Does anyone have time for ecclesiology in the UMC?

October 13th, 2016

Ecclesiology is one of those seminary words that doesn’t often find a place in the day to day lives of people of the United Methodist Church. It simply means a theology of the church (literally, the study of the church). In academic circles, ecclesiology is often studied comparatively, for example, comparing a Roman Catholic ecclesiology with a Reformed ecclesiology. As Christians, our idea of church — of the gathered body of believers — points directly to our Christology, to our idea of who Jesus is, because throughout Scripture the church is referred to as the Body of Christ.

Because of the thoroughness and authority of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, as well as the frontier nature of the church ecclesiology has prioritized the pragmatic and historical over the theoretical and constructive. We see this clearly in Laceye Warner’s The Method of our Mission. A book designed to explain how the church works, not why it works that way (beyond historical precedent). It is a book of polity, like Thomas Frank’s often updated Policy, Practice, and Mission of the United Methodist Church. These books serve a purpose as textbooks for seminary courses on polity, but neither adds anything constructive to the ecumenical christian understanding of Church (in a private email, Dr. Warner agreed with this assessment, and understood that constructive ecclesiology was not the goal of her work). The closest thing to a UMC ecclesiology that I have found is this working paper from the GBHEM Committee on Faith and Order from 2013. What we are left with, though, is something that is descriptive rather than constructive.

And really, who has time for it anyway? Right? People in ministry have sermons to write, worship to plan, outreach and mission to develop, meetings, and funerals and counseling and everything in between. Over the past few years, mission and missional have been the key words in talk about church, outward-facing congregations over inward-facing ones, mission and vision statements, church planting, multisite. Talk is about membership decline and facing decline, revitalizing congregations, making disciples rather than members. Itineracy, one of the cornerstones of Methodist polity, is discussed practically rather than theologically or biblically. These are solutions to meet problems. Talk of mission and revitalization are answers to the question to where is the church headed? What is unsaid or at least underdeveloped is why church should be this way and not another way. Recent work on class meetings and band meetings, as well as historical work on Wesleyan thought and missional ideas point in a certain direction but they remain historical, descriptive or pragmatic. These are still looking at polities (how the church is organized) rather than ecclesiologies.

There is always a crisis to be met or a plan to be developed but rigorous thinking by people in the field or even by academics is absent. One difficulty is the question of who would publish such an ecclesiology? Abingdon published Dr. Warner’s The Method of Our Mission with a specific target of seminary students in mind. The purpose of a robust, rigorous and constructive UMC ecclesiology would be beyond the classroom. And it can’t sit as a chapter in a work of systematics (like Scott Jones’s The Extreme Center. People want to talk about movements not churches. Church is old-fashioned language; a movement is something fresh, without the historical baggage or time-intensive work of theory.

The absence of a present, constructive and rigorous ecclesiology is especially felt during these difficult days with worries of schism. Many people throughout the United Methodist Church have radically different ideas of what the church is and what the point of the church is. There is not a common discourse of church even with a common Book of Discipline. What exists are different interpretations of the Book of Discipline with more progressive Methodists prioritizing certain sections and and more conservative Methodists prioritizing others. These are not equivalent phenomena, but in the absence of a coherent, constructive ecclesiology or theologians and pastors working in this area, we can only judge these interpretations subjectively.

What is deeply problematic to me is that no one mourns the ecclesiology. The 19th century, the height of Methodist expansion in the U.S. and Europe (before the recent African and South Asian revivals) was filled with ecclesiologies like Benjamin Gregory’s Holy Catholic Church.

There is little patience for going backward in an argument to first principles. There is always a crisis. There is always a challenge. There is little funding. There is little time for thinking through what it means to be church. And so, in some ways, the place we find ourselves is hardly surprising.

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