By Jason Vickers –
In his 1989 landmark work, The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch, Professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, examined the spread of Christianity in early America, arguing that the groups that flourished were the ones that were able to fuse Christianity with America’s emerging democratic form of government. Among the many early groups, no group surpassed the Methodists when it came to absorbing American style democracy. Indeed, by the mid-nineteenth century, Methodism would emerge as a religion of the people and by the people, the quintessential form of American Christianity.
To be sure, it would take decades for Methodists to perfect their democratic sensibilities. African-American Methodist and Wesleyan-holiness denominations exist today in part because the Methodist Church was not always hospitable to blacks, to women, and to the poor. Nevertheless, if we take the Methodist tradition as a whole, which is to say, if we include these other Wesleyan churches, then American Methodism is a deeply democratic form of religion. It doesn’t simply insist that all people are welcome at the table. Rather, American Methodism insists that all members’ voices be heard, whether from the pulpit, through direct vote, or by representation, and we live with the results.
As represented by Bishop Bruce Ough, the United Methodist Council of Bishops’ decision to recommend only one proposal to the upcoming special called General Conference is deeply anti-American Methodist in spirit. Granted, Bishop Ough and the Council of Bishops did not suggest that those elected to represent the people not be allowed to vote. But the decision to allow only one of three proposals stemming from the work of the Commission on a Way Forward coupled with the decision not to allow any proposals to be brought by the delegates themselves is no less stifling with respect to the voices and concerns of the people.
As an advocate for democracy, I would personally like to see the delegates of the upcoming called General Conference be allowed
to consider multiple proposals, ranging from proposals regarded as “far right,” to centrist and “far left” or progressive proposals. Moreover, I will respect the outcome of the conference, regardless of which proposal triumphs. That comes with democracy. By contrast, Bishop Ough’s proposal on behalf of the Council of Bishops preempts all of this. It implies that we the people (through our duly elected representatives) cannot be trusted to think for ourselves; that we are not capable of considering three clear and distinct proposals or of bringing intelligent proposals of our own. It is condescending and offensive in the extreme, and it violates the spirit of American Methodism.
Jason Vickers is Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism.