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.
United Methodists are facing the very real possibility that General Conference will not meet in 2021, as scheduled. David Scott has explored the near-term implications, examining denominational division in one post and budgets, boards, and bishops in another. Here, I explore the question, What would happen to The United Methodist Church (UMC) if General Conference never met again?
For those church members worried that such a possibility would mean the end of the UMC, it is important to recognize that the UMC does not currently exist—nor has it ever existed, at least not in a legal sense. According to our own Discipline, the UMC “as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes” (General Discipline 2016, para. 141). In other words, the general church is a fiction.
To be sure, General Conference is a real thing. It met May 10–20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon and again February 23–26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. It even passed legislation and approved a general church budget to fund the work of boards, agencies, and commissions between sessions of general conference. However, General Conference ceased to exist as soon as the meeting came to a close, February 26, 2019. It will not exist until it meets again—if it ever does. The boards, agencies, and commissions mandated to carry out work on behalf of the General Conference continue to exist between sessions of General Conference. They are independently incorporated legal entities, and most have positioned themselves to serve multiple, splinter denominations in the event of a denominational schism. But that which we know as “The United Methodist Church” or “the general Church” does not exist.
What does this fiction mean? The UMC is a figment of our collective imagination, or to put it more theologically, the UMC is a covenantal agreement. The Discipline is our “book of covenant”: “It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together” (General Discipline 2016, p. v). The UMC “exists” only as a covenant. The only thing animating the idea of the UMC among United Methodists is our mutual buy-in. Consider funding: apportionment formulas are precise and much debated, but actual payouts are unenforceable. Congregations and annual conferences pay what they choose to pay to the general Church.
The UMC is only as “real” as we allow it to be. When we participate faithfully and with integrity in this covenant, the denomination takes on life. Our covenantal life together can become a wondrous instrument of God’s grace. To whatever extent we fail to be in covenant, the UMC also fails to be the general Church that we so value. For many in the UMC, that covenant has already been broken; the UMC has failed to be a church for many years. Thankfully, the general church is not the essence of United Methodism.
United Methodist ecclesiology is based on connectionalism. Connectionalism, that “vital web of interactive relationships” (General Discipline 2016, para. 132), distinguishes Methodist polity from congregationalism. Connectional relationships between the general Church and every annual conference and congregation embody the functional and financial relationships of the UMC. However, we do not need a “general Church” for connectionalism. There are more immediate levels of covenant within United Methodism. This is why United Methodists claim that “The annual conference is the basic body of the Church . . .” (General Discipline 2016, para. 33).
If General Conference never met again, most of what we recognize as United Methodism would continue uninterrupted. The annual conference is the heartbeat of connectionalism. United Methodist congregations are connected to each other in an annual conference through participation in an itinerant ministry; clergy are connected through the Order of Elders and Order of Deacons; laity are connected via elected members to annual conference. In practical terms, the annual conference is where ministerial candidates are evaluated and nurtured, where clergy are commissioned and ordained, and where elders itinerate and receive pensions.
Some aspects of connectionalism would change. Political wrangling in the quadrennial arena of General Conference would cease, along with the vitriol practiced there. Annual conferences in the US, independent of the general Church, may choose different means of inculturation for Methodist polity, adapting the Discipline to their own missional needs, as conferences outside the US do currently. The process by which certain elders are elected, consecrated, and assigned as bishops would be opened to adaptation—perhaps within a pan-Methodist or wider ecumenical environment. It is also possible that some annual conferences might follow the example of the Methodist Church of Great Britain or the erstwhile Methodist Protestant Church, choosing to forgo an episcopacy. General apportionments would cease. Annual conferences would still be free to send money to general agencies, boards, and commissions to support ministry and mission around the globe. True, those payouts would be unenforceable. But is that not actually the case today?
If General Conference never met again, new relationships would be allowed to form while remaining true to the core of United Methodist ecclesiology. Old, forced relationships could be allowed to end rather than fester in acrimony within a divided denomination. Removing the denominational façade might actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences—especially across national borders. 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 relationship building. The dissolution of the UMC by abandoning General Conference would open new possibilities. Recentering our connectionalism in the annual conference could renew United Methodism in ways we have yet to imagine.