Along with our emphasis on the grace of God, connectionalism is a key distinctive of The United Methodist Church. Connectionalism involves a large body in making key decisions after a process of holy conferencing, culminating in a decision of the General Conference, the only body that can speak authoritatively for the entire UM Church. Historically, once the decision is made, the various components of the church live out that decision. In a congregational form of polity, local congregations retain autonomy to make decisions; not so in a classic connectional system.
Recent events in the UM Church have sorely tested if not redefined connectionalism. For some, connectionalism has become synonymous with maintaining unity for the sake of preserving the institution. In this usage, connectionalism refers to our organizational polity – a system of inter-connected conferences (general, jurisdictional, central, annual), boards and agencies, and local churches. In this view, connectionalism has little to do with doctrine or practice, and everything to do with structure and institutional preservation. John Wesley would be appalled.
Initially, for Wesley, connection at its core meant union or alignment with the person of Wesley, the doctrines he professed, and the spiritual practices in which he engaged. In his “Address to the Travelling Preachers” (The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition, Vol. 13, p. 242-43), he observes, “You are at present one body. You act in concert with each other, and by united counsels. And now is the time to consider what can be done in order to continue this union. Indeed, as long as I live, there will be no great difficulty. I am, under God, a centre of union to all our Travelling as well as Local Preachers.” Wesley determined who was admitted to the connection and thus bound them to adhere to its terms.
In order to lay a foundation for the continuation of the connection after his death, Wesley proposed that those in the connection sign an agreement where they would commit “to devote [them]selves entirely to God . . . to preach the old Methodist doctrines . . . [and] to observe and enforce the whole Methodist discipline.” A biographer of his observed, “And one of those principles which Mr. Wesley held to be… strictly scriptural and highly beneficial… was the principle of a united ministry, and of a connexion between the several societies founded on the union of their ministry and on their subjection, in all matters of general bearing, to one common discipline.”
The most recent expression of that agreement for those in the UM Church is found in its Book of Discipline. Our connection only has strength to the extent we mutually adhere to observance of its provisions. Our unity is not institutional, but organic, bound up in whom we declare ourselves to be through the one book that defines our connection.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is committed to recapturing the strength of connectionalism in the best sense of that term. Our prayer is that commitment to an organic connectionalism will restore the strength, vibrancy and evangelistic fervor which has marked the Methodist movement at its best.
As we journey into what is next for Methodism, we are committed to cultivating a connectionalism that keeps those in community with one another connected to our theological identity and that protects us against a loss of identity and mission. One of the challenges faced currently by the UM Church is that we no longer share a common theological identity. Connectionalism entails a commitment across every level of Methodism to its doctrine, spirit, and discipline – to its beliefs and practices.
If a vibrant, vital connectionalism is to emerge once more among the people called Methodist, we submit that it will have several characteristics.
First, such a connectionalism will clearly articulate membership expectations which will mean that clergy and local churches take more seriously the obligation to instruct believers in the doctrines of the faith, to identify the practical ways in which the faith is lived out, and to incorporate members into a living community which forms disciples of Jesus Christ and equips those disciples to become makers of disciples. Wesley accomplished this through societies, class meetings, and bands. We must develop the means and methods that will effectively achieve this in our day. In far too many churches, this aspect of connectionalism is poorly developed and often neglected. As we work to reform Methodism, the WCA is committed to empowering local churches to be communities in which believers watch over one another in love and grace, with the goal of each member being conformed to the image of Christ. We are committed to members participating in discipleship and accountability groups, including class meetings, as an essential means of strengthening each individual’s relationship with the Lord and with His church.
Second, such a connectionalism will be grounded in clearly expressed doctrinal commitments that are taught and lived out at every level of the movement. Just as for Wesley, we understand that others in the Christian family may focus on certain doctrines more than others, or articulate doctrines with slightly different emphases; however, the people called Methodist at their best have always thrived when there was a clear understanding and commitment to a particular set of beliefs and practices. The WCA is committed to a Methodist movement that is rooted and grounded in the historic teachings of the Christian church and of John Wesley and his followers, with Scripture as the primary rule and guide for faith and life. We desire to equip laity and clergy with intimate knowledge drawn from the rich springs of our theological heritage. What we believe and how we put our beliefs into practice make a difference. It is imperative that the cracks in our foundation created by theological amnesia be repaired.
Third, a trained, equipped, and accountable leadership is an essential part of the connectionalism we envision. Methodism at its best has not been a clergy-dominated movement. Rather, lay and clergy leadership has been raised up, trained and deployed as equal partners in a vibrant, missional movement committed to spreading scriptural holiness, making disciples, and equipping disciple-makers. The WCA is committed to cultivating an environment that supports innovative, risk-taking creativity to reach diverse communities globally with the fullness of the Gospel.
The WCA believes that a movement which experiences these characteristics of connectionalism among others will once again be a movement which God uses to impact the world in which we live to God’s glory. We are grateful for those who have seized this vision and who are co-laboring with us to see the vision realized.
The days through which we are struggling are stormy. Division is rampant in the United Methodist house, but the connectionalism of which we dream can grace our movement with renewed identity and a clear mission. And as a result, Jesus will build His church and we will experience meaningful and lasting unity.
By Keith Boyette
April 12, 2019