I am one of those people that Jesus warned you about — I have been a lawyer and occasional Pharisee for forty years. Even with a seminary degree, I still think like an attorney. I am more interested in process questions than most folks, since it has been my experience that decisions that were not reached thoughtfully through due process are often bad decisions.

It has therefore been fascinating to watch the pervasive ways in which American (if not world) Christianity has changed within my 65-year lifetime with no attention paid to process at all. Some people consider it unseemly to call attention to the practical details of religious communities organizes their life. It sounds political…and so it is. The way that any structured community (polis) operates is inherently political, and it is foolish to pretend that Christians are above all that.

Let’s look away from Anglicanism for a moment because most of Covenant’s readers may be too deep in that forest to see past the trees. I recently read The Methodist Conference in America: A History by Russell E. Richey. Outsiders often forget that Methodism has a historical polity that is not episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational, but connectional. The authority exercised by John Wesley during his lifetime devolved to the network of conferences that together constituted the Methodist Connection.

These conferences collectively exercised legislative, judicial, and most executive authority within Methodism. Nevertheless, they were not primarily political assemblies, but gatherings of the faithful for fellowship and mutual encouragement. The conferences were a key locus in both space and time for the preaching and sacramental life of the connection. Richey talks of “Conference as a Means of Grace.”


In America, there was the Methodist General Conference that met every four years in the name of the connection as a whole, the Annual Conferences around the country, and the Quarterly Conferences that carried out local ministry. These conferences were never autonomous entities and had no independent authority, but derived their legitimacy from their organic role within the connection.

Annual Conferences were somewhat analogous to dioceses, and the presiding officer was called a “bishop,” but he was mostly just a renamed “superintendent” who acted in the name of the Annual Conference between its meetings. The bishops were frequent absentees, since they spent much of their time traveling around the country (and missionary fields) as itinerant general superintendents. They were transferred almost every fourth year.

For the first century of American Methodism, the General Conference had no interim agencies, so the Annual Conferences (with the bishops, superintendents, and presiding elders) directed policy 99% of the time. Until recently, many Annual Conferences had ethnic identities (German, Swedish, African-American, Norwegian, Anglo, Hispanic, etc.) and overlapping territorial boundaries. Most conferences were thus small enough to sustain intimate personal relationships.

British and American Methodism originally, and for many years, had an itinerant clergy who travelled around a loosely defined circuit, working with local ministers — nonstipendiary or lay — to support the faithful (financial pressure is forcing many contemporary Anglican dioceses into a similar pattern, but in Methodism it wasn’t just an expedient, but a design feature). Each Quarterly Conference consisted of at least the leadership, and often the entire membership, of a single circuit.

Conceptually, and in the original practice, local churches were just buildings that served as preaching stations within the circuit under the oversight of a Quarterly Conference. Legal title to the property might be held by local trustees, but only for the benefit of the entire connection and subject to the interwoven authority of all the various conferences. The circuit was the fundamental venue for ministry, and it operated under the oversight of its Quarterly Conference within the connectional context. Congregationalism was even more alien to Methodist sensibilities than it was to Episcopalians.

I will skip the intervening 200 years (and almost 200 pages of The Methodist Conference in America) and jump to Richey’s conclusions. In today’s United Methodist Church, special-focus caucuses have largely supplanted the cultural role of the conference in promoting fellowship within the connection. The General and Annual Conferences have expanded their membership in the name of inclusiveness to the point that the resulting large bodies can no longer conveniently manage either sociability or deliberation.

Realistically, most power today lies in the hands of the presiding officers and their permanent staff. The conferences have lost their executive and judicial authority and rarely modify or reject proposed legislation. The bishops are no longer itinerant superintendents, but local diocesans. General Conference and its appointees exercise central control over the connection through a constellation of continuing bodies. The Annual Conferences are squeezed between the contending pressures of national centralization and local congregationalism.

The biggest change in Methodist practice has been the rise of localism. Around 1884, the Quarterly Conference was supplemented by an official board for each regular worship site. By the 1920s, the boards had effectively displaced the circuit conferences. The original focus on evangelism and area ministry shifted to a new emphasis on institutional development and putting up buildings. Editions of The Methodist Discipline (their Constitution and Canons) prior to 1928 barely mentioned the local church. By 1940, it had its own section alongside the conferences within Part IV. After 1944, the local church had a separate Part II that incorporated all the remaining references to the Quarterly Conference. In 1968, the local churches were moved to the front of the book. While it still recognized them as inextricable parts of the connectional structure, they now dominated the discussion of ministry (and ministers).

I can see many parallels within the Episcopal Church, though you may disagree. In my lifetime, the national church has become more centralized, bishops more monarchical, and their staffs larger; and diocesan conventions no longer exercise any real initiative on program or budget. Non-parochial ministries have been marginalized, and institutional concerns trump evangelism (redefined as not much more than congregational development). In 1974, the Diocese of Texas directly employed eight college chaplains, busy priests devoted full time to their mission. In 2014, there are three times more students with half as many diocesan missioners, so most college work is parish-based.

I would be happier if Episcopalians had thought through this revolution in ecclesiology a little more deliberately, but — as with the Methodists — these profound changes “just happened.” There was no real debate or due process. At least American Anglicans could proclaim our adherence to an episcopal polity (however much modified to address local conditions). The Reformed and their kin could claim to be synodical or presbyterian, and the Methodists could still claim to be connectional.

The claims are no longer credible, at least in the state where I live. On November 3, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the Texas Supreme Court ruling on the contending Episcopal Dioceses of Fort Worth. American Christians are allowed to believe anything they want and can speak freely to advocate those beliefs. Nevertheless, as citizens of a secular state, they are required to behave in accordance with the state’s preferences.

Legally, Texas churches are now to be treated as voluntary associations of people on the local level who have chosen to form self-governing congregations. These may (at their own free discretion) choose to band together in larger voluntary associations like conferences, synods, and dioceses. These may then, in turn, choose to join national associations or even voluntary world bodies like the Roman Catholic Church.

The bottom-up model is mandatory, with no real allowance for a top-down model in which the denomination plants local branches under its own authority. If the local church exists and holds property, it exclusively governs that property. This being a free country, Eastern Orthodox and Presbyterians can still organize as they wish, but the courts will recognize their preferences only on one condition. The churches must first accept the state’s premise that local congregations are autonomous bodies that have the sole discretion whether to give up their inherent independence by written contract.

So, a professedly Methodist congregation is only connectional if it chooses to be so and signs legal documents to that effect. Even if it does, the decision is revocable at any time unless the documents expressly provide otherwise, because the local church remains a legally independent entity. This is true even if the church was founded and acquired its property under the prior legal regime that recognized denominational control. Baptists and other congregational churches can easily implement their theological preferences, but adherents of every other ecclesiology must recognize that only congregationalism is legally effective.

I suspect a failure of imagination. The judges, like most other modern Americans, simply cannot conceive of a church organization in which the local congregation does not take absolute precedence. That is how almost all North American churches have operated within our lifetimes — whether they are run by nominal Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or even Catholics — so most of us (including our judges) assume that congregationalism is simply a given.

It isn’t. As recently as the late nineteenth century, the largest American denomination of the day was connectional rather than congregational in practice, not just in theory. Most Anglicans elsewhere in the world still give priority to the diocese over the parish, and many have strong checks on diocesan autonomy. Congregationalism is not natural law, and the courts should not be deciding questions of divine law. Still, we are where we are.

The parish where I grew up was free to leave the Episcopal Church after 135 years and function for the better part of a decade outside any diocese as an “Independent Anglican Church” that brought bishops in as contract labor to perform confirmations. It has lately joined another Anglican denomination, but is free to leave at any time. As both a lawyer and an Episcopalian, I have some problems with that. Still, as Roman Catholics used to say about the Pope, “The State has spoken and we have but to obey.”

Congregations rule.

The image above is an illustration from Edward Eggleston’s The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age (New York, 1874). It is in the public domain. 

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