The United Methodist Church has no Pope. Our last individual in charge of everything was John Wesley, our founder. When he died, his authority was delegated to some Bishops. And then some regional entities. And eventually, some national entities that became global entities.
But all the while, the primary characterization of the UMC is that it has no head. The top bodies of the UMC are the connectional glue that hold disparate areas together, structured much like the United States government. General Conference serves as the Legislative Branch, creating doctrine and polity. The general boards and Bishops serve as the executive branch, putting into action the will of General Conference. The Judicial Council serves as the…well, judicial branch, ensuring the constitutionality of General Conference’s doctrines. So everything works together even though there’s not a single person at the head, creating the narrative for the United Methodist Church from the top-down.
However, in recent months, this delicate balance is being undone because of issues at the bottom-up side of the connection.
First, Cokesbury bookstores were closed in the past few months. While deeply flawed as a business, they served an important function for the laity. Laity could walk in and learn something, they could look at curriculum, peruse (most) of the books that were not outright Calvinism, and get a good exposure to United Methodist polity and practice. Now, the bookstores are gone, and the only business model is traveling salespeople that attend to both churches and regional gatherings…in other words, focused on pastors and staff, not the average layperson. So the effect is that the laity will have less exposure to United Methodist teachings outside of their local church.
Second, this week the United Methodist Reporter is shutting its doors, closing the book on an institution since the 1840s. Here’s the UMR writeup and a Christian Post article. The UMR had editorial independence from the mothership, so the articles were a good source of varieties of perspectives. Most importantly, the voices were not the Hamiltons, Slaughters, or Bishops…they had tons of articles by young adults, especially young clergy. They were a strong champion of a plurality of voices that perhaps didn’t fit the narratives by the mothership communications. So the effect is that laity will have less exposure to the variety of voices within the UMC.
The unintended but definite effect of these twin actions is that there’s no longer an unofficial forum with authority in the United Methodist Church. Sure, there are bloggers, each with their own slant and tribe. There are regional newspapers from various conferences. There’s even UM-Insight, which is a helpful distribution channel but with a particular slant. In short, clearinghouses of varieties of perspectives, easily accessible to the laity, are more or less dried up. [[update: Cynthia Astle of UM-Insight responds in the comments]]
Or are they?
The truth is that there are entities with strong distribution networks of the United Methodist voices and perspectives and with strong respectability/tribal followings.
- Church of the Resurrection has media distribution networks for Adam Hamilton studies, is multi-site and online, and will soon house a seminary (St. Pauls)
- Ginghamsburg Church has media distribution networks for the Michael Slaughter books and is multi-site.
- Grace UMC is multi-site and Jorge Acevado has a strong presence in southern Florida.
- The Woodlands UMC in Houston houses the brain trust of the Confessing Movement and will continue with their promotion of that longtime caucus group.
- Caucus networks of supporters for RMN, MFSA, Good News, etc will continue their promotion of their causes within the United Methodist Church via their strong distribution networks.
- The IRD has their bridge that they lurk under, trolling all who pass within reach.
- Even official United Methodist groups like United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men (well, until the BSA snafu) maintain a strong following within individual churches and may have more influence than the rest above! Who knows!
In short, without the Cokesbury/UMReporter, we not longer have the connectional glue which introduced the average laity to the variety of voices within the UMC in ways that catalogs and news aggregates could not.
Instead, what I believe we will rapidly have are distributed allegiances to particular geographic megachurches or cults of personality because of their already strong distribution networks. These allegiances will exacerbate the findings of the Call To Action that distrust in official Methodist entities is already too high, leading to reliance on these more local/more theologically aligned sources of authority within the UMC. We may end up with Hamilton Methodists, Acevado Methodists, etc…more shaped by individual, uh, men, than any elected leader or theologian.
I’d like to think that maybe it’s okay.
For our connectional church that has strong regional variances, perhaps it is okay that we decentralize “what makes us Methodist.” Maybe it will teach more folks that a decentralized polity and missional expression would be good for the church.
But in the meantime, I wonder what might happen. Because from my perspective, these twin losses will exacerbate the gulf between the leadership and the laity and strengthen the powers of those with already strong distribution networks, becoming even more of an echo-chamber to their geographies or constituencies. And some of those powers scare me when I wonder what United Methodism might become if one of these distributed channels wins out overall…
Thanks for reading, and considering this a reliance, if opinionated, source of what Methodism is or can be.