So, Why ARENT we a denomination? Let’s define the term. When I teach my UM polity courses at Candler, a denomination is defined as “a religious organization with congregations that:
a) agree on an essential defining set of beliefs and practices,
b) share a single administration and legal hierarchy,
c) hold a membership that is based on voluntary participation,
d) is a national body that identifies with a national culture,
e) has a developed sense of national/international mission.
Based on this definition, we stopped being a denomination when in 1939, the following rules and structures were put into place, and the Church defined its purpose for the reunification of the three parent denominations in a very provocative way.
In 1939 central conferences were given the freedom to contextualize the Book of Discipline, changing significant parts that were either irrelevant or too complex or were in conflict with the
civil laws of the country. Rules about ordination, marriage ceremonies, structures, and conference procedures could all be defined differently. Hence, the end of b). Not only were they given the freedom to make such changes, the reasons for making such changes had everything to do with making changes so that the way Methodism functioned was both relevant and in accordance with local traditions and local law – that is to say, contextualization. Hence, the end of d).
Currently, because of the inability and high costs of translating the Discipline into the 60 plus languages that many United Methodists currently speak, Disciplines are not even available, much less understood by local UM clergy and laity. For example, the most recent Russian language version of the UM Discipline is a Eurasia central conference edition from 2004. The composers of the 1939 Book of Discipline – the first of the new Methodist Church could not anticipate, much less plan ahead for the need for contextualization within the US Methodist Church.
In addition, in 1939, the General Conference allowed central conferences to elect their own bishops, and established its own Committee on Central Conferences that met, once a quadrennium at the General Conference, basically allowing central conferences to function on their own without oversight.
Another reason we stopped being a denomination, was the establishment of the jurisdictions in the United States. The establishment of the geographical and racially segregated jurisdictions both protected the geographical regions from having to create and agree to “an essential defining set of beliefs,”[deterioration of a)] and established regional service by bishops that insured that the north would never be served by a bishop from the south and vice versa [deterioration of b)]. The establishment of the Central Jurisdiction as a racially segregated institutional structure, postponed any potential for the church to be a leading witness in the Civil Rights movement, because we spent our time arguing about whether to eliminate the structure itself at the six general conferences from 1940 to 1964. Thus, we suffered from the ongoing deterioration of a national Methodist identity and a shared sense of culture within the US [d)]. The jurisdictions kept us close, but not so close that we would have to deal with major differences in views especially about issues of justice.
The final point of my argument reason is found in the rationale for the reunification of 1939 itself. Until the mid 1930’s, the MEC and MECS engaged in conversations about reunification, and could not reach agreement on how to make it happen. But by the mid 1930’s times in the US had changed. A new rationale had emerged among US Methodists giving them reason to make major moral compromises and form a new, BIG church. And it is found in the final sentences of the Historical Statement of the 1939 Discipline.
And the sole object of the rules, regulations, and usages of The Methodist Church is that it may fulfill in all places and years its original divine commission as a leader in evangelism, in reforms, and in fraternal relations with all branches of the one Church of
Christ, with which it gladly confesses its partnership in the spiritual conquest of the world. (My italics)
So, the stated, documented purpose of the merger was to become the biggest “denomination” in the US, enabling us to engage in partnerships, facilitated by the imperialistic coat tails of the growing cultural hegemony of the US in other parts of the world and become spiritual conquistadores of the modern era. This was the 20th century version of the colonialist mission society of the 19th century, seeking to not only convert and save souls but to also become a means of exporting US political and cultural values. With this kind of international expansion as our motivation for existence, the Methodist Church was no longer a denomination.
So, this analysis begs the question, then what are we? Should we be a loose confederation of national denominations? Can we be more of a Communion, along the lines of the Anglican-Episcopalians? Does the Pan-Methodist Commission help with an image for gathering at the same table? The NCC or WCC?
Quite frankly, I believe we can we come up with some sort of creative hybrid that suits the complexity of the 21st century world. I really do think we can. But, we have to pay attention to the potential for unintended consequences of our decisions. And we have to keep praying for and listening to the Commission on a Way Forward reports and praying for the 2019 and 2020 General Conferences. They are going to be doozies!