For the last several weeks, I’ve been taking a rather long detour from what had been my topic for much of the summer, the sources of unity in The United Methodist Church, to talk about a related but still somewhat tangential topic: the aggregate model of unity I’ve introduced. Today, I’m finally going to connect that topic thread back into my discussion of The United Methodist Church in specific ways.
I would like to propose one more possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church, one with long historical roots, one which can encompass the other sources of unity I’ve mentioned, and one which I think holds the most hope for the future: connectionalism.
What is connectionalism? It’s a peculiarly Methodist understanding of what it means to be the church. According to connectionalism, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority. It’s defined by connections between people: connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity. When The United Methodist Church claims to be a connectional church, that means that we hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.
At the beginning of Methodism, connectionalism meant connection to John Wesley. After Wesley, though, there was no one person who defined connectionalism. Even Francis Asbury, who had a central role in shaping Methodism in America, saw the connection of Methodism as being between the preachers and each other, not between the preachers and him. Thus, connectionalism has become not a hub and spokes model of relationship, but a network.
For those of you who read last week’s post, this talk of network should sound familiar. I claimed that the aggregate model of unity is a network model of unity. Therefore, connectionalism can be thought of as an instance of the aggregate model of unity. Connectionalism takes a whole bunch of smaller social groups, be they congregations, Annual Conferences, Jurisdictions, caucuses, ministry networks, or other groups, and ties them all together into a denomination through a network of relationships.
The test for connectionalism is always two-fold. First, are these relationships strong enough to hold when tensions come? Can we maintain our relationships with one another, even when we disagree or feel hurt or wronged? Second, are we willing to extend our sense of connection beyond just those with whom we have a personal relationship into second-, third- or even more degrees of connection? Are we willing to recognize ourselves as in connection with not just those to whom we are directly connected, but also those people to whom our connections are connected (and their connections, too, and so on)?
The first of these challenges is a perpetual one. Since sanctification seems to be a gift given to few, we can expect that church people will remain people, which means that they’ll occasionally disagree or hurt each other or fear each other, and such instances will test their relationships. The second challenge becomes increasingly difficult, however, as the church grows in membership, expands into new geographical areas, and lives in an individualistic culture. When there are too many people to know personally, even at one or two degrees of remove, and when distance (not to mention many of the other challenges of modern life) make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships, our sense of connection to others in the denomination suffers. When we are content to be individuals independent of community, we care less that our connections are not what they could be.
There’s not much we can do about the first beyond praying that God will continue to give us sanctifying grace and then trying to cooperate with what is given. There may, however, be ways in which we can try to overcome the third and second challenges. Can new theologies re-emphasize community and connection? Can new technologies facilitate those connections? If United Methodists want to remain united, these are questions worth asking ourselves.