By Thomas Lambrecht
The last Perspective spoke about the unfairness of “regionalization” in its treatment of Africa and other parts of the church outside the U.S. As I wrote, “The top agenda item for the 2024 General Conference in April for most progressives is to adopt ‘regionalization’ as the new mode of United Methodist governance. This proposal would be a dramatic shift in how the UM Church functions. …”
Once again, the regionalization proposal is similar to the U.S. central conference proposal that passed General Conference in 2008 but was overwhelmingly defeated by annual conferences in 2009. It would set up the U.S. as its own regional conference, along with three regional conferences in Europe, three in Africa, and one in the Philippines.
There are other downsides to consider.
The rationale for regionalization is to allow each geographic region of the church to adapt specified provisions of the Discipline to fit the missional needs of its region. There is also the argument that many of the resolutions on social issues that General Conference addresses relate mainly to the United States and are not of interest to the rest of the global church. Creating a U.S. regional conference would allow the U.S. delegates to issue specific resolutions or take positions on issues that are U.S.-centric without the need for other delegates to participate in discussions that do not concern them.
On the surface, it may seem like the regionalization idea makes sense. Greater flexibility to adapt the rules of the church to meet the needs of each region could make the church’s mission more effective. It seems that the Discipline has moved in the direction of micro-managing the life and work of the church over the past 20 years, not just in the area of sexual morality, but in many other ways, as well. Do we really need 850 pages of rules to run the church by?
One approach to this problem would be to make the rules in the Discipline more general and flexible, so that different cultural contexts could function equally well within the same framework without needing to adapt any of the provisions. This is the approach taken by the new Global Methodist Church Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.
The other approach is to have a general Book of Discipline that governs some of the functions of the church, while then allowing each region to pass its own Discipline to govern the functions of the church in that region. However, there are some philosophical problems with that approach, as well as some practical problems.
Weakening the Connection
Methodism has always understood itself to be governed by a unique form of polity called “connectionalism.” It started with John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who oversaw the growing Methodist movement through all the preachers who were “in connection” with him. There was the emphasis on personal relationship, along with accountability, as the preachers met annually to determine “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.” Decisions were made corporately (although heavily influenced by Wesley during his lifetime) and governed the actions of all the Methodist societies in connection with Wesley.
Following the regionalization approach runs the risk of beginning to undo the connection that binds all United Methodists together. Wesley identified that Methodists share a common doctrine, a common discipline, and a common spirit that binds us together. Theoretically, visiting a Methodist church anywhere one would find the same doctrines being preached, and same method of operating as a church, and the same spirit bringing unity to the body.
Importantly, the regionalization proposal keeps doctrine and the Social Principles as part of the general Discipline that applies to all United Methodists. However, the proposal also opens the various regions to have different levels of accountability for our common doctrine, codifying what exists today in a rather lax approach toward doctrinal accountability in some parts of the church.
Other aspects of the church’s life and ministry that really are of significance for our connection are also given adaptability. This includes clergy standards, qualifications for lay membership and leadership, and worship rituals. When these connectional items begin diverging from one region to another, it weakens the connection we have as United Methodists. Important areas of church life that were once decided by General Conference for all United Methodists would now be decided differently for each region of the church.
The ultimate end of such a process of disconnection could be that United Methodism becomes an association of regional or national churches, each one different from the other and having its own way of doing church. We could end up as more of a communion than a denomination. It could be similar to the Anglican Communion that has an Anglican denomination in each country overseen by an archbishop, but where the various national churches function quite differently from each other and have different standards, rules, and even beliefs.
Some of the practical consequences of regionalization could include:
- Clergy may not be able to easily transfer from one region to another if the qualifications and standards for ordination are different. Currently there are many African clergy serving in the U.S. That ability might be limited in the future if the qualifications for being ordained in an African conference differ significantly from those in the U.S.
- Local church membership could mean different things in different regions. Some regions could require extensive probationary periods before becoming a member and exhibit strict accountability to behavior standards for members, compared to other regions that have a “y’all come” approach to membership.
- Each region would have its own accountability process. We have seen, especially in Africa, how the current accountability process is not being followed properly. A few bishops are excommunicating lay members and defrocking clergy without any due process, completely contrary to the Discipline. If the accountability process (including investigations and trials) is removed from the general Discipline, one can imagine how the rule of law would go out the window in certain areas and bishops would become dictators, to the detriment of the church’s life and ministry.
- The current practice of holding bishops accountable only within their region has not worked. Regionalization would codify that practice and make it even more difficult to ensure that bishops behave with integrity, respecting due process and the rights of clergy.
- With the ability to have different chargeable offenses in different regions, clergy will be held accountable to different standards. What is not allowed in one region could be perfectly legal in another. These unequal standards not only create inconsistency as to what is expected of clergy across the church, but they could occasion resentment between clergy of different regions who are treated differently. Again, it undermines the connection.
- United Methodist bishops are bishops of the whole church, not just their episcopal area. But opening the legal possibility of having openly gay bishops means they could participate in meetings and events in countries where homosexuality is against the law. Will bishops be redefined as only regional bishops, able to serve only within their region? Regionalization raises problems with having a general episcopacy.
What does it mean to be United Methodist? Already, there is confusion and inconsistency between different local churches who claim the same name but teach a different theology and practice Methodism differently. Regionalization will only accelerate the inconsistency of identity. The United Methodist “brand” will suffer a loss of identity.
For traditionalists in Africa and elsewhere, the worst consequence is that they will be tagged for being part of a denomination that performs same-sex weddings and has openly gay clergy and bishops, even if that does not happen in their particular region. This poses a grave threat to the mission of the church where the practice of homosexuality is illegal or where the church is under pressure from a militant Islam seeking to discredit Christianity. What affects United Methodist identity in one region affects that identity in all regions. And each region affected is powerless to change that reality.
Regionalization sounds good until one begins to unpack the intended and unintended consequences. At the very least, it would mark a dramatic shift in how The United Methodist Church functions as a denomination. It is being done at the behest of promoting LGBTQ equality and cementing control by the American part of the church of its own affairs. Delegates should think long and hard before taking such a drastic step.