by Chris Ritter

I just read Dr. Darryl Stephens’ interesting and provocative piece at UM & Global in which he proposes that General Conference not meet…next year or ever again. Director of UM Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Stephens argues that our ecclesiology would actually be improved if General Conference was summarily eliminated as a decision-making body.  Annual conferences and their organic, intramural associations would become the new locus for a renewed and less colonial connectionalism.   

Our expensive General Conferences, after all, have been reduced to arenas for unsightly partisan showdowns.  They are where enthusiastic reform agendas, like The Call to Action, go to die. The bureaucracy that General Conference governs has become unsustainable. Why not let the denominational general agencies sink or swim, as autonomous 501(c)3’s, based on the value they provide to the annual conferences that fund them?

Is a solution to United Methodism’s woes simply to stop holding General Conferences?

Annual Conference Ascendency

The myriad of technical and legal issues set aside, Stephens’ new connectionalism downgrades General Conference to the benefit of the annual (regional) conferences. Heather Hahn’s piece this week in UMNS reminds us that annual conferences are the “basic unit” of the UMC… and she reports these units are holding their own in spite of many challenges. In the aftermath of GC2019, Lovett Weems wrote a piece about how General Conference is broken, but the annual conferences are not.

Dr. Stephens:

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.

Hold Up

Dissolve the Galactic Senate? To quote General Ackbar, “It’s a trap.”

Stephens’ proposal sits alongside other proposals for dissolution that have been offered by leaders such as Keith Boyette, President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. In general, cutting the ties that bind allows the various pieces to move about freely into new and (hopefully) healthier configurations. Proper dissolution, like Boyette’s past legislation, requires amending our constitution. The merits of formal dissolution would be debated in ratification votes held all around the world.

But Stephens’ dissolution proposal is unique. First, it shifts the powers of General Conference directly to the annual conferences. With the general church eliminated, the annual conferences make their own rules and set their own standards (doctrine, organization, chargeable offenses, etc). They also are free to quiet their own inmates. U.S. annual conferences happen to be mostly dominated by the progressive and centrists wings of the church. Stephens’ targeted dissolution would conveniently eliminate the one arena in which progressives are not successful in getting their way. The Separation Protocol allows orderly exits by conferences, congregations, and clergy. Stephens’ proposal gives traditionalist congregations in progressive conferences no clear recourse to retain their properties.

The other striking feature of Stephens’ Plan is that it would sever the growing global church from U.S. decision-making in one fell swoop… the biggest Western power grab imaginable. Stephens cites the colonialism inherent in our present connectionalism. It is curious that colonial concerns surface only once “the colonies” started telling us what we can and cannot do.  The remedy proposed: Cease to invite international delegates (with the contrary opinions) to the party.  This is, basically, a legislative boycott of Africans.

If Stephens’ proposal is a Western takeover, it is also an episcopal power grab.  Minus General Conference, bishops shed the vestiges of the accountability structures in place for them.  The same constitution that mandates General Conference also provides due process protections for clergy.  Our carefully laid system of checks and balances would be set aside in favor of the powers that be.

Confusing the Problem with the Solution

Stephens’ dissolution plan is built on the false premise that our annual conferences are healthy and relatively free from conflict. In fact, his plan is further evidence of those deep divisions. It is an attempt to gerrymander a progressive denominational majority where one does not now currently exist… and never will as long as the Africa ascendency continues. Beware those who use this current moment of crisis as a convenient time to change the guest list.

U.S. annual conferences are leading the denominational decline and are at the heart of what ails us as a denomination. They are not the doctor. They are the patient.

We need General Conference to meet at least once more, virtually or otherwise, and exercise its rightful authority to allow the exit of conferences, congregations, and clergy… free from local interference.  That is, we need the carefully negotiated Separation Protocol to be duly and properly approved.  My best suggestion at this point is a one-day, specially-called virtual General Conference held as soon as possible in order to consider the Feinberg Protocol. Once approved, separate in-person General Conferences can be held in 2022 by the annual conferences, congregations, and clergy that will help constitute the new Methodist bodies.

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