A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Does United Methodism Need Another John Wesley?

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church finished its every four year meeting in Tampa, FL with what appears to be little to show for the time. This should not be surprising. Institutions are intrinsically conservative in that they have a stake in preserving the institution itself. So when change is enacted, it looks more like redecoration than renovation. It's not that the folks making the institutional decisions don't want change, but they seek to make change while preserving the institution. Because of this, such change will not be as drastic as it needs to be when an institution is crumbling.

It has been interesting that folks in the UMC of late have been talking about Methodism becoming a movement once again, but I frankly doubt a movement can be enacted while leaving the institution in place as it is. Historically it seems that a movement birthed from an institution has to be something that happens without the institution's blessing (such as when John Wesley ordained General Superintendents as functional bishops to ordain pastors in the Methodist movement, something that only the bishops were permitted to do). In other words a movement that comes from an ecclesiastical institution cannot be a truly effective movement unless it operates in a way that it has no practical or functional stake in the institution itself. Thus, John Wesley could insist that he was a faithful Anglican and that he had no intention of founding a new church, but the only way the Methodist movement could continue as an effective movement of reform within the church was to move outside the authority structure of the institution in a functional way. In so doing, the eventual split from the institution was sealed.

It also seems that such a reform movement cannot happen without a strong and courageous leader, who is not worried about her or his own job security and who is willing, not only to push the envelope, but to open the envelope wide in a way that the institution simply cannot embrace. While I think we have such leaders in the UMC capable of starting such a movement, at the moment no one has emerged. I think the reason for this is that the few persons who are so capable have been attempting reform from within the authority and the structure of the institution, which unsurprisingly has not worked. As Maria Dixon Hall has stated, the fat lady may not yet have sung, but she is leafing through her music. So the question will be whether one such person will, at some point, throw caution to the wind and become a true John Wesley in our midst and lead a Wesleyan movement of reform that will not only attempt redecoration from within, but enact renovation, if need be, from without.

Could an institution embrace such renovation? I think so; and if we UMs could do it, nothing would please me more. But it would be an extremely rare feat. It would take a willingness of the powers that be to let go of their own special interest kingdoms with the realization that such interests have unintentionally supplanted the mission of God's kingdom in this world. The powers that be have to be willing to let go of such power to allow the Spirit to work in fresh ways that are only imaginable outside of the institutional structure. So, it is possible; but I fear it is quite unlikely.

That seems to me to be the current state of our situation in the UMC. There is no doubt that some will disagree, but I think history has demonstrated my case.

I think it is time for God to raise up another John Wesley.


Anonymous said...

I suspect the institution would not embrace a new Wesley. Reform always shakes things up and an institution does not like being shaken.

Unknown said...

A person as brutally honest about what he believes as Mr. Wesley would not get very far in our ordination process.

Anonymous said...

Many people want a new Methodist "movement" to begin - there is even a sub-group in my own AC that has named themselves in this way. I'm not convinced a movement happens because we want one or name one (I'm reminded of the episode of The Office where Michael attempts to file for bankruptcy by screaming "I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY" to all his employees). I think a movement is a God thing, and while we can pray for it, we can't bring it on our own.