The UMC is dead. Long live the UMC.
Enter the Interregnum
Whenever a Pope dies, the Roman Catholic Church has a period of time before they name a new successor. It’s called the interregnum, meaning a “gap” in the leadership of the church. This “gap time” also takes place between monarchs, elected regimes, and parish priests assuming their authority.
The term can be applied to institutions and social structures when they are in a period of transition. A recent article called the current political situation in the United States an interregnum:
The Italian philosopher, Gramsci defined the concept well: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum many morbid symptoms arise.” [There is a] sense of being trapped between a dying establishment and a new order that is not quite formed…We know the change is going to come. It’s just a matter of how bitter the resistance is going to be.”
Things can be incredibly volatile in this interim time, and we see that reflected in The United Methodist Church right now: our best qualities become used as weapons against one another.
At all levels of the UMC…
At all the concentric circles in The United Methodist Church, we see the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born.
- At the local church level, the old UMC of tithing and clear clergy ladders is dying. The biggest givers of local time and resources are passing away or passing the torch, leaving the responsibility for huge buildings and leadership on fewer and less financially affluent people. And pastors who have “given their time” don’t understand why the system is giving bigger churches to younger pastors. As the institution and the movement are contrasted, there’s a lot of volatility at the local church level.
- At the annual conference level, the old UMC of the annual conference functioning as the central body of the Church is dying. The number of middle managers (District Superintendents) is decreasing, the budgets for missions and ministries are being replaced by grants (with strings attached and no promises of multi-year support), and decades of creeping congregationalism have taken their toll on Annual Conferences. We don’t know what will come next.
- At the global level, the old UMC that was primarily an American church, that was dominated by the Southern states, and that had a homogenous polity, is dead. No amount of effort to revive the dead will change that the demographics: USA will be a minority voice by 2024 (possibly 2028, but no later). Our global polity that gave uneven power and responsibility across the globe is showing the cracks in the seams, and even regions in the United States are living out their differences more boldly.
These old ways of doing things are dying, but in the interim, the new way of doing things cannot yet be born to help an institution “turn the corner” into a new way of being.
…The morbid systems arise
The truth is that we know that life in The United Methodist Church is going to look different. We know. The only question is how powerful the reactions will be.
In at least two areas, the powers-that-be are invested heavily in “morbid systems” that seek to prop-up the dying church instead of embracing the new.
1. Authority beyond Legitimacy
Authority is important in The United Methodist Church. Our three sources of authority (Experience, Tradition, and Reason) that reflect on our ultimate authority (Scripture) distinguish us from other churches who venerate one over the other and provide a balanced, reasonable approach. We live out these authorities, at our best, in The UMC’s concentric circles of authority that keep peers accountable to one another.
However, in the interregnum, authority steps in front of its legitimacy and becomes authoritarianism to stop the progress into the new way of being.
- When society is afraid, they look to appeal to authorities to defeat the things that are making them afraid. For example, the rise of Donald Trump in American politics. Supporters fear that the government has turned against them and support someone who seems to want to burn it down as much as they do.
- When Methodists are afraid, they seek to break apart the UMC, turn to Executive Control, write letters seeking progressive clergy candidates’ dismissal across accountability lines, withhold their church tithe, advocate for others to as well, and seek structural solutions to expel progressives from the UMC.
Folks may respond that “yes, we are afraid…for apostasy” and that’s probably true. But it is also true that authoritarian actions are keeping the new UMC from rising–many of which have been documented on this blog over the past 8 years.
2. Uniformity is Dead. Long Live Unity.
The other problem with the interregnum is that the morbid system of uniformity is being propped up: the sentiment that the doctrine and polity of The United Methodist Church needs to be the same everywhere. While we’ve had diversity in our polity since the 1968 merger allowed regions outside the USA to make limited changes to their regions’ polity, it has rarely been acknowledged.
And yet for a quadrennia, we have had Methodism 2.0 where entire regions of United Methodism have lived into a New UMC where prohibitions against LGBT persons do not exist. Most recently, New York and Baltimore/Washington DC areas have said they will ordain clergy in spite of the restrictions. And the Central Conferences are more living into this regional diversity as Liberia excludes divorced clergy from becoming bishops (see UM Insight article here).
The Old UMC of uniformity and rigidity is dying, and the new one of unity and diversity is waiting to be legitimized and become fully present. But the bitter resistance continues. The drumbeat of schism as a reaction to every violation leads bloggers say The UMC will be “shattered” by unity without uniformity, failing to acknowledge we’ve always been this way. The old UMC is dying, but the morbid systems that feed off the dead are quite loud.
Long Live the UMC
In the interregnum, a strange phrase is often uttered by folks anticipating a new monarch: “The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queen.” It’s a message that names the reality of death, but also anticipates the chair will continue to be filled.
We know The United Methodist Church will endure, even unto death. We’ve overcome debates over clergywomen and the full inclusion of ethnic minorities. We’ve split in pieces, in half, and come back together. And each time, Methodists stood between a dying institution’s present and its successor institution’s resurrection or reincarnation. And we are again.
Let us enter fully into the interregnum and come out the other side in a church of more just relationships than before, full of the authority of Christ, and the unity that is more powerful than uniformity.