Methodist Dogmatics

Methodism is a non-credal denomination.
Ostensibly that means Methodists do not have a statement of faith to which they must adhere in order to belong to the church. That should mean there is no such thing in Methodism as heresy, as to be a heretic is to act contrary to the dogma of the church. And in traditional terms, Methodists remain non-dogmatic. While Methodists are expected to believe in the Trinity, the Resurrection, and other doctrines typical of Christians throughout the world, there is no one way in which they must believe. Methodists can believe, for instance, that Jesus was a great teacher and historical figure, but that the miracles presented in the Gospels are symbolic, that the Resurrection describes something that happened in the disciples' hearts, that, in fact, all the teachings about the divinity of Christ are metaphors for how humans can find spiritual fulfillment through prayer and good works, and still be fully within the fold of the church.
In practice, though, there are dogmas that United Methodists hold to, beliefs that, if contradicted, can lead to exclusion from full participation in the life of the church. Given the name of the denomination--originally an epithet describing early Methodists' obsession with organization--it should come as no surprise that these dogmas rise from the polity of the denomination. In this post, I'll be crafting a systematic theology of United Methodism.
At the heart of Methodist doctrine is the concept of Christian conferencing. Early Methodists met in classes, groups of believers who covenanted to hold each other accountable in their practice of spiritual disciplines. The Methodist classes grew out of a need felt by 18th century Anglicans for deeper spirituality than was available to them in their parish church life. Classes met to study the Bible, pray, and encourage each other to perform works of service and charity in their communities. Class meetings were believed to be, like Communion and Baptism, a means of grace, a way in which the community could experience God's presence in their lives. Eventually, these highly structured groups became the first Methodist congregations. The idea that a meeting itself had sacramental power carried over into church councils and denominational conferences, and was carried across the Atlantic as part of Methodism in early America.
John Wesley concluded early on that classes needed clerical supervision, and appointed circuit riders, traveling pastors responsible for a local group of classes (and eventually, when those classes became formalized and purchased meeting space, of chapels). This model also lended itself well to the American frontier, although circuit riders now had far more territory to cover as they traveled among the chapels in their parish.
Wesley concluded, based on his own reading of the Greek New Testament, that he had the authority to ordain without assistance from a Bishop--useful, as he had effectively been excommunicated from the Church of England at this point for his radical beliefs. Methodists in America at one point wrote to Wesley asking for assistance, as they were especially short on clergy, and did not have him there to perform ordinations. Acknowledging this need, Wesley commission two of his best circuit riders, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, to be "General Superintendents" of American Methodism, with authority to ordain and give centralized guidance to the church in the new nation of the United States; however, he was clear with them that they were not in any way to consider themselves bishops. In Wesley's mind, one of the greatest mistakes of the Anglican Reformation was the decision to retain the structure of the Roman Catholic Church, including the episcopacy. No church leader should have that much power or authority, Wesley believed, and so to this day British Methodism has no bishops, only a conference president who serves for one year and cannot be reelected. British Methodist clergy are ordained by their colleagues at annual conference, continuing Wesley's pragmatic practice.
Asbury and Coke had other ideas, however, and upon stepping off the boat in America, announced that they were the first Bishops of the new Methodist Episcopal Church. We've had Bishops ever since, and except for one schismatic portion of the church (Methodist Protestants, who broke away in the early 1800s, finally coming back into the fold in 1939), our Bishops, like Supreme Court Justices, have always served for life.
First Dogma of the United Methodist Church: Bishops are the heads of church government, elected for life from the clergy. There decisions with regard to appointments are final.
Methodist churches throughout the world are led by itinerant clergy, descendants of the early circuit riders. Some Methodist pastors still serve circuits, appointments of multiple churches, but all are permitted to locate, to live in a single place, even if they must preach in a different church each Sunday. They are appointed on an annual basis, but unless something goes seriously wrong, generally stay in an appointment for several years. Appointments in United Methodism are arrived at through a complicated process involving communications between every church and pastor in a district and the district superintendent, who then shares these data with the other superintendents and the Bishop, who together make up the Cabinet. The process of making appointments consumes a huge portion of the Cabinet's time, and can take half the year to complete. The wishes of each church and each pastor must be weighed with the needs of every other church and the strengths of every other pastor in the entire conference (a conference, in this case, meaning a geographical region of the denomination). The belief is that the Cabinet knows every church and pastor better than they know themselves, and can wisely appoint them as necessary. In reality, the process is often skewed by the ambitions and needs of pastors and their families, who understandably may not want to move the year before a pastor's child is to graduate from high school, or to a parish so far away that a pastor's spouse must leave his or her job.
Second Dogma of the United Methodist Church: The appointment process is not to be questioned. The Cabinet knows best, and will prayerfully put every pastor exactly where her or his gifts can best be used to the glory of God.
Growing as it did out of Anglicanism, Methodism from its beginnings had a high pastoral theology. Only ordained ministers could preside over the Sacraments. This is the greatest distinction between Methodists and Baptists who, at least in their origins, had lay pastors, and believed that anyone so led by the Holy Spirit could and should preside over both Baptism and Communion. Early American Methodists suffered the lack of ordained clergy in that they would not take Communion or baptize one another. Only with the arrival of circuit riders ordained by Wesley or, ultimately, of self-titled Bishops Coke and Asbury were they able to partake of these means of grace. To this day, only ordained persons and--here the essential pragmatism of Wesley breaks through--lay ministers authorized by the Bishop may preside over the Sacraments. In a pinch, a layperson can be given permission to preside. But only with the Bishop's okay. This heightens the sense in Methodism that ordained clergy are somehow magically different from ordinary laypeople.
Third Dogma of the United Methodist Church: Ordained clergy are set aside by God to preside over the Sacraments. Laypeople are not. When no ordained clergyperson is available to serve a congregation's sacramental needs, a layperson may be authorized by the Bishop to preside, but only when no ordained person is present.
It should be apparent by now that Methodism, especially in America, has a hierarchical structure modeled on that of the Church of England, which itself is based upon the structure of the Roman Catholic Church. This organization places pastors over parishes, superintendents over pastors, and Bishops over all. The result is an insensitivity in church headquarters to the preferences of local churches, and a paternalism that local churches find enervating and disempowering. Grassroots creativity is muzzled in favor of conference initiatives. Every few years, another plan for growth issues from the main office, usually the same ideas repackaged with new graphics and wording; but chances are veteran lay leaders and pastors have all seen it before. It was just called something else.
Fourth Dogma of the United Methodist Church: Program and mission priorities come from the main office. Innovation begins with the Bishop.
Once a year, representatives of local churches meet with all the ordained clergy in an annual conference at an event called, of course, Annual Conference. This is the only body that can make decisions about the policies of the conference. It's a huge meeting, hundreds of people gathered in a college field house or community conference center, filled with stirring worship services, powerful music, and dull reports, culminating in an ordination service and the reading of appointments for the next year. Every four years, representatives of all Annual Conferences, evenly divided between clergy and laypeople, meet for a General Conference, which serves the same function for the entire denomination that the Annual Conference does locally. General Conference lasts for two weeks, and its work is more substantive, more controversial, and far more newsworthy than anything that happens at Annual Conference. The decisions of conferences are final within the jurdisdictions they govern, and in the case of General Conference, can have generations of repercussions. These meetings can be intensely partisan, breaking along regional, racial, national (most of the recent growth in United Methodism has been in Africa), and theological lines. The Bishops, all gathered on the dais but without voice in the General Conference, typically have far more liberal opinions than those of the GC, which is dominated by delegates from southern states and Africa. General Conference is accorded the same authority by United Methodists that Roman Catholics give the Pope.
Fifth Dogma of the United Methodist Church: The decisions of Conference are arrived at prayerfully and represent God's will for the church. They are not to be questioned.
United Methodism has other dogmas I could describe here, but I'm going to limit it to these five because I believe they demonstrate the rottenness at the heart of America's second largest Protestant denomination. The hierarchic power structure robs local congregations of the ability to innovate in ways that can best serve their needs and the needs of their community. The emphasis on ordination eliminates all but the most assertive lay leadership from having a voice in the ongoing governance of the church: if one is really called to ministry, one is expected to give up whatever career he or she may have, taking an effective vow of poverty, surrender three years to seminary and another three to five to the ordination process, and only then be accorded a voice in the hall of Methodist leadership. Only then is this person granted authority to speak the magic words over the bread, grape juice, and water that make it possible to serve Communion or baptize a new believer.
I've been calling this "clergy privilege" for many years, though really it's more of an ordeal that must be endured if one is to have the privilege of living on substandard wages, spending an entire career paying off student loans, living in poorly maintained parsonages while working 50- and 60-hour weeks. There are good benefits--health insurance, pension, a liberal vacation policy, the ability, in most cases, to structure one's own work week independently of direct supervision--but considering what must be survived to arrive at this, it demands a great deal of an individual. It's also enormously expensive to a congregation to support and house a pastor, not to mention finding the cash to support the conference and denomination that appoint that pastor, with or without the approval of the congregation.
Things are simpler in other denominations which practice a "calling" system, in which congregations engage in searches for their own pastors and hire them after interviews. One problem with such denominations, however, is that it can be very difficult for women and members of minority to find a position. On the other hand, their congregations experience far more authority in setting their own mission and program priorities. And pastors answer to them, rather than to their bishop.
I personally am of two minds on what works best. The one community I know that has best worked for me as a Methodist was Metanoia. Although officially a United Methodist congregation, Metanoia encouraged lay persons to preside over Communion, part of the radical equality at its core. Although nominally under the leadership of an appointed pastor, in practice Metanoia set its own priorities, whether or not he agreed with them, and often told him "no" when he came to council meetings with an idea he thought would work well for the community. Metanoia was able to be far more generous in mission than much larger churches because its pastor really had take a vow of poverty. Every year of his active, pre-retirement career, John Schwiebert came before the entire clergy session of Annual Conference to receive their permission to earn a sub-minimum salary, just enough to keep him under the federal poverty level.
Metanoians were a rare breed. We really were an island of misfit toys, most of us disenchanted Methodists (though some retained membership in other churches, and I remained a clergy member of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference), many of us gay or lesbian, many in recovery, all of us believing in intentional community, and none of us respecters of dogma. I have often thought the conference allowed us to exist, turning a blind eye to our heretical lay-led Communion, authorizing John's poverty wage, as a release valve: we were the ones on the front lines, marching, getting arrested, hiring an out lesbian as a co-pastor, organizing with other institutions to better our community; and knowing we were doing these things took the pressure off other congregations, who could feel better about doing less along those lines.
But Metanoia is gone now. John has really, truly retired at the age of 74, and after a year spent trying to find a new home, the community finally disbanded. That throws the onus of change back on the conference, which desperately needs a bottom-up restructuring.
United Methodism in America has been bleeding membership since the 1960s. We've now had several generations that prefer local to regional or national control, who want worship services they structure for themselves, sermons they can apply to their own lives, and leadership that emerges organically from the community. The young adults who will take our places see little in Methodism that appeals to them, and understandably are founding their own religious communities, created in their image rather than John Wesley's. Ironically, these communities may be closer to the primitive Methodism Wesley founded in the early 1700s than anything that has come out of Nashville in the last fifty years. Like the Anglican Church Wesley knew, Methodism has grown tired, ossified, too wrapped up in the orthodoxy of its clergy dogmas to be able to innovate. Our leaders are far behind the curve, held back from what innovation they believe in by the conservative General Conference.
In a word, Methodism needs its own Reformation. The question facing all of us who grew up in this denomination is this: Will it come too late? Or, as with the English reformation that gave birth to Methodism, will it take an exodus to a new church to spur the changes we so desperately need?


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