The US of A and All of Us

Last week, I wrote about the extent to which postmodernity was a Western phenomenon, and the post before that, I wrote about the numbers problem in The United Methodist Church.  This week’s post sort of combines those two thoughts.

As acknowledged, The United Methodist Church has some problems – problems with membership numbers, finances, structures, etc.  As the article my advisor and I wrote, these problems are not just an American phenomenon, but that’s primarily how they’re thought about.  Part of this bias toward focusing on the American problems is that mainline American Protestantism has problems that are different from the types of problems Protestantism around the world faces, and United Methodism reflects that.  Part of this bias is that the United States is still the membership and financial center for The UMC.  Part of this bias is just Americans being bad at thinking about the rest of the world.

Yet we American United Methodists do need to think about the rest of the world as we’re trying to solve the problems of the denomination here.  We must be aware that, as a globally-connected church, the actions we take in the United States have implications around the world.  Solutions we implement for problems in the United States have the potential to cause new problems elsewhere (as well as new problems here, as all solutions do).  This presents a tension for United Methodists: how do we address the critical and pressing questions of the church in America while at the same time not losing sight of how those solutions affect the church around the world?

This also raises a set of questions: What does it mean to be a globally-connected church?  What does the Methodist concept of connectionalism mean when it is extended across geographical, political, cultural, and linguistic boundaries?  What does it mean for United Methodists in Nigeria, say, to be part of the same church as United Methodists in Cambodia, Lithuania, and the Philippines, as well as the United States?

This problem seems to me to be uniquely a Methodist one, too.  Certainly, some other denominations have trans-national aspects to them.  Yet none has quite the same structural/ecclesiological relationship between different national branches as The UMC does (with the probable exception of other American Wesleyan bodies).  In large part this is because of the uniqueness of Methodist polity/ecclesiology.

On the one side of Methodism, you have churches where church is defined primarily in congregational terms.  This category includes churches coming from the Reformed tradition such as Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, etc.  It also includes most Pentecostal churches, non-denominational megachurches, church from the American Restorationist movement (Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ), and a whole host of others.  While there are structures which connect these local churches, some of which are transnational, these transnational structures don’t raise the same issues, as what matters most is the local church.  At the end of the day, the important decisions are made in local churches, and whatever larger associations that local church may have, it is ultimately only responsible to and for itself in the decisions it makes.

Then there are churches with an episcopal polity, including Lutherans, Anglicans, and most notably the Catholics (as well as some pentecostals and AICs, interestingly enough).  Most of these churches have a diocesan understanding of the bishopric (i.e., bishops are responsible for a particular geographic area), and, while you can argue that The UMC has effectively adopted a diocesan model of bishops, in theory at least The UMC is not a diocesan church.  In churches organized on the diocese model, diocese tend to be grouped together into national churches, which tend to be geographically or perhaps ethno-linguistically based, though recent developments in the Anglican church challenge this organizational pattern.  There are often larger structures that connect the various national churches, but each national church, while connected to the church as a whole, has a degree of local autonomy.  Thus, the national church serves as a buffer between the greater structures of the church and local congregations.  This is less true for the Catholics, who have strong centralized authorities, than it is for Anglicans or Lutherans, where such centralized authorities are less well-developed or lacking.  And certainly such a system has its own problems (Anglicans, I’m looking at you again).  But in general, national churches can adopt policies and mainly worry about how those policies will affect the faithful within that nation.

In The United Methodist Church, however, the heart of the denomination is neither the local church nor the diocese nor the national church but the connection as a whole.  In Methodism, the church is the connection.  So we don’t have a sense that each local church can make its own decisions in all matters.  Nor do we allow geographic sub-units of the church to make their own standards for policy that differ from each other.  Neither Annual Conference nor Jurisdictional Conferences have the authority to really set policy in ways that differ greatly from the denomination as a whole.  Only General Conference really has the power to set policy for the denomination.  This means, however, that General Conference, a body which meets in America with mainly American delegates, needs to think about how its decisions affect the entire church, not just America.

I think with the various stresses and conflicts which General Conference 2012 is facing, that it is likely that General Conference will end up making some decisions that significantly impact United Methodist polity.  Ideally, these decisions would be part of some well-thought through vision for United Methodist polity, but I think it is more likely that we will pass revisions to our polity for the sake of trying to enable more effective ministry and will only later realize how significant the decisions we made were.  I’m okay with this approach, too, actually, because I feel like that’s often how The UMC and its predecessor bodies have operated – our approach to church organization is more practical and experimental than systematic.  I just pray that when we make whatever changes we are going to make to our polity, intentional or not, that they serve as an opportunity for us to really think about what it means to be both connectional and global and that they may be changes that release the Spirit’s power for ministry and mission not just in this country but around the world.

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