in the formation of the “Colored Methodist Episcopal Church” (today known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). Many in the South insisted upon continued racial segregation in the 1930’s as a condition for unity with the northern body.
The persistence of racial issues caused other denominations, like the Baptists, to walk away from the negotiating table (hence the surprising continuation of the name “Southern Baptist Church”). Methodists stayed in the conversation for an amazing 66 years before compromising on what many saw as an imperfect union. African American pastors and churches were placed in their own jurisdiction while the white congregations of the new Methodist Church were organized into five geographic jurisdictions. This Methodist “solution” mirrored our nation’s false hope that “separate but equal” could be truly equal.
The geographic jurisdictions provided regionalist protections that were tacitly tied to racial attitudes. Bishops would be elected and serve in their own jurisdiction, increasing the likelihood of bishops’ attitudinal alignment with the annual conferences to which they would be assigned. No “Yankee bishop” would be foisted upon the South.
In the merger of 1968 that created The United Methodist Church, a strong nail was driven into the coffin of the Central Jurisdiction which had become an embarrassment to most Methodists during the Civil Rights Era. The regional jurisdictions, however, were retained. The Southeast Jurisdiction remains the only one organized to do much beyond the election and assignment of bishops. Calls to eliminate the regionalism perpetuated by our current system of jurisdictions are often voiced.
With all the bad that can justifiably be said about jurisdictions, their positive function remains: They allow the church, in times of deep division, time and space to work through the issues that would otherwise cause complete division. Jurisdictions keep the church at the same table, if on different sides of that table. The Jurisdictional Solution calls the UMC to replace the five geographic jurisdictions with two jurisdictions based on ideology related to scripture and ministry (as evidenced in the debate about the extent to which homosexual practice is compatible with Christian teaching). Ideologically defined jurisdictions would allow us to retain a United Methodist Church to later reorganize, perhaps around whatever now unforeseen issue is ailing us a generation or two hence.
Forty years from now we will have this worked out. A Progressive might argue that we will then be embarrassed about having excluded practicing homosexuals from the church by restricting weddings and ordinations. A Traditionalist might argue that the church will by then recognize that attempts to accommodate to the endless varieties of human sexual expression proved a slippery slope that led culturally accommodated congregations to accelerated decline and eventual irrelevance. Creating two jurisdictions in the U.S. allows both visions for ministry to play out in United Methodism without full schism.
As a side effect, allowing jurisdictional variety might go a long way in eliminating the barriers in the unfinished work of larger Methodist reunification. Talks between The UMC and the historically black Methodist denominations (AME, AMEZ, and CME) have generally stalled out over differences in the way we conceptualize the episcopacy and other organizational matters. Could it be that we might initially bring in other Methodist denominations as jurisdictions and begin to connect to one another as a more expansive United Methodist General Conference? Could we do so without re-creating the racially segregated dynamic of the Central Jurisdiction? It might be worthwhile to entertain broader concepts of what it means to be United Methodists operating under distinctive sub-covenants.
What do you think? Could re-envisioning our jurisdictions be a way forward for The United Methodist Church?