by Chris Ritter
Note: Although I am a WCA Global Council member, the views reflected in this article do not in any way reflect those of WCA or its leadership. This is just me being me.
If General Conference is further delayed, United Methodism will be torn instead of cut. Launching the Global Methodist Church is not ideal at this juncture because the graciousness of The Protocol is extended only to denominations that charter after its approval. Law-and-order traditionalists will not feel at liberty to leave as long as the official positions of the UMC are orthodox. Most traditionalists do not want to exercise congregational disaffiliation and become “non-denominational.” Progressives are anxious to move on with their own plans and are likewise frustrated. There are ways, however, to alleviate the pain and acrimony.
John Wesley called the Methodist Movement “irregular” and “extraordinary” in terms of polity and organization. Theologically, however, Methodism proclaimed none other than the classic faith handed down by the apostles. Wesley believed God raised up Methodism to provoke the established church of his day to reform. Our founder never left the Anglican Church, but neither did he allow his ministry to be constrained by the structural norms of his Church.
Wesley demonstrated willingness to circumvent the established lines of episcopal authority in times of extreme necessity. His ordination of Thomas Coke was such an emergency measure that allowed the Methodist Church in America to organize at a time of extreme “stuck-ness.”
Methodism now finds itself in a moment of crisis. General Conference, the only group empowered to speak for the denomination, is unable to meet due to a global pandemic. The existing structural polity of the UMC is inadequate for the challenges we face. There are, however, features of our polity that could be adapted for this hour.
The formation of a Provisional Emergency American Central Conference (PEACC) for traditionalists could provide relief for those UM congregations and conferences who are locked in structures not conformed to UM theological and ethical teachings. Local churches and clergy joining the PEACC would need to provide evidence that the ethical teachings of the Discipline are not in force in the conference in which they are situated. Annual conferences joining the PEACC would need to demonstrate the same for the jurisdiction in which they are situated. These jurisdictions could afterward adjust their maps to cover the territory of exiting conferences. Central Conferences, of course, are explicitly intended for regions outside the U.S. Such a structure would be thoroughly “irregular,” extra-disciplinary, and intended to address this unprecedented, extended time between General Conferences.
Provisional central conferences (Par. 560-567) do everything a central conference does (except elect bishops) and are organized between General Conference’s. The bishop overseeing the PCC determines which of the rules governing a central conference apply to the provisional CC (Par. 561). The boundaries and organization of a provisional central conference formed between General Conferences expires at the close of General Conference unless renewed or affirmed.
Keeping things under the general rubrics of UM polity might help us keep our current divisions outside the secular courts. Any sorting done now will ease the pain of sorting needed later. The Council of Bishops could ease this process by naming a supervising bishop for the irregular but necessary PEACC. Alternatively, one of our international or retired bishops could step forward for this role.
If our choices are an ethical/theological crisis, a legal crisis, or a polity crisis, I believe a crisis of polity is to be preferred. This rubric would allow United Methodists in the U.S. to begin the process of peaceably sorting ourselves while we await a future General Conference. In many ways, this would be an emergency enactment of the Connectional Conference Plan that many now admit would have been the preferred choice at General Conference 2019. The CCP was probably always a peaceful, more gradual path to full separation. We are now in a place to be realistic about that. Passage of the Protocol at the next General Conference will be much less traumatic with the PEACC already in place.