by Chris Ritter
I serve a church with a tight Sunday worship schedule. On occasion the preacher is so long-winded that the postlude for one service becomes the prelude for the next. None of us much like the music being played in the UMC currently. But what sounds like a dirge is also the prelude to something new. I once overheard Bishop Ken Carter say (I paraphrase) that the future is already happening and we only need to pay attention to it. United Methodists would be wise to discern long-standing trend lines and the future to which they point. Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional. Collaboration is the key.
The Global Methodist Church was born trapped in the same gravity well of uncertainly that grips the UMC. Most American traditionalists no longer seek to “win” the institution and desire a new sort of connection. But annual conference exits are off the table for now, disaffiliation costs are high, and the patchwork of conference-level exit processes are complex to navigate. The GMC is sincere in its hope that the African central conferences will eventually join them. And they might… but this can only be partial and fraught with significant conference-level turmoil. Those leaving would cut themselves off from their established brand and legacy funding sources. It also requires they accept a new Discipline with a less authoritative episcopacy. GMC leaders have staked out a position against regionalization, but this creates the significant challenge of finding a single system that works for all. At convening conference, a GMC African super-majority would look circumspectly at the polity crafted for an American context.
UM Progressive/Centrists are frustrated and concerned, too. The exit of U.S. traditionalists could actually result in a net loss in U.S. representation at General Conference. The future is uncertain for plans to either change human sexuality standards or regionalize the global UMC. U.S. jurisdictions will likely be successful in electing bishops unwilling to enforce what the Book of Discipline says on human sexuality. But this small consolation does not get them to the real challenge of reorganizing for the future. What centrist/progressives want is a U.S. regional body to do this work.
Locked horns here in America obscure what is otherwise obvious: Africa is the now and future UMC majority. African Central Conferences are the only sectors that (1) are increasing membership, (2) have built up the UMC brand in their contexts, and (3) largely accept both what the UMC teaches and how it is constituted. Africa is also the part of the church with the greatest potential to translate the UMC institution into significant numbers of new disciples. United Methodism works there for the same reason it doesn’t work here. The tight connectionalism that locks the U.S. in intramural conflict also prevents the church in Africa from falling prey to local politics. Surely any solution for U.S. schism should seek to preserve what is working for the majority.
The fate of the African central conferences is the source of so much uncertainty because we have given our only growth sector three unacceptable options: (1) Leave the UMC they love, (2) compromise deeply-held beliefs, or (3) compartmentalize themselves and look away from what is happening elsewhere in the Church. This post is about a fourth option. What if the next General Conference put the change where it is needed and enable Africa to inherit the current UMC? Hear me out.
I suggest that American Methodists of all stripes unite on a path to bequeath the current constitution and Book of Discipline to the African central conferences. In doing so, we have an opportunity to salvage a bit of our unity… even as we separate. The Judicial Council tells us that U.S. annual conferences can leave the UMC if General Conference approves a process for that. American conferences, as an act of grace and generosity, should take exit as an opportunity to reorganize for the future. This does not mean abandoning United Methodism or Africa. Most general agencies have already poised themselves to be ecumenical organizations (Wespath, United Women in Faith, Discipleship Resources, etc.). General Conference 2024 only needs to change the representation basis for general agency boards to grant seats to all bodies that contributes to their support. Instead of seats being filled by U.S. jurisdictions, they would be filled by participating denominations.
There are advantages to leaving the inflexibility of the UMC structure while maintaining connection through the work of the general agencies. This way forward reorganizes the church while avoiding constitutional amendments. We only need carefully-crafted legislation that (1) allows conference and local church exits and (2) changes how general agency boards are populated. The first part would be a sort of Protocol 2.0. The second would allow the general agencies (including GCFA) to be governed by boards populated by participating bodies. The Episcopal Fund would need to be maintained at a level only that keeps promises to current bishops. Future funding for bishops could be provided by the various episcopal areas.
Building on my past support for the Connectional Conference Plan, I envision a centrist/progressive church formed from through a Protocol-type migration of fifty or so U.S. conferences. These conferences would form a new union to function much like the U.S. Regional Conference proposed in the Christmas Covenant. The name, of course, would be up to them. But “The United Methodist Church of America” (UMCA) has a nice ring to it. This new church would be free to rebrand and reboot as it wishes. It could reproduce the current system of jurisdictions or scuttle that judicatory layer entirely. It would maintain significant representation in the current general agencies.
The same Protocol that allows the UMC in America to form would also enable exits to the GMC. The Global Methodist Church would, I expect, take an al a carte approach to the current agencies, perhaps maintaining a connection with only UMCOR, Wespath, and Global Ministries. The GMC would be a confluence of traditional-minded annual conferences in the Western Hemisphere, Asia, and Eastern Europe under their own General Conference. The Philippines would be free to chart a course with Africa, join a newly forming denomination, or form its own General Conference. The African Central Conferences would become the legacy-holders of the United Methodist constitution and existing Discipline. Linking everything together would be the cooperative work of the UM general agencies.
There is no way to force U.S. conferences to exit. Those that elect to stay, however, would find themselves in an Africa-focused denomination. And they would miss the opportunity to help shape one of the new spin-off denominations. An Africa-based UMC would likely want to call special General Conferences in 2025 and 2026 on its own continent to customize the UMC Discipline to its context.
Getting with the Music
I have long been interested in the space between “United” and “Un-tied.” While the Connectional Conference Plan gained no traction in 2019, there is still an opportunity to build a positive future from what is already happening. Already Africa is inheriting General Conference. Already American conferences are defining themselves apart from General Conference. Already our general agencies are preparing to serve multiple denominations. Already the Global Methodist Church is becoming a space for those who stand outside the Western Mainline consensus. The prelude for the next Methodism is already playing if we put down our clubs and start singing to the music.