Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Barry Bryant - Contextual & Connectional: Methodism’s Chimera

Today's post is the first of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Since 1972 United Methodism has not had a theology as much as it has a theological method consisting of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Methodists have Albert Outler to thank for that. There is one significant difference between Outler and his Anglican predecessors such as Richard Hooker, however. The Quadrilateral adds “experience” to the Anglican theological method consisting of Scripture, reason, and tradition. What the addition of experience has done is to provide a theological method that has facilitated Methodists who do theology that is both contextual and practical. We do not have a Methodist theology as much as Methodists who do theology.

There is another point that is equally argued. Neither does Methodism have an ecclesiology as much as it has an ecclesiological concept, otherwise known as “connectionalism.” As Russ Richey points out the term connectional is generally used as an organizational classification that is employed to distinguish denominations with centralized authority, governance, and structure from a more congregational model where such prerogatives are located in the congregation. Methodists understand connectionalism institutionally. By this definition there are many denominations that are interrelated institutionally and function connectionally. Just as Methodists did not invent the quadrilateral, neither did we really invent connectionalism, and we are connectional at least for now. After being examined by economists, United Methodists have been told that we have about 15 years of an economically sustainable connectionalism left unless things are turned around. What happens then? The movement that became a denomination may one day have to reinvent itself as a movement again.

The problem that has quadrennially plagued United Methodism has been when General Conference attempts to insert contextual theology that has been shaped by square Quadrilateral pegs into round Connectional holes. After watching several episodes of the “Big Bang Theory,” it occurred to me that perhaps we need to change the metaphor from one of Euclidian geometry to one of quantum physics. One of Methodism’s biggest problem is when contextual theology and connectional polity collide like subatomic particles in the Hadron supercollider we call “General Conference.” After that we are frequently left looking for the Higgs boson “God particle,” the theoretical subatomic particle that holds things together in order to create mass. The phenomenon of General Conference demonstrates how contextual theology stretches connectionalism to the point of breaking causing it to lean more toward a congregational polity than not. This is why Methodists frequently fret of schism and why we do so still today.

In fairness, neither did Methodists invent schism, but in the 19th century we worked to perfect it. Between 1784 and 1895 the Methodist Episcopal Church would split no fewer than ten times. We have been schooled on schism.

• 1784- Formation of Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Bishops
• 1787- Richard Allen, split from St. George’s MEC to form the AME 1816
• 1792- James O’Kelly to form Republican Methodists who ended up UCC
• 1795- Peter Williams, Sr. split for John Street MEC to form the AMEZ
• 1828- Methodist Protestant Church
• 1843- Wesleyan Methodist Church
• 1844- Methodist Episcopal Church, South
• 1860- Free Methodist Church
• 1870- Christian Methodist Church
• 1895- Phineas Bresee over a homeless mission in LA to form the Church of the Nazarene (mission)

Methodists have split over race and the episcopacy more than anything else. We come by schism honestly. We are the schismatic child of a schismatic parent. We split from the Church of England and the Church of England was a split from the Roman Catholic Church as the result of a very nasty, bloody, and violent royal divorce.

The “Quadrilateral” is a theological chimera, a hybrid of Anglicanism and Wesleyanism constructed rolled out in 1972 in the hopes that it would result in uniting the newly formed United Methodist Church. At this point unity itself has become a chimera in the other sense of word as something that is hoped or wished for but is often illusory or impossible to achieve. As United Methodists engage in “holy conversation” around the issue of human sexuality there will be implicit and explicit appeals made to the “Quadrilateral.” Regardless of whether one is for it or against it most agree it has cast a long shadow over a great deal of everything else and its relentless use has caused many a Methodist to quip, “I am Methodist because we believe in the Quadrilateral.”

We indeed have a problem when epistemology overshadows Christology. If our aim is to find unity, we don’t need to look at a chimera. We should be looking to the Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit who binds and connects us into the body of Christ.


  1. David, you and your academic colleagues are doing such a wonderful job exploring the ramifications of these significant issues coming before the UMC. It's a real privilege for UM Insight to be able to share these works with leaders and readers who care about the church's future. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Cynthia. I'm honored by that comment. Thank you so much for your effort in distributing what we write!