In the mid-1800s, Methodists were a greater force in US society than now. The Methodist Episcopal Church provided more Union soldiers than any other religious body. The M.E. Church, South lost 20% of its members during the Civil War. Might the Civil War been averted if Methodists had stayed together?
Ben Chamness (1940-2018) was a retired United Methodist bishop when I heard him say in 2012 that the basic organizing unit in the Wesleyan tradition is not the local church but the Annual Conference, a regional body. Annual conferences are accountable to a larger body of elected lay and clergy delegates, the General Conference, which is the only group that can speak for the entire Connection.
There’s a process for local churches to disaffiliate from an annual conference. Some are in that process now. There may be efforts for entire annual conferences to disaffiliate from the UMC and join the newly forming Global Methodist Church. In 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War, the southern conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church left to form the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
In March, the UMC Council of Bishops asked for a declaratory decision by the UMC Judicial Council whether an annual conference may disaffiliate from the UMC, and if so, what is the procedure? Yesterday, the Judicial Council issued its decision, saying there’s no provision for a conference to leave unilaterally and only the General Conference (not the Judicial Council) can determine disaffiliation procedures.
All this is arcane but relevant to what’s happening more broadly in the US today. Connectional thinking is being replaced with dualistic, us-versus-them thinking that is polarizing and splintering not just the UMC but our political institutions at the national, state and local level. Is the UMC a “canary in the coal mine“?