Friday, April 1, 2011

District Superintendents - What's in a name?

Good morning God,
I've been wondering as I read through this month's council papers what difference will a change of title make to the work of the Church.
On it's own - probably very little, but joining up some dots provides a very interesting picture.
The structure of the British Methodist Church is four-fold. We have Local Churches, Circuits, Districts and the Connexion or Conference depending on how you want to think about it.
This provides us with Ministers, Superintendents, District Chairs and the  Conference/Connexional Team presided over by the President and Vice president of Conference and the General Secretary and Connexional team secretaries.

Contrast this with the largest Methodist denomination - the United Methodist Church who have a different sort of four-fold structure of local Churches, Districts, Conferences and General Conference.
This is served by Elders, District Superintendents, Bishops and their General Secretaries - one for each Global Board.

Now add into this mix the 'Regrouping for mission' or 'Mapping a way forward'  programe of British Methodism which is an encouragement to create circuits as large (if not larger) than many Districts were. Add the call to change the names of our District Chairs and Connexional Team secretaries.. and what do you get?

Could it be a gentle but inevitable and predictable mapping of the UK Methodist structure to the UMC structure..?
Circuits are slowly disappearing, being replaced by smaller Districts overseen by District Superintendents. (the name change suggested for chairs) Our Connexional Team being headed by Connexional Secretaries with particular areas of responsibility.

Which leaves only one more office/name change - and we have already been warned that we will have to make some bold and difficult decisions about the episcopate - Bishops.
Only, in our case, the current thinking seems to be that the preferred choice (of those who want bishops!) would be the President of Conference: a presiding Bishop (just like in the UMC)

This is not 'conspiracy theory' this is just joining dots and seeing what pictures emerge. A  linking together the consequences of our reports and actions to see where they might possibly take us. I may well be wrong - but its fun to do and an exciting prospect nonetheless.

Of course the dots could also be seen as preparation for fulfilling the current Anglican/Methodist covenant. The loss of circuits and a mapping of smaller 'Districts' to Deaneries where District Superintendents become area Deans and the president of Conference becomes the Bishop. (But this picture is much less 'artistic' and 'fun'  to draw - in my opinion.)

The name changes and the push for the removal of circuits by the 'regrouping for mission' program do seem to suggest that strategically thinking, the UMC is the most likely candidate for future belonging and collaborative work.

Personally, as I have stated before I would rather see British Methodism relate more closely to the UMC. If we are going to enter into covenants or consider greater collaboration then why don't we look to other Methodist denominations first? The UMC approach to ministry, their unashamed ownership of Wesleyan theology, their evangelistic zeal and commitment to world wide mission have much to offer us: And we have much to offer the UMC - not least our greater inclusivity in ministry and membership and our commitment to combined social justice and political activism.

So it would seem there might be three options on the table:
  • Fulfill the Covenant with the Anglican Church and become a Methodist Concordat within the Church of England
  • Gently merge with the URC
  • Become the British Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Add to this the ecumenical programs of both the British Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church and the picture becomes even more interesting. It could well be possible to fulfill the basic requirements of the Covenant AND our current relationships with the URC  - by being part of the international dialogue between the Methodists and these denominations.

So what's in a name God?

Well, in my opinion these changes might open up the future and enable British Methodists to recognize that they are part of a massive world-wide movement based on the theology of grace given to us by Wesley.
They suggest a common structure throughout world-wide Methodism and so may provide access to the ecumenical relationships that exist between global rather than local denominations. This might be a faster route to the interchangeability of ministry than the Covenant.

And they make great fun for people like me, who like to guess where we might be going in the future - and how we might be getting there.

Not that there is any real evidence of any deliberate action being taken for any of this to happen of course.

Just a bit of fun - but the change of name gets my vote as a step in the right direction.


  1. As a North American United Methodist, I'd love to see British Methodism brings it unique gifts to United Methodism.

  2. As a North American British Methodist, I'm not so sure. Part of me hopes you're going to say April Fool. There are many things to love about the UMC, but I don't know if I want to be swallowed up by their identity. Hmm... I will have to think on this.

  3. Digging around a bit reveals that there are debates about whether the UMC is in fact displaying a desire (at the top level at least) to join together with ECUSA, which could add an interesting extra strand to the debate....

  4. @Rob - This would be news to me. Can you point to any place where that kind of speculation is going on in public?

  5. Based on the experiences that I, personally, have had, I think that the UMC needs to learn from us, not the other way around.

    My experience has been that, despite lots of good-willed people in the denomination, that The Machine is bigger than human input, common sense and discernment of the Spirit.

    I would mightily regret if British Methodism became a part of the UMC. I honestly don't know if British Methodism would be at greater risk of losing its identity as part of the UMC or part of the C of E. And, if I come back to Britain, I honestly don't know whether I'd rather be a UMC minister or a Methodist C of E minister.

  6. Hi Pam,
    I bow to your experience, but this is one Methodist minister that would leave the Church rather than be a Priest of the C of E. (a situation not helped by the fact that I am Welsh not English)

    My only hope is that if the Covenant were ever fulfilled that the agreement between the UMC and the British Methodist Church would be deemed null and void at that point leaving the way clear for the UMC to engage in mission and open Churches here in the UK so that we don't lose Methodism from these shores.

    At least as a Conference of the UMC there would be a chance to fight for and hold on to the most important parts of our theology and practice.

    But - as I say - only a bit of fun - I'm sure none of this will happen in my life time - we are great prevaricators for mission here.

  7. Anglea: I'm not sure my experience is normative or not because it's my understanding that every conference here in the US is different. But I do hear a lot of people in the US remarking on what I have observed - that the church's bureaucracy had led to inflexibility.

    I honestly understand your sensibilities. I too would hate to see the Methodist Church disappear. I feel through and through a "British Methodist" and I keep insisting "I'm not UMC; I'm British Methodist" because it feels like a totally different denomination to me.

    Depending on how much the UMC made it's sensibilities felt, my counter to your "At least it would be Methodist" is "Since it's not going to be recognizably British Methodist, at least it would be British". But I could be wrong. Perhaps the UK is far enough away from the US there would be significant autonomy in a British Conference. If there is a merger with the UMC, I honestly hope my fears are wrong, I really do.

  8. And two doesn't make it normative either, but I can't help but feel Pam is right. I lived for 30 years as a UMC and I now self-identify as a British Methodist. Again, I don't want to devalue what the UMC offers, but I really don't want to see us lose our identity and flexibility. So I would second Pam's thoughts.

  9. How much identity and flexibility have UMC conferences in Europe, Africa, and Asia lost? I'm not sure they look much like North American United Methodism.

    I could be wrong about that, but the reports I hear suggest that the UMC outside the United States is much different.

  10. United Methodists in the United States represent about 2.5% of the population while British Methodists are about 0.5% of the population. One would have to question how much "identity" is present today and certainly what will be there in five or ten or twenty years without some major changes.

    In talking about structure, the British Methodist Church has 267,000 members across 32 districts and England has 50,000 square miles. In Ohio, the two annual conferences have 373,000 members across a total of 18 districts. Ohio has 42,000 square miles. So, who has more "bureaucracy?"

  11. Hmmm... interesting figures, thank you.

    It is certainly true in my experience that the UMC is different in Europe to the States - it seems that a fairly high degree of autonomy is allowed with regard to interpreting the 'Discipline'. We of course don't have an equivalent to the book of Discipline - our CPD has little explicit doctrinal content (although it can be argued that it is implicit)

    It seems that 'identity' is the core issue. For me there is a clear Anglican identity, and I don't fit it. There is a surprisingly resilient core identity to British Methodism.. but it has more to do with style of worship, tea, and committees than with theology, Wesley and Social Justice and this tends to be reflected in our missiology which lacks a unifying focus.

    We are very keen to make new disciples - but we are less sure as to why, or what we are supposed to do with them when we have them...

  12. ah, this sounds like there might be a plan behind the changes and, frankly, I doubt it. As you point out so tellingly in a recent blog, "we don't do God" and, also speaking like yourself as someone with extensive, if not recent management experience, we don't do management. At its best, business management is vision led, person centred and committed to excellence, It knows the cost of everything but is also values-based, believing that if it delivers excellence in its core activities then the business will flourish. I see a great deal in the Wisdom literature of the Scriptures to both justify and guide such a way of governing businesses and churches. Keep on speaking out on these issues, Angela. Some of us are listening.

  13. My experience of the UMC is that, even more than British Mrthodism, it does management rather than God. That's what I'm worried about: completely inflexible structures being imposed from the US. Maybe that doesnt actually happen in the Europen conference, I don't know.

  14. I spent a year of my presbyteral formation in a United Methodist seminary. That was a fantastic year and I benefited greatly from the people I met and from the resources of the seminary. From my experience, I'd very much agree with the comments that Pam and Will have made.

    I'd be concerned at the way which conservative theology dominates the General Conference - compare for example MCGB and UMC approaches on human sexuality. The General Conference refused to pass a resolution acknowledging that there was a diversity of opinion in the church! Many debates, it seems to me, become extremely polarised in unhelpful ways. Globally, I think there is rather more to be said for the British approach of autonomous national churches rather than some kind of global super-church.

    Maybe I'd just end up being the opposite of Angela - if we get taken over by the UMC, I'll become an Anglican ;)