Thursday, August 27, 2015

A global church, jurisdictions, and racial skeletons in our closet

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Several different plans, proposals, and processes are wending their way through the UMC aimed at making denominational structures more equitable in how power is distributed between the United States and other countries with a UMC presence. One significant question facing all of these possibilities is what to do with the Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States. Should they be merged into one US Central Conference? Should they become Central Conferences themselves? Should they just be abolished?

These questions become particularly vexing because the current jurisdictional structure easily becomes a proxy for liberal and conservative theological views within the American wing of the denomination. The Western Jurisdiction often represents theological liberals, wherever they are located, while the Southeast Jurisdiction stands in for theological conservatives. Decades of ecclesiastical separation, secular regional cultural differences, and the Big Sort going on in American society have produced jurisdictions who too often see each other as enemies instead of fellow Christians.

Add to this theological separation differences in numbers (the Western Jurisdiction is the smallest; the Southeast is the largest), and you have the makings of some significant fights over money, resources, representation, power, and belonging in the church. These fights are significant enough that they could potentially derail efforts to move to a more internationally-equitable arrangement.

It is important to remember, therefore, that the jurisdictions were not originally crafted for theological segregation but for racial segregation. Jurisdictions entered American Methodism in the 1939 merger between the MEC, MECS, and MPC as a way to create a separate structure into which put African-American churches and church leaders. That segregated jurisdiction was removed in the 1968 merger with the EUB, but that doesn't efface the racist roots of the system.

Why are those racist roots important now? (White, American) United Methodists need to be honest and repentant about the ways in which racism has structured our common life in the past. If we are, then we will be less likely to let racism by the predominantly white American UMC against the predominantly non-white non-American UMC continue to perpetuate systematic inequalities between the US and the rest of the connection.

If American United Methodists can confront the racist roots of the jurisdictions, then perhaps we will not elevate our largely US-centric worries about the future of the jurisdictions over the need to fairly share power with our sisters and brothers in Christ from other countries.


  1. Well said, David, and right on the money! Picking up for UM Insight. And let me say again how much I value this blog. You've single-handedly helped Insight achieve our goal of broader and more equitable international coverage. Thank you so much!

  2. Cynthia, I'm honored by that. Thank you for your consistent support of this blog and for helping us work toward broader and more equitable international coverage.

  3. I couldn't agree more David, although our fears about the future of jurisdictions are closely related to power sharing globally. Jurisdictions were originally, and are now, a way of roughly containing both cultural difference and differentials in power within the US. Lay our jurisdicational map over the map of "America's Nations" as described by Colin Woodward. For all the flaws in our system it allowed a rough equality of representation within a nation of cultural differences and increasing power differentials. If it goes away the smaller and weaker jurisdictions may well feel that they will be overrun (and effectively run out) by the combined power of the SE and SC jurisdiction along with the allies in Africa. Similarly the central conferences in Europe have every reason to fear that their voice will be marginalized in a system preferential to Africa and the US South. Whatever emerges I expect that conservative United Methodists both impatient with and intolerant of theological and ethical diversity will assert their power to control the social and theological agenda of the whole of global United Methodism, or what remains of it.