I believe we must create a new Methodism, which may or may not develop within The United Methodist Church after General Conference. This new Methodism should not try to be original but must learn lessons from our heritage. That heritage will not be found in the mainline of American Methodism but on the margins in our forgotten history. Among our forgotten ancestors are the Methodist Protestants. I see five lessons we can learn from them:
1. A Positive View of Social Developments and the Interpretation of Scripture—They embraced the expansion of democratic reforms in the new republic and believed that adapting the church to society was biblical. Their theology was orthodox Wesleyan, but they were “liberal Methodists” (Ancel Bassett’s description in 1877).
They echoed the modern-day Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is part and parcel of United Methodism, and a new Methodism should inherit this gift.
2.Equality and Collaboration Between Clergy and Laity—From 1821 to 1824 layman William Stockton published the Wesleyan Repository, the only independent alternative to the official periodical, that published the writings of the Reformers. His commitment to creating a voice for equality in the church faced the ire of leaders who tried to enforce a gag order. When 22 laymen and 11 local preachers in Baltimore were expelled for expressing their reform ideas “a solemn meeting was convened of female members” who organized the opposition. “Nine ladies” penned “a declaration of sentiments” that concluded by saying, “we have determined to dissolve our connection with the Methodist Episcopal Church.” By that November the Reformers held a General Convention that was the forerunner for the new denomination. They pioneered lay delegates at annual and General Conference.
Clericalism is a recurring sin in Methodism, and there is a United Methodist version of it which must be discarded by a new Methodism. Our Methodist Protestant ancestors left us a heritage of collaboration and shared authority between the laity and clergy.
3. A Different Form of Itinerancy—The crux of the Methodist Protestant practices was a check on episcopal authority. Before the separation, Reformers advocated for presiding elders to be nominated by bishops and then elected by the annual conference. Later, in the new denomination, circuit riders had the right to appeal their appointments. They allowed each annual conference to “adopt its own mode of stationing the preachers” and they elected an annual conference president to administer the process. They did not have bishops.
One of the most vexing problems in the United Methodist Church is the dysfunction of appointment-making. We need a new form of itinerancy that gives real power to the laity in the decision making and puts the needs of the local church front and center. The witness of our Methodist Protestant predecessors tells us that there are other alternatives that are part of our heritage.
4. A Caution about How to Address Controversial Issues—The issue of slavery followed them into the new denomination as the controversy heated up in the 1830s. Their solution: let each annual conference decide. That did not stop the issue from resurfacing at General Conference. In 1842 when they turned it over to the authority of the annual conferences, they equivocated on whether to call it a sin. They passed this weak resolution: “The holding of slaves is not, under all circumstances, a sin against God; yet, in our opinion, under some circumstance, it is sinful, and in such cases should be discouraged….the General Conference does not feel authorized by the Constitution, to legislate on the subject of slavery.” By 1858 it divided them as much as it did the Methodist Episcopals.
In addition, they wrestled with how far to follow the logic of their democratic principles. They debated back and forth deleting the word “white” when referring to suffrage for laymen in the church. As for women’s suffrage in the church, the northern branch agreed to delete the word “male” in the Constitution and directed the right of women to vote in church affairs in 1862. When they reunited after the Civil War in 1877 the issue of women’s and African American suffrage came up. They affirmed an imprecise affirmation and then in a resolution specified how each annual conference was to handle it: “[the Constitution] means that no person who enjoys the right of suffrage and eligibility to office in the State shall be deprived of these rights in the church.” But for those annual conferences in states where women’s suffrage is not the law, the annual conference could grant them.
At the end of the day, you cannot defer dealing with a controversial issue for the sake of unity. Unity at all cost has not served the United Methodist Church well. A new Methodism must be clear from the outset about its commitment to inclusion, both in its rhetoric and its practices.
5. A Willingness to Be Smaller for the Sake of Integrity—The Methodist Protestants brought about 190,000 members into the 1938 merger, by far the smallest of the three denominations. The original reason for the separation had long been resolved in the Methodist Episcopal denominations. The Methodist Protestants had served their purpose—and too bad that the Methodist Church did not make their other insights a part of the new denomination. They could not have perfected their innovations if they had been larger.
They remind us that being smaller is not a bad thing. Big numbers have always been the temptation of mainstream Methodists. A new Methodism must leave behind the United Methodist idolatry of numbers.
For more, order The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops