by Chris Ritter
We still don’t know who will show up to General Conference 2020. It is possible that a group of conferences and churches will, in spite of the legal and practical complexities, send delegates to a separate meeting and form something new. Those that do attend GC2020 will (1) re-stage the battle of GC2019, (2) approve a workable means of separation, or (3) find a way to move forward together. I am torn between options two and three. Option one, to me, is unthinkable.
I have suggested that we could treat our next General Conference like something of a constitutional convention. This means tabling all human sexuality petitions (and other unfruitful business) so that we have time to talk about the big picture: A brand new constitution. This post discusses replacing the United Methodist Church with a United Methodist Communion of churches.
What is a Communion?
A communion is a family of autonomous (but related) denominations and/or regional churches. One example would be the Orthodox churches which have full communion with each other among their autocephelous (independently headed) churches.
An example closer to Methodism is the Anglican Communion. Each church is self-governing and has its own bishops, doctrinal statements, agencies, and ministry standards. Unity in Anglicanism is expressed in several ways, including an archbishop and the Lambeth conference of all Anglican bishops that meets only once per decade. The heads (primates) of the various member churches get together on a somewhat more regular basis.
There is nothing like our UM General Conference. The body that comes closest is the Anglican Consultative Council that gathers every three years. The member churches are ranked small, medium, and large and are granted either 1, 2, or 3 seats respectively. There are also some at-large council seats to bring in needed expertise. The total group is perhaps 70 members strong. Individuals on the council have a six-year term limit (two or three triennial meetings) and are seated only with a 2/3 consent of the council.
The Consultative Council elects its own officers and chooses several members to serve as trustees. These trustees (meeting annually) appoint a committee much like our General Council on Finance and Administration to handle the finances of the Communion. There is also a standing committee of fourteen comprised of select primates and representatives from the consultative committee. The Consultative Council elects a Secretary General who is empowered to hire whatever staff the communion requires for its operations.
The apparatuses of the Communion are overall much leaner than that of the constituent churches. A Council of this limited scope is sufficient because it is not trying to directly govern all the member churches. It is only responsible for the expressions of Anglicanism they all share. Each church has its own governing structures to accomplish what God is calling it to do.
Communions are not without conflict. The Episcopal Church, for instance, was suspended for three years by the 2016 meeting of the primates. The issue was… wait for it… the topic of human sexuality. But disagreements within the Communion do little to disrupt the operation of each member church. No church is held captive or coerced by the Communion. It operates as a cooperative fellowship of denominations.
A Global Methodist Communion
The driving concern of today’s United Methodism is a need for “space.” Our present organization is widely recognized as rigid, unwieldy and top-heavy… unsustainable even before the schism started. (Our general agencies are facing a 23% budget cut prior to calculating the fall out of GC2019.) Our episcopacy is an institution in crisis. Our quadrennial General Conferences are a really, really bad way to run a global church.
A United Methodist Communion would need to be spacious… more spacious, I expect, than the Anglican Communion (we don’t need an archbishop or even a council of bishops). It would primarily serve as a way to share common assets and maintain a modicum of coordination as an alternative to total separation.
Getting to such a markedly different structure is tough. A new constitution would need to be approved and ratified. Then there is the process of moving conferences and congregations into new bodies. The mechanism for this will need to be detailed enough to address the complexities of our current crisis. We can draw much wisdom from the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) which was framed for a similar purpose. The CCP called for each jurisdiction and central conference to choose a new branch to join (or become its own). Those annual conferences that disagreed could hold a vote to join a different branch. Local churches in disagreement with their annual conference could also opt into a different branch. This keeps voting, unavoidable though it is, to a minimum.
Some days of General Conference 2020 could be dedicated to the preliminary formation of the member churches of the communion. Realistically, I think we are talking about one church comprised of the Western Jurisdiction plus some U.S. urban conferences/churches, one church for American centrists, and a Global Methodism comprised of U.S. Evangelicals, Filipinos, Eastern Europeans, and Africans. It is possible that some central conferences may prefer to be their own church within the communion. This, again, mirrors the options offered by the CCP. But I think it is also possible to see the formation of a Methodist “un-denomination” for churches that want a much different sort of connection than our polity has previously allowed.
One agency of our denomination has provided a model for the future of all our general agencies. Under new branding not specific to the UMC, Wespath (formerly the General Board of Pensions of Health Benefits of The United Methodist Church) has positioned themselves to offer services to any judicatory needing their support. A new constitution could encourage all our general agencies to take a similar autonomous path. Agencies will thrive that can successfully reinvent themselves to offer vital services to diverse judicatories. Churches of the communion would be under no obligation to fund something from which they do not reap a corresponding benefit. Setting our general agencies free prevents any group from “winning” control of them. It also saves the majority group from the burden of reforming our outmoded bureaucracy. They would need to reform themselves.
When it comes to branding the various churches in a United Methodist Communion, I would think that the United Methodist name should not be used by any member church without the addition of specifying language. No group can call themselves “The United Methodist Church.” They could, however, adopt names like “Progressive Methodist Church,” “United Methodist Church of the Philippines,” or “Global Methodist Church.” No church may use the standard cross and flame to identify itself, but each may develop a distinct version of the cross and flame should they so choose. (Below you will find some logos modeled on the UMC cross and flame that are used by autonomous Methodist denominations outside the UMC.)
There are always voices that object to any sort of future connection among the warring factions of our denomination: “Why would we want to be in communion with them?” This attitude is symptomatic of the divisive times in which we live. The better angels of our nature call us to retain a degree of connectedness as we hope for better days ahead. We are, after all, already in full communion agreements with churches with whom we disagree on human sexuality (the Episcopal Church and the ELCA are examples). Each church in communion maintains its own clergy standards and doctrinal commitments. There will be no penalty for leaving the communion if it is not working. The looser affiliation of a communion will free us all from the win/lose game we are currently playing. Dr. David Watson has suggested the less theologically-laden language of a “United Methodist Association” of denominations. That is another way to go.
If the UMC became the United Methodist Communion (or association), perhaps other Methodist churches around the world might want to participate, too. The communion may become a fuller expression of the unity we now enjoy among the eighty denominations of the World Methodist Council. Perhaps the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and AME, Zion churches might want to open renewed dialog with us. (The role of bishops has always been a sticking point in unification talks and this would no longer be an issue in a UM Communion). It would take years for these unifying ideas to fully develop, but Methodism carries with it strong ecumenical impulses.
Our denomination is experiencing a Good Friday moment. Maybe separation is unavoidable at this point. As Easter people, is it too much to believe that God could birth something totally new from our darkest hour? It’s time to talk. The legislative deadline for GC2020 is just six months away.