In the fifty years since The United Methodist Church became a denomination, the body has experienced well-documented declines in the United States, expansions in much of Africa, and deepening divisions over human sexuality. Those divisions have impacted moral, legal, theological, ethical, pastoral, and vocational matters in the life of the church. They threaten to undermine and overwhelm the constitutional system that the church has used for more than two centuries to order its operations and maintain accountability.
John Wesley had devised and led the Methodist connexion. After the end of the colonial era in America, he relinquished any pretense of control over his connexion in the newly independent nation. American Methodists governed themselves around two centers of authority—conferences, and an episcopacy. Yet expansions into distant frontiers and suspicions about imbalances of power led them to explore other structures with standards for church doctrine and organs of church government.
The General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church made a momentous decision in 1808 to adopt an approach to polity that established a connectional system on a constitutional basis. The concept of a church polity constructed on a Constitution is neither self-evident nor necessary.
In two major sections, this article examines constitutional Methodism in historical and operational perspectives. It looks at the constitutional crisis looming in United Methodism over church laws regarding homosexuality and the denominational efforts to address them. Those efforts may be unconstitutional.