Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference. The post first appeared on the author's personal website, Ethics Considered. It is republished here with permission.
dis·so·lu·tion /ˌdisəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n/ noun. 1. the closing down or dismissal of an assembly, partnership, or official body.
In a previous post, I explored the possibility that General Conference might not ever meet again. I am not the first to raise this possibility. Indeed, more than a few other church leaders and scholars have called for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church (UMC). However, my discussion dissolution of the denomination differs in an important way from previous proposals: rather than construct and prescribe future connectional relationships through protocols and agreements, I believe new relationships can emerge organically if we allow them.
The possibility of new beginnings requires an end to what was. There are many reasons for the divisions currently tearing the UMC apart, not the least of which have to do with a white, US, imperialistic mindset. The denominational structure has become an obstacle to our ecclesiology, a hinderance rather than an enabler of connectional relationships.
I am not the first or the only one to reach this conclusion or something similar. In March 2017, Professor Mark Teasdale recommended “dissolving United Methodism as a denomination”—but he lost our ecclesiology by proposing every congregation become independent. More recently, Professor Tom Frank also advocated for terminating “a global denomination with common governance” in favor of “mov[ing] authority for ministry closer to where it is practiced”—albeit through a US denominational structure. My consideration of dissolution differs from Teasedale’s congregationalism and Frank’s
US-denominationalism by suggesting the annual conference, “the basic body of the Church,” be the largest institutional entity.
Envisioning the dissolution of the UMC is not a call for ecclesial anarchy or the end of connectional relationships. Rather, this path forward can maintain the essence of what our clergy and laity recognize as the United Methodist way of being church. I am in agreement with Bishop Bob Farr, who declared, “It is time to find a way for The United Methodist Church to separate.” He suggested, along the lines of what I am discussing, “convert[ing] all [annual] conferences into affiliated autonomous conferences.” Likewise, Amy Valdez Barker, former top executive of the Connectional Table, argued for “a connection based on relationships” centered in the local congregation and annual conference. “General Conference is not a system that allows for conflicts to be resolved through relationships and, therefore, it needs to change,” she asserted.
Despite differences in strategy, each of these leaders recognizes the importance of subsidiarity—allowing decision-making to occur at a more local level of authority. We need to deal with divisive issues locally, face-to-face, and among those who live side-by-side. The denominational level is no longer (if it ever was) an effective place for deliberation, discernment, and decision-making.
Dissolution is not the same as schism or restructure. Dividing up the denominational spoils among competing caucuses through a negotiated “Protocol” would exacerbate United Methodist divisions, focusing on money and property rather than mission. Jeremy Smith described the differences in an informative post, “What does it mean to Dissolve The United Methodist Church?” Restructuring the denomination into affinity conferences through the Connectional Conference Plan, Bard-Jones Plan, or a similar negotiated arrangement would also fail us ecclesiologically, enshrining our differences over homosexuality into the very structure of our church. Furthermore, both schism and restructuring for the sake of US ecclesial politics would leave in place the inequities of central conference structures.
Dissolution of the UMC is not a last-ditch effort to “save” this denomination or to orchestrate its demise. Instead of euthanasia by Protocol, dissolution pulls the plug on artificial life support and allows a natural death. In doing so, we may find that the UMC, like the late Terri Schiavo, had ceased meaningful functioning and any chance of resuscitation long before we allowed death to occur. No hopeful covenant for unity can change the fact that church law, for nearly 50 years, has categorically denied the first principle of unity, that “we are all children of God.” Resurrection cannot occur prior to death. We must allow this denomination to die in order to experience rebirth as a
Dissolution is an intentional means of allowing new relationships to form while being true to our ecclesiology. Getting back to basics by centering our connectionalism in the annual conference can renew United Methodism. Removing the denominational overlay could actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of building new relationships—this time truly recognizing our equal dignity and equality as children of God.