It was one of the great and most important features of Methodism from the beginning— its connectionalism. It distinguished Methodism from the polity of Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and indeed most all non- Wesleyan Protestants of whatever stripe. Unlike Baptist polity, Methodists made their decisions at the conference level, not at the local church level. And certainly they made no major decisions about significant theological and ethical issues at the local church level. Those things needed the wisdom of the entire church at its best— both clergy and laity meeting together in conference. Both John Wesley and Francis Asbury, the leaders of the movement in the U.K. and in the fledgling United States were adamant about ‘maintaining the connection’. There would be a minister for every church, which would require itinerancy. Even in my day, when I became a U.M. minister I first served four churches, and those were great days.
We now have a commission tasked with sorting out the future of the United Methodist Church, and quite apart from that commission we have various individuals and groups publicly touting this or that solution to our intractable problems over the issues of human sexuality, what counts as marriage, and the like. In a move of desperation, some have suggested we become Baptists on the issue of marriage and what counts as appropriate sexual conduct. By this I mean there are some touting ‘the local church option’. Let each local church decide these particular matters. That way we can keep the United Methodist Church from becoming the Untied Methodist Church. Alas, for this suggestion of desperation, were we to do that, we would need to removed the name Methodist from our church altogether. John Wesley and Francis Asbury would both insist—- ‘this is not Methodist at all!’ And they would be right.
I was reading an essay by a Nazarene friend struggling with some of the same organizational issues. Here is a bit of what he says—
“Without trust, it is impossible to foster the ‘total sense of interconnectedness and interdependence involved’ in forming genuine relationships. Parker J. Palmer, writing from the context of an educator,
reminds us: ‘Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive. If the inner work necessary to cultivate such dispositions and counteract whatever undermines them is not seen as vital to educational success
and if institutional support for inner work is lacking then this critical variable is left up for grabs. We know what its fate will be in a culture that is consistently corrosive of trust.’ He goes on to say: ‘Who does not know that you can throw the best methods, the latest equipment, and a lot of money at people who do not trust each other and still get miserable results? Who does not know that
people who trust each other and work well together can do exceptional work with less than adequate resources?’ [emphasis his]
This, by its very nature, cannot be achieved by structural change; it requires a change of heart through the work of the Holy Spirit on both a personal and a community level.”– These are the words of the Dean of the Nazarene Theological College in Brisbane, a city where I’ve done some teaching. If you’d like to read more here is the link
Now I bring this up because, a mere change in our polity and structure is: 1) not going to solve our problems in United Methodism. The outcome is still likely to be a very serious splitting of the church, something hardly any of us really want. Schism is after all a sin; 2) the only real way forward is the work of the Spirit and the Word of God to change hearts. And by this I do NOT mean either change our Discipline or our polity. Neither of these remedies will prevent a serious split. We need to be honest about this, openly honest. Failing a serious change of heart by those who keep violating our Discipline, our Methodist teaching about the sacrament of marriage, and what even Jesus himself said about it, we ought to ask what honesty requires of them if they will not change their minds and views and hearts. I do not doubt that many of these folks are violating the Discipline because they are acting on principles they believe in. But it would be far better if that is their convictions that they go on and form a ‘more perfect union’ by starting a new church.
Real honesty would look like this— that those who keep violating 2,000 years of church teaching on the nature of Christian marriage and violating what the Bible says about such things, and violating what John Wesley himself has said in his ‘Thoughts on Celibacy’ should make the appropriate ethical decision simply to turn in their UM credentials and go and form a new Methodist Church, perhaps call it the Progressive Methodist Church. They should have the courage of their convictions and get on with it. The United Methodists I am sure would be gracious enough to allow them to keep their pensions and if churches wanted to go with these clergy, keep their church buildings as well. We will all be poorer if there is such an exodus of brothers and sisters from our church, but the breaking of our covenant again and again, and the failing of our bishops to hold those who do these things accountable cannot go on much longer for sure.
Without trust, and without our connectional system, we cease to be Methodists, no matter what label we put on our buildings. I pray for the healing of our church and for repentance and forgiveness on all sides. But this will require, as the quote above suggests— a revolution of the heart, a turning from the permissive sexual ethics that permeate our culture and have infected our church. May it happen even now, as we await the report of the Commission, and if not— may God have mercy on our souls.