Editorial: Local-Option Methodism

Adam Hamilton has issued a new call for “a way forward” advocating a local-option plan that the General Conference would design, approve, implement, oversee, and (doubtless) amend over time.

As with his original proposal (issued about a year ago), social media is buzzing with pro/con commentators.  But because the idea is embryonic in its conception and unformed in its actual shape–both of which Adam is wise enough to know are not within his control, we have at the moment only our history and heritage to use in evaluating the idea.

And when we look to our heritage, we find that versions of local-option Methodism have been present in early British Methodism, early American Methodism, and today in contemporary United Methodism.  Far from being a violation of our polity, local options are means for applying it.

In early Methodism, Wesley launched the movement with two documents: ‘The Character of a Methodist’ and ‘The General Rules.’ These were non-negotiables incarnating the two great commandments and the behaviors that would do good and avoid harm in relation to those commandments.  Factoring in the Creeds and Articles of Religion from the Church of England (since  Methodism was essentially a movement within Anglicanism), we can speak with confidence about “the main branches of Christian doctrine” that all Methodists were to uphold.

After that, we see flexibility for local-application of the agreed-on standards.  A reading of the Conference Minutes, Wesley’s letters to Methodist leaders, and entries from his Journal reveal local-option freedoms in a variety of expressions.

When Methodism came to the colonies, the same mix of standards and options continued, due in large measure to Wesley’s inability to name or enforce a one-size fits all polity across the ocean.  Besides which, the first Methodists in America had everything that they had used in Great Britain to make Methodism existant and vital.  Wesley did not need to add anything else at the time.

When Methodism became a denomination in 1784, Wesley enjoined a connectionalism that he provided in the Sunday Service and the amended and reduced Articles of Religion, additions to accompany the already-existing documents and structures which had existed in America for about 25 years.

As a result we see Francis Asbury, for example, dealing with different Methodist groups in different ways, giving the leaders (especially in the local class meetings) liberty to act in ways they considered to be best where they served.  As the Circuit Rider system brought an increasing clergy presence into American Methodism, we can continue to trace the local-option diversity in the church’s polity, both in terms of the circuit riders themselves and the charges they oversaw.

Moving ahead to our time, our Book of Discipline enjoins numerous principles that can be organized and expressed with a local-option flexibility that reveals variety in such things as administrative structure, clergy liberties, missiological manifestations, and stewardship decisions–to name a few.

Our Methodist heritage reveals that local-options have been part of our polity from the beginning, and that local-option polity does not violate or diminish our spiritual vitality or our institutional connectionalism.  In fact, local-option Methodism enhances our message, manner, method,and ministry.

Of course, all this today is contextualized in relation to human sexuality.  But a look back to our heritage shows that the aforementioned universals (Creeds, Articles, The Character of a Methodist, The General Rules, and The Sunday Service) do not include the topic of sexuality–leaving the topic, at least institutionally speaking, on the level of ‘opinion’ not ‘doctrine.’

The validity of local-option polity with respect to human sexuality needs to be brought to the table of holy conferencing and (eventually) to the floor of General Conference.  But to immediately dismiss local-option Methodism as foreign to our polity, flies in the face of its existence in the past and in the present. 

But even more,  the immediate dismissal of it closes off a path of discussion and discernment that people all along the spectrum could use with profit and with confidence that we are ‘Methodist’ in continuing our Christian Conferencing in relation to Wesley’s threefold paradigm: what to believe, what to teach, and what to do–and then, to engage ourselves in these things in ways that continue to manifest the mix of universality and local-option polity which has served us well since 1744.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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6 Responses to Editorial: Local-Option Methodism

  1. johns79 says:

    One point hinted at, but not articulated, is the local options were a bow to the realities of space and time. How long did it take for Wesley to communicate with America? What time is need for a Bishop on the coast to get to a local congregation in the Blue Ridge? A back and forth exchange? Some participants may have died, condidtions changed or people moved on before the 2nd or 3rd round.
    My problem with all the “local option” plans is their goal; to have your cake and eat it too. These are exercises in papering over differences for the sake of “unity” (maintaining numbers and funding) rather than making tough decisions, enforcing them and sticking with them for years or decades as necessary.

  2. John Meunier says:

    I’ve read a fair chunk of Wesley’s week collected works. I do not notice this embrace of local options. I see him adopting practices when required by circumstance, but within his movement he did not appear to me to be a fan of local options.

    Our EUB heritage gives more foundation for that, I would say.

  3. Al, I am not familiar with all the ways John Wesley interacted with Robert Strawbridge, but I do know Wesley had to create a kind of local option for Methodists who were refused the sacraments. He did it through the unusual (and still debated) decision to ordain some to be clergy. This “emergency procedure” does not address every account that might be raised, but it does show Wesley gave himself permission to exercise a local option, and a significant one at that.

  4. Al DeFilippo says:

    Question, would the early Wesleyan preachers in Ireland who went against Wesley’s advice and served the sacraments, men like Robert Strawbridge, be included in a “local polity” option? Robert Strawbridge wasn’t the first Irish Wesleyan itinerant to offer the sacraments in Ireland, only one of several who preceded him. Eventually, when Robert Strawbridge arrived in America, Francis Asbury also had to interact in an accommodating manner with Robert Strawbridge about the sacraments issue. Thank you for your reply.

  5. Jeff Blake says:

    What a fine critique of Methodist history and certainly a framework for further discussion.

  6. Beth Knight says:

    Thankyou for such wise words!!

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