One of the major challenges facing the 2012 General Conference will be to reform the structure of The United Methodist Church. A task force being led by Bishop Gregory Palmer, which includes the Rev. Debbie McLeod and the Rev. Jorge Acevedo from the Florida Conference, has been given the charge to make proposals for change. Early indications are that this group is taking its responsibilities seriously.
It will be up to the delegates to the 2012 General Conference to rise to the challenge of approving the kind of reform the Church needs. In doing so, we have to be wise enough not to throw the baby out with the bath; that is, not destroy the connectional life and mission of our Church while dismantling structures we can no longer afford and reforming structures we need.
To be prepared to face this challenge, I think every delegate should read Russell E. Richey's Methodist Connectionalism: Historical Perspectives (General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2009). Richey is a church historian who also reflects upon ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. He does ecclesiology "from below." Rather than understand the church "from above" according to the norms of Scripture and creeds (which he assumes), Richey focuses upon the actual life and practices of the Church as it unfolds in history.
In Methodist Connectionalism, Richey reveals how American Methodists have always understood themselves historically. Every Book of Discipline published since the beginning of The Methodist Episcopal Church has had a historical statement at its beginning. The reason we have understood ourselves historically is because we viewed Methodism as a movement inspired by, and guided by, divine Providence. Because this conviction is integral to our identity, we should be motivated to ask, “What is required of us today to be responsive to the guidance of God's Providence?”
Richey believes that we need to liberate the connectional spirit from structures which have become too complex and rigid. He tells the story of how we came to have the kind of structure we have today. It is not a problem which developed recently or even just 50 years ago. It started, he says, during the centennial General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1884, when the Church adopted a corporate structure which supplanted a more dynamic connectional system. The problem was made worse, he adds, when The Methodist Church in 1939 created the jurisdictional system. I think many of us perceive the clear outline of these developments, but Richey documents them and shows the relevance of past decisions to present dilemmas.
I think connectionalism is one of the marks of genius in American Methodism, and it has enabled our Church to transform lives around the world for centuries. We have a responsibility to support our connectional system because we are in covenant with one another. At the same time, I think our Church is long overdue for serious reform.
Richey's book does not offer specific prescriptions for the kind of reform which ought to take place, although he does articulate some principles of reform. Its main contribution is to tell the story of how connectionalism developed and some of the ways of how it went wrong.
I recommend Richey's book to anyone interested in understanding the story of connectionalism, and especially to those who will be responsible for reforming it in 2012.