Many people like to say that Methodism has a weak sense of ecclesiology. It is pointed out that Methodism was a movement structured by the needs of mission and that there was little thinking that went into the oddities of structures and processes of the various Methodist churches that developed in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
I would agree that Methodism was shaped by the needs of mission. One of the most significant departures from the understandings of ecclesiology of the 18th century was Methodism’s claim that parochial boundaries (the dividing up of the map into specific parcels of land under the exclusive oversight of a particular cleric) did not apply when the needs of God’s people were not being met. It was a missional practicality that enabled Methodists to reach workers of the Industrial Revolution and travel at the same pace as settlers spreading Euro- populations into various parts of the world.
There were other variances with the accepted ecclesiologies of the churches of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Among those was the sense that much of the pastoral work of the church could, and should, be done by the laity. Also, there was a rejection of the notion that a preacher needed a university education in order to take up the calling to share the gospel with the people. Bishops (where Methodism chose to have them) were eventually cast as specialized elders set aside for the work of general superintendency. A form of conciliarism, that came to be called ‘conferencing,’ was the Methodist version of presbyterian church government — creating an interesting hybrid in which the governance of the church was placed in Conference with the bishops designated to carry out its will. None of these things was done without thoughtful reflection (if not forethought).
It was common for Methodist preachers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to have to explain and justify Methodist ecclesiology to non-Methodists. Some of the more articulate preachers even gave public lectures to which non-Methodist Christians were invited (Timothy Merritt, 1775-1845, was a Methodist in New England who engaged critics in open discussions and debates during the first decades of the 19th century, for instance). And there were a number of pamphlets and books published during the 19th century in both America and England that gave account of how Methodists saw their ecclesiologies as being in line with early church precedents. One of these books was written by Bishop Elijah Hedding in the early 1840s.
The lack, when it comes to ecclesiology among Methodists, is in terms of awareness that logical and articulate explanations were made for well over a century. It is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon that Methodists have become forgetful of their own ecclesiology and identity. Some of this is because of ignorance. Some of this is because of the desire of many Methodists to be more like Christians in other denominations.
I wholeheartedly disagree with those who say Methodism has a weak ecclesiology. What is at stake, I think, is whether Methodism wishes to walk away from its ecclesiology and mission or reclaim both for the sake of a new day.
When looking at restructuring plans for United Methodists general boards and commissions it is important to keep in mind that there is more involved than efficiency of governance. One of the most important functions of these boards has been to educate United Methodist leaders.
It didn’t seem obvious to me before I gained first-hand experience of the General Boards and General Commissions. Prior to working at the general church level, I’d taught United Methodist polity for a number of semesters. Wading through the then-current Book of Discipline was a shocking experience. Why so many people on the boards of directors? My students asked this and I could not give them a solid answer. My co-instructor noted that even the large boards could hardly give adequate representation to church membership spanning the globe. My instincts led me to think all-expense-paid trips had more to do with it; a manifestation of patronage.
My co-instructor’s explanation was, of course, part of the logic behind the old board sizes — representation. And, the criticism of patronage is not unwarranted. But there is something else to keep in mind . . . especially as several of the restructuring proposals going to General Conference 2016 would trim or eliminate the boards that remain: the role of agency boards of directors as means of practical education of church leaders.
I’ve heard the comment several times since coming to work at the general church level. It goes something like this — ‘My time on the board was transformative of my whole understanding of The United Methodist Church. I gained a practical understanding of our church as a global connexion. I realized how much bigger the reality of our ministry is than that with which I’d been familiar in my own, limited context.’
Indeed, many of the bishops and other church leaders of today had some of their most important lessons about United Methodism in the context of service on boards of directors of our general agencies. As an educator, I am given pause by these testimonies and I have been brought to think again about my assumptions in reading disciplinary passages or looking at mere numbers. Educational opportunities are difficult to quantify in terms of value; but they should not be missed when considering changes to our structures and processes.
If we are going to continue to centralize governance in the hands of a few, if we are going to trim away broader representation, and if we are going to eliminate an important setting for practical learning, where do we intend to make up for these losses? The ‘bottom line’ in structures and processes includes considerations beyond efficiency and cost. Representativeness and education are aspects of boards that need to be taken into account.
I am travelling with colleagues from the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have been looking forward to this event for a long while. I’ll be sharing with you about my experiences at the Parliament in future posts on this site.
Beginning on 6 October 2015 I will begin publishing a series of articles about Dr. La Roy Sunderland (1802-1885). These articles will be issued in a newsletter that is a companion to this website, Methodistica Journal. Please click on the link in this post or on the subscribe link under the header Newsletter on the sidebar.
La Roy Sunderland has long been a subject of interest to me. I have promised to write a biography of this man who began his adult life as a Methodist preacher in New England, became an anti-slavery activist, and then a physician and scientist of the soul. These articles are a warm-up to my finally writing the book.
A few words about the articles and the new Methodistica Journal: The articles are all designed to be appropriate for anyone interested in history, biography, and Methodism. They will be short — approximately 600-700 words each. They could be used as supplements to classroom studies at a variety of levels and as material for Christian education in local churches. The newsletter will be published weekly and is devoted to similar subject-matter as this website; but in greater depth.
In all, there will be eleven weekly articles on La Roy Sunderland. The last of these will be published on the 130th anniversary of his death.