This week’s contender for possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church (or other denominations, with the appropriate caveats made) is polity. Polity means the rules and structures that define the formal organization of the church. It includes things like membership vows, definitions of ordained ministry (and the rules for becoming and remaining an ordained minister), General Conference (the supreme legislative and executive body of The United Methodist Church), the General Boards and their relations to other parts of the church, Annual Conferences, ministerial pension funds, property ownership and oversight, pastor-parish relations committee, and a whole host of other organizational apparatuses.
On a first glance, polity is certainly part of what constitutes the unity of The United Methodist Church. Historian Richard Heitzenrater (and others) argues that what it truly meant to be Methodist in the early days was to be in connection (or connexion, as the British would spell it) with John Wesley. Similarly, to be United Methodist nowadays means to be a member, minister, or ministry of The United Methodist Church, a formal organization with its own set of laws and regulations governing how the church functions. People can play with the boundaries of those laws or disobey those laws at times, but one isn’t United Methodist unless one buys into the organization to a certain extent. If a church completely disregards the Book of Discipline, never sends delegates to an Annual Conference, doesn’t pay apportionments, and is in no way linked to the church hierarchy, it’s not United Methodist; it’s an independent, non-denominational church.
So polity is definitely part of what unites United Methodists. In fact, polity is such an important uniting force that it also highlights the forces for disunity. Methodists can argue with Presbyterians and feel that, as fellow Christians or even fellow Protestants, they have a stake in keeping those arguments going and not just walking out. But, at the end of the day, there’s always the option that, if the argument gets too much to deal with, Methodists (or Presbyterians) can take their ball (or, rather, their pension fund) and go home. Yes, that might be a defeat of Christian unity, but it’s not going to cause massive administrative problems in local churches.
United Methodists cannot, however, when arguing with each other, just take their pension fund and go home because it’s the same pension fund! Because polity governs things like money and power but is also something that unites denominations in a fairly robust way, disagreements over other issues quickly get translated into disagreements over polity, and these disagreements matter because they affect things like who gets to be a minister, which ministries get money, and who can become a member of a church. It affects the day-to-day operations of churches in real, tangible ways. Sometimes polity is strong enough to survive these types of conflicts, and churches work through their differences; sometimes it’s not, and churches split.
This tendency for conflicts from other areas of the church to become conflicts about polity means, however, that polity cannot be the sole source of denominational unity. If all we have in common is common pools of money and common structures of power, then all we will do is fight about money and power. There’s already a good deal of that going on in the church (see the comment from a couple of posts ago about people fighting like weasels at General Conference), and we don’t need more of it. Fighting about things like money and power means that the church is focused internally on itself and not focused externally and is focused on earthly things and not heavenly things.
When the church is not focused externally, then it can’t be in mission and ministry to the world, which is a good portion of the church’s reason for existence. When the church is stuck thinking solely about earthly and not heavenly things, then it can’t be an effective worshiping community, which is most of the rest of the church’s reason for existence. And if the church isn’t in mission and isn’t a worshiping community, then it has effectively stopped to be the church, no matter what the name on the incorporation papers say.
Therefore, to do ministry together and to worship communally, which are the reasons for the church’s existence, there must be something more holding the church together than just polity. In the next two weeks, I’ll look at some ideas as to what else might provide that basis of unity.