Streamlining the Church's ecumenical work

Restructuring. Cutting the bureaucracy. Streamlining for mission. There has been a lot discussion in recent years about how to restructure and re-organize the United Methodist Church. While I am not one of those who sees re-structuring United Methodism as "the silver bullet" that will usher in an era of great revival of the Christian faith across the globe, it does seem clear that there has been a growing need for some years to simplify the structure of our Church.

As our denomination grew and became more and more part of "the establishment" in the United States in the first half of the 20th Century, we created a large bureaucracy of General Commissions, Boards, and Agencies - often modeling them on the various departments in the federal government. They are now widely criticized as too big and unweildy and unfocused (not to mention expensive to maintain).

Indeed, if one goes to that part of Nashville where several of our General Boards are based (as close as one gets to a "United Methodist Vatican"), one is struck by the architecture. While the General Board of Discipleship has lovely Georgian architecture and the Scarritt-Bennett retreat center is built in the evocative gothic style (each with their own beautiful chapels), the General Board of Higher Education building across the street looks a great deal like something built for the FBI or the IRS that seems to scream "bureaucrats work here". The style of this building, I suggest, reflects the church's growing affinity for "structuralism" (that we received, perhaps uncricially, from the surrounding culture and society).

For those of us interested in ecumenical unity, of particular concern will be the fate of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns and the future shape of ecumenical dialogues and cooperation.

According to a recent article from The United Methodist News Service (UMNS) there are a couple of proposals on the table. One is to maintain the Commission of Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns in basically its current form while simply shrinking the size of the board and the staff. Another option (and to me, a more interesting one) is to discontinue the Chrisitan Unity Commission and fold all ecumenical responsibility into the Council of Bishops:

The Council of Bishops already has an ecumenical officer who acts as an official representative at many church-unity events. This new proposal would increase the term of the president of the council from 2 to 4 years and make the president of the council of bishops the chief ecumenical officer of the church, with support staff (presumably taken from the old Christian-Unity Commission). This bishop would also be a "non-residential" bishop, meaning that he would not have responsibilities over an episcopal area with an annual conference (the Methodist equivalent to a diocese or synod in other churches), I presume he would be based in New York (though a move to some of the empty offices in less-expensive Nashville and a renting out of any New York properties might make good fiscal sense).

The president of the council of bishops would become the primary representative of the church to other churches and to the world. I also favor changing the title from the cumbersome "President of the Council of Bishops" to a much more streamlined "Presiding Bishop" or perhaps an older usage, "Metropolitan bishop" or simply "archbishop." This would be a bit closer to the model used by some Anglican churches, for example, the (US) Episcopal Church's presiding bishop (while technically seated at the great National Cathedral in Washington DC) has no actual diocesan responsibilities and serves as a (frequently travelling) representative of the whole church.

Since the times of the Early Church Fathers, the bishop was understood to be the symbol and the guardian of the Church's unity. So St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 105) taught "as the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to him,...so neither should you do anything without the bishop and presbyters" (ANF 1.62) and St. Cyprian (A.D. 250) could affirm "the bishop is in the church, and the church is in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the church" (ANF 5.374-5). The bishop serves the unity of the church by himself being the rallying point of the faithful. He is the rallying point of the faithful in part because he ordains and appoints the presbyters who are able administer the sacraments that form and unify the community of faith in grace and power.

Giving the bishops more coordinating authority for ecumenical dialogues is in keeping with the ancient traditions and with our own Book of Discipline, which states "The role of the bishop is to be the shepherd of the whole flock and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation and unity within the Church..." (para. 403.e). I believe that such a move could also improve the theological and pastoral leadership of the council of bishops, as they are engaged on a deeper level with the theological traditions and sensitivities of the wider ecumenical church.

The council of bishops will hear a report on this proposal during the first week of May.

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Anonymous Todd Stepp said...

I like the presiding bishop idea.

Concerning overall structure, I think the UMC would do well to look at a couple of the smaller Wesleyan/Methodist denominations to see how they have streamlined the Methodist structure.

The Church of the Nazarene, The Wesleyan Church, and the Free Methodist Church have all (I think) combined the UM conference & district into one layer of government. (The Wesleyans refer to it as a district conference, while the Nazarenes simply call it a district.)

Also, the Nazarene regions are far less complicated than the UM jurisdictions. While the regions do play a role (especially outside the U.S. & Canada), the primary structures for the CotN is the local, district & general church. In the UMC, it seems the primary structures include local, district, conference, jurisdiction, and general church.

Obviously, the function and power of the bishops/general superintendents and district superintendents in the CotN, TWC, & FMC have developed differently from the UMC, as well.

In some ways Nazarene g.s. are more powerful than UMC bishops, but in other ways they are less, so, and they are not residential to a conference in the same way the UMC bishops are.

Nazarene d.s. are more of a cross between UM d.s. & bishop.

But, a part from the function of the episcopacy/superintendency, I think the UMC would do well to restruction in a more simplified manner like the CotN, TWC, and the FMC.

BTW, the size of their respective Books of Discipline reflect this simplicity, as well.


11:48 AM, April 11, 2011  
Blogger cspogue said...

I'm not sure electing a "president" with executive authority out of the Council of Bishops will be a good idea. I do believe empowering the Council of Bishops to be the executive of The UMC between General Conferences is long overdue.

11:55 AM, April 11, 2011  

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