In her perceptive comment on the overview of this section (“A Church Formed by Grace”), Elaine Robinson refers to the paragraphs 50-54 “as a list of structural and relational commitments that are characteristically Methodist . . .” She identifies para. 50, on connectionalism, as one such “structural commitment.” While appreciating the document’s claim that connectionalism “expresses our [United Methodist] missional life,” she worries that the paragraph might serve largely as an “apologia” for the current churchly bureaucracy, perhaps most pertinently, its general agencies. She points to the increasing tendency in recent decades to trim the work of the general church to the aims of local churches, and rightly asks about implications of this tendency for United Methodism’s “global nature,” given its still-predominantly U.S.-centered configuration. As such, connectionalism, instead of serving as “rationale” for the church’s mission might in fact obscure or even obstruct it.
These are legitimate concerns. Surely, too often, and perhaps especially in recent years, “connectionalism” has stood proxy for bureaucratic navel-gazing and self-preservation. Yet, as para. 50 reminds us, “system” and “mission” are indelibly linked in United Methodist ecclesiology. The reflection on connectionalism in this paragraph of Grace Upon Grace, I hope to show, remains remarkably relevant to our efforts today to make our missional commitments concrete as a global connectional system.
Paragraph 50 opens with the rather striking claim: “Connectionalism is the distinctive form of United Methodism’s organizational obedience.” Indeed, it goes on, “this connectional system expresses our missional life . . .” Given the increasingly contentious wrangling about denominational restructuring (typified, perhaps, most notoriously by the 2012 General Conference), the equation of “system” and “mission” here might strike many readers as not only hopelessly idealistic but also thoroughly misguided (not to mention, self-serving). Isn’t the “system” exactly the problem? Now, no one who is paying attention would disagree that United Methodism’s current system—from general agencies to local church—needs fundamental rethinking. Yet our debates often miss a key insight about the relation between mission and system: For United Methodists, structure, system, organization, and polity are indispensable modes in giving concrete form to our ecclesial convictions in a particular time and place. As para. 50 notes, it is precisely through the mundane mechanisms of structure, precept, and polity that United Methodists express “our bodily life in Christ”—or, equally, express our life in Christ bodily. In other words, structure, organization, polity, and pattern are crucial elements in the way United Methodists contextualize their mission in and for a time and place. Connectional “system,” then, in its often convoluted complexity, embodies and expresses what Russell Richey calls our “practiced or practical ecclesiology.” It is a form of being church in which theological self-understanding is “embedded in the everyday structures, policies, organizations, and patterns of Methodist life.”
Now, lest I be construed as an unreconstructed apologist for the status quo, let me note a couple of implications that might shed light on the radical potential of our “practiced” ecclesiology for our mission today. First, if our system always embodies our missional convictions, then “structure” is always already theologically freighted. This means denominational restructuring efforts dare not proceed without careful theological work. For such theological attention allows us to ask the sorts of questions that often get sublimated in our politically-charged debates: What convictions, beliefs, and values do we seek or have sought to embody in a particular local, annual conference, or general church structure? How would such convictions, beliefs, and values be diminished, upheld, or altered by a proposed change? Indeed, how might prayerful theological reflection on these convictions, beliefs, and values in fact prompt or demand changes in the system? Moreover, and perhaps most important, how might such theological reflection remind us of dimensions of our Methodist self-understanding and missional practice that have become corrupted, covered up, or even abandoned in our current system?
Questions like these allow us to acknowledge the contextual nature of our connectional system (as pointed out above). As contextual, the concrete forms our ecclesial identity takes are always both timely and time-bound: timely so as to render a “faithful Christian witness” in and for a particular time and place; time-bound, because contexts constantly change. It is lamentable that these rather obvious points about context and contextuality often receive so little overt theological consideration in our denominational deliberations. Such neglect prevents just the self-critical attentiveness to cultural embeddedness, if not captivity, that faithful “organizational obedience” to our connectional covenant in a particular context requires. A number of previous posts, including Dr. Robinson’s, have noted the deleterious effects of such contextual tone-deafness on our efforts to be a global church. Unwitting U.S. self-preoccupation continues to cripple our capacity to attend with theological integrity to the growing contextual complexity of our denomination around the world. Equally important, however, such tone-deafness discourages U.S. United Methodists from engaging their own rapidly changing context with the theological astuteness that effective contextualization demands. I suspect the tectonic cultural, economic, political, and religious shifts that are reconfiguring the North American context provide vital clues to why, how, and to what ends we U.S. United Methodists continue to fight over certain issues and neglect or ignore others.
Russell Richey observes that, at its best, connectionalism is “malleable, evolving, vulnerable . . . forming and reforming.” Our confidence in a connectional covenant that is Spirit-inspired and Spirit-led has prompted United Methodists again and again “to go with the Spirit, to experiment, to try new things, to change.” Such attributes and virtues are critical to effective contextualization in the multivalent, complex, and rapidly changing contexts within which United Methodists find themselves today. However, as Grace Upon Grace wisely observed twenty-five years ago, these virtues and attributes (and their fruits, inclusiveness, ecumenical affirmation, global awareness, diversity [paras. 51-54]) will remain vibrant and effective only in a United Methodist connection that is “alertly critical of its context and self-critical of its relation to that setting.” (para. 55) Today, more than ever, do we need such theological vigilance, as the missional needs of an increasingly multicultural, multicontextual global United Methodist connection chafe under a connectional machinery designed for a U.S. context now rapidly disappearing.
 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2012 (The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), ¶ 125.
 Russell E. Richey, with Dennis M. Campbell and William B. Lawrence, Marks of Methodism: Theology In Ecclesial Practice (Abingdon, 2005), 1-2.
 Book of Discipline, ¶ 105.
 Richey, Marks of Methodism, 25, 28. Italics in original.