In this season of splintering in the United Methodist Church, the most common questions I see are about accountability. “Why can’t the bishops hold themselves accountable for breaking the discipline?” “Why can’t we (whoever that may be) make a complaint?” “Why can’t someone do something?” As it turns out, there is a very simple explanation for the lack of accountability within the United Methodist Church.
It’s because of the jurisdictional system.
Recall that a split into northern and southern Methodist factions happened just prior to the civil war over the issue of slavery. When the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the Methodist Episcopal Church-South (MECS) and Methodist Protestant churches came together in 1938, there was a lot of wrangling by the southern church over the issue of receiving bishops from the north. Simply, the southern church did not want someone from outside of the south coming to one of their annual conferences to impose desegregation on them. One has to remember that this is still the era of Jim Crow where blacks and whites were separated in nearly every facet of society. Worship services were not exempt from this. Even if African Americans were allowed to attend services in white churches, they had to sit in separate places such as a balcony. The southern church had no desire to change this and didn’t want some “yankee” telling them they had to.
Other attempts at reunification of the Methodists had failed in the 1920s over polity issues (again, the southern church did not want northern bishops imposing on their system of segregation). In the 1930s, talks resumed and a compromise plan came together.
This third plan for a unified church came before the MEC and MPC general conferences in 1936. Because it was a “bundle of compromises,” it had several features that made one or another of the parties uncomfortable. One was the jurisdiction system, which seemed to some Northerners more likely to divide than to unite. Another was the continued use of bishops, which made some MPs remember that their denomination had left the main church in large part because of powerful bishops. Another was the Judicial Council, which drained power from the MEC general conference and from the MECS bishops. Even then, some in the Southern church still feared the MEC predominance in the proposed general conference. But solid majorities in each denomination decided they could live with all that.https://archives.gcah.org/bitstream/handle/10516/9808/Methodist-History-2015-10-Sledge.pdf?sequence=1
The jurisdictional system ensured that bishops would not be appointed by the General Conference and that the jurisdictions themselves would elect and deploy bishops. Quite simply, the MECS did not want a northern bishop coming in and trying to undo Jim Crow. Sadly, the MEC was already practicing segregation and there had been little interest in changing the status quo. The formation of the jurisdictional system is what allowed “separate but equal” to fully take hold with the formation of the Central Jurisdiction.
The proposed Central Jurisdiction was a racially-based alignment of annual conferences, counterpart to five geographically-based white jurisdictions. The concept was a compromise, since the MECS favored the creation of a separate but allied Negro Methodist church encompassing the AME, AME Zion, CME and MEC black memberships. The white and black Methodist churches would then relate to each other in a fashion similar to the MECS-CME connection. The MECS delegates did not get their way on his point. The compromise plan called for the creation of a race-based Central Jurisdiction which would be within the fellowship of the new church, but with personal interaction only at the general level.https://archives.gcah.org/bitstream/handle/10516/9808/Methodist-History-2015-10-Sledge.pdf?sequence=1
These bishops would not be accountable to the general church, rather to their jurisdiction and the jurisdiction’s College of Bishops. Since bishops would not be deployed at the general church level, they could not be held accountable to the general church. The Council of Bishops, while a denominational body, has very limited power to hold each other accountable. It’s ultimately up to the jurisdictional College of Bishops to handle complaints made against bishops. What’s more, a clergy or layperson in one jurisdiction cannot make a complaint against a bishop in another jurisdiction because they have no standing to do so. In other words, I could not send a complaint in on a bishop serving in the South-Central Jurisdiction because I am a member of the Mississippi Annual Conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
I contend that many of the current problems within the United Methodist Church could have been avoided if we had done the right and just thing by abolishing the jurisdictional system in 1968. Simply put, the jurisdictional system is a relic of racism that should never have existed in the first place. In the year of our Lord 2023, such a system has no place within the UMC, let alone in any denomination. The Judicial Council has ruled that, since bishops are accountable to their jurisdictions (see Decision 1341), the general church has virtually no means by which to hold bishops who go against the Book of Discipline accountable. Accountability has been a major complaint of those wishing to leave the UMC.
Why, then, have many of these same people been in favor of retaining the jurisdictional system? I won’t even begin to speculate on that, other than to say that they see the current system as benefitting them. As I was told once, “At least it keeps us from getting a gay bishop.”
I agree that there needs to be more transparency and more accountability within the United Methodist Church. There needs to be consequences for those who break their vows in any way to uphold the church discipline and to obey the order. So long as we are five churches (jurisdictions) within a church (the UMC), I believe that we will continue to have these issues. Among my many hopes for GC 2024 is that we begin the work of abolishing the scar that is the jurisdictional system.