Maybe it’s the futon we’ve been sleeping on in England. Or the conversation I had last night over a duck and cranberry pie with an English Methodist leader. But it crept into my mind all the same, especially after thinking about the widening impasse we seem to be facing in the United Methodist Church these days.
For if we had the chance to start afresh, I can’t help but dream that we could build the church a bit differently than it is right now. Doctrinally, for instance, I would simply update the language and context of the 25 Articles of Religion, throw in a good plank or two about prevenient grace and entire sanctification, then add the Apostles’ Creed and call it a day. (Yes, I love Wesley’s Standard Sermons–whether we count 44 or 52 of them–and would still commend them to all as excellent examples of applied theology. But as actual statements of doctrine they have always been a bit unwieldy.)
When it came to leadership, I’d follow the example of the global south church and establish term bishops, giving them a six-year term with the possibility of re-election to one further six-year stint. Presiding elders (yes, I would change the name back from district superintendents), along with conference staff appointments, would be similarly limited to no more than three four-year terms during their career. And I’d allow for a presiding bishop to be chosen out of those who had finished their first six year term.
I’d draw annual conference lines either around standard metropolitan areas or balance them all out numerically to include somewhere between 250,000-300,000 members in each. In turn, I’d abolish all jurisdictions and have a regional or national conference that met once every three years to elect bishops and adjust the polity of each region, excluding the doctrinal and social charter sections.
That task would fall to a Global Conference which would meet once every six years for no more than a week for the primary purpose of inspiration, education, and renewing our Wesleyan ties and witness. To that group, however, would also indeed fall the responsibility of stewarding our global social compact. That statement however would be limited to only a few essential items, primarily expressing our support for the God-given human rights of all, though without compromising our bedrock belief that God’s best answers to the problems of the world are to be found in Jesus.
That charter would accordingly call upon governments to respect all of their citizens, as well as the created order which God has given us to treat as stewards. It would commend the biblical understandings of life which begins at conception, the covenant of marriage as the mutual submission and selfless service between one man and one woman, and holiness of heart and habits that glorifies God in all that we do, including the mandate to love all.
Beyond that, it would say nothing about human sexuality in its varied expressions, nor would it endorse any particular governmental or economic system, other than to decry oppressive conditions that may diminish life in its intended fullness. Resolutions dealing with specific concerns could still be proposed at the regional conferences but each one, if adopted, would only have a shelf life of three years unless adopted again at the next conference.
There would be only four general boards, dealing with education (including our schools and seminaries), discipleship (including evangelism, men and women’s ministries, youth programs and bible studies), witness and outreach (including missions, health, and social concerns) and stewardship (including oversight of the pensions and general church’s budget).
That too would be simpler, however, as the shared giving program would be set as a tithe of local church receipts, with half going to the general church and half going directly to projects or programs beyond themselves as determined by each congregation.
And all of this I might call simply The Methodist Christian Church, for it is, after all, His church and not ours, whether we are genuinely “united” or not. We’d be bound not by property trust clauses, but by trust in Christ alone. And if anyone wanted to join, we’d simply ask them, “Is your heart with mine? Then give me your hand.”
Of course it is just a dream and it no doubt overlooks many aspects of what it means to be both a faithful and fruitful church. On the other hand, if the alternative is the nightmare that we continue to be falling into as a denomination, that dream might be worth pursuing even in the light of day.