By Thomas Lambrecht-
Every four years, delegates from all over the world gather to represent global United Methodism. We worship together, celebrate vital ministry accomplishments, and spend most of our time attempting to discern the best way forward for The United Methodist Church over the next four years. More than 1,000 petitions will be considered by the 2016 General Conference in Portland. Some petitions make minor changes to the way we function as a church, found in our Book of Discipline. Others would make sweeping changes.
Since 1976, Good News has believed it is important to speak for orthodox and traditional United Methodists in an environment where progressive and revisionist voices often dominate. For at least three quadrennia, Good News has been joined by other ministries within United Methodism to form the Renewal and Reform Coalition. Together, we represent the broad base of evangelical concern within our church. The Confessing Movement, UMAction, and Lifewatch are all part of the coalition. Transforming Congregations (ministry with persons and families experiencing sexual brokenness) and the Renew Network (Bible-based ministry with women) are now programs of Good News and are also part of the coalition.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition has three major priorities in Portland: 1) uphold biblical teaching on life, marriage, and human sexuality, 2) restore and strengthen the integrity and accountability of our covenant connection as United Methodists, and 3) promote the fair representation and empowerment of our United Methodist brothers and sisters outside the U.S. Allow me to summarize some of the important proposals relating to our priorities.
Life, Marriage, and Human Sexuality
Abortion. Over the past decade, our United Methodist statements on abortion have become more pro-life. We continue to work to strengthen our statements to advocate for the lives of unborn children and their mothers. The most significant hindrance to our denomination’s advocacy for life is the membership of our General Board of Church and Society and the national United Methodist Women in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
United Methodism should not be stigmatized as being a part of a fringe pro-abortion advocacy group. At most, our denomination is a reluctant supporter of legalized abortion.
RCRC supports abortion as a means of birth control. United Methodism does not. RCRC supports abortion for gender selection. United Methodism does not. RCRC supports abortion for babies with potential or actual physical or mental disabilities. United Methodism does not. RCRC even favors the gruesome late-term abortion procedure known as partial-birth abortion. United Methodism does not.
Let’s be clear, RCRC has never supported any restriction on abortion whatsoever. RCRC’s radical positions are at odds with our nuanced United Methodist understanding. Therefore, we are promoting legislation that would mandate UM organizations to leave the RCRC coalition.
Marriage and Sexuality. Since 1972, The United Methodist Church has maintained its balanced and biblical stance that all persons are loved by God and of sacred worth, and that our sexuality is only to be practiced as God intended, within the boundaries of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. This means that we consider the practice of homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” we do not allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings or unions, and we do not accept self-avowed practicing homosexuals as ordained clergy.
Since 1972, however, there have been concerted efforts to reverse or abandon this principled position that agrees with 2,000 years of Christian teaching and 95 percent of all Christians around the world. The Portland General Conference will be no exception.
There are numerous petitions that would rewrite our statements in the Book of Discipline to reverse our biblical and compassionate standards for marriage and sexuality. Our coalition will advocate against such petitions.
There are also petitions that would state that the UM Church is not of one mind, and that we therefore leave it up to each person’s conscience whether they perform same-sex weddings or approve practicing homosexuals as ordained clergy. This effort to preserve church unity at the cost of abandoning clear biblical teaching would create a form of congregationalism within Methodism that is alien to our connectional ethos. Our coalition will oppose these efforts, as well.
Another approach to dealing with the conflict over marriage and sexuality is to change our church structure. The most subtle version of this approach is to create a new U.S. central conference that would allow the U.S. to set different standards and codes of conduct for ministers than United Methodists in the other parts of the world. For example, this approach could permit same-sex weddings and practicing gay clergy in the U.S., while other parts of the church could maintain the current standards. Another version of this approach would allow each jurisdiction within the U.S. to set its own standards for ministers, and then allow annual conferences and local churches to affiliate with whatever jurisdiction would best represent their understanding of ministry.
These structural proposals would, in some cases, add an expensive new layer of bureaucracy to the church, and would in all cases weaken our worldwide connection as United Methodists. Many traditionalists in the church could not accept being part of a denomination that would reverse or abandon our denomination’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. This is a recipe for schism or separation, and we therefore oppose these proposals.
Integrity and Accountability
We do not see the disagreement over marriage and sexuality as a major threat to the future of United Methodism. After all, we have survived with it for 40 years. Instead, the major cause for potential schism is the intentional disobedience and defiance of our denominational policies and requirements.
In many parts of the U.S., clergy are performing same-sex weddings and unions without consequences, and often with the support of their bishop. Openly practicing homosexuals, often married to or living with a person of the same gender, are serving as ordained clergy without hindrance. Our UM standards are fast becoming irrelevant in parts of the church.
This blatant and growing disobedience undermines the trust and connection that bind us together as United Methodists. If some parts of the Discipline can be ignored with impunity, why not other parts? If allowed to continue, this mindset will destroy our denomination or turn it into a loose confederation of congregations and annual conferences.
Our only hope to stay united as a church is to restore the integrity and accountability of our covenant. That is why our coalition will be advocating for proposals like the following:
• Requiring that those who file complaints against clergy must agree to any resolution of those complaints (instead of allowing complaints against clergy who perform same-sex weddings to be quietly settled with no consequences).
• Requiring that any resolution of a complaint must include an apology and a promise not to repeat the offense.
• Revising the accountability process for bishops, so that complaints against bishops are handled by a global body of clergy and laity, rather than the bishop’s own colleagues.
• Imposing a mandatory minimum penalty for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex wedding of a one-year suspension for a first offense and removal of credentials for a second offense.
• Requiring that any counsel for the church must agree with the provision that the defendant is accused of violating (instead of allowing bishops to appoint people who disagree with the Discipline to act as the prosecutor to uphold the Discipline in the case).
• Allowing for congregations and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the Discipline to leave the denomination with their property and pension intact.
• Broadening the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” so that those who are married to a same-sex person or who have publicly acknowledged being a practicing homosexual would no longer be able to serve as clergy.
• Adding as a chargeable offense “interfering with the General Conference or another United Methodist body or agency’s ability to conduct business,” in order to counteract the disruption of General Conference and other agencies by activists.
• Requiring that all petitions that pass a legislative committee at General Conference must receive a vote by the plenary session (instead of allowing opponents to filibuster and delay the process in order to prevent action).
Fair Representation and Empowerment
The UM Church and its predecessors began as a U.S. church with foreign missions. We are now evolving into a worldwide church of equal partners. United Methodists outside the U.S. make up about 40 percent of our denomination’s total membership. The equality of our partnership, however, is still hindered, both by an occasional attitude of U.S. superiority and by the lack of equal representation on church policymaking bodies. Some of our general church agencies have made progress in serving the worldwide church, rather than just the U.S. Other agencies have yet to take that step.
One of the biggest barriers to a perception of equality is financial. Roughly 99 percent of all apportionment money comes from U.S. church members. However, the churches outside the U.S. contribute nearly $1 million per year on a strictly voluntary basis (mainly from Europe).
For the first time, General Conference is poised to adopt an apportionment formula for all the churches outside the U.S. This formula will set giving targets for all the non-U.S. churches, based on their financial ability to pay, will allow a fuller expression of partnership, and will aid non-U.S. churches in building their capacity to participate on an equal footing in the financial support of the church’s ministries. The Renewal and Reform Coalition supports this move.
Another way that some central conferences are treated unequally is in the assignment of bishops. In the U.S. there is quite a range of how many members each bishop is responsible for. The smallest episcopal area has 33,000 members, while the largest has 362,000 members. In Africa, by contrast, the smallest episcopal area has nearly 13,000 members, while the largest has nearly 1.4 million members!
African areas that have more members per bishop than any U.S. area are Nigeria (458,000), Cote d’Ivoire (677,000), Southern Congo (1,055,000), and North Katanga (1,382,000). Roads and other infrastructure shortcomings make it much more difficult for African bishops to exercise adequate supervision and leadership.
Requests for additional bishops for Africa were made in 2012, but the conference deferred. Now the Standing Committee on Central Conference Affairs acknowledges that five new bishops are needed in Africa, but wants to postpone them until 2020. Meanwhile, the fastest growing areas in the church are suffering with bishops who cannot keep up with the growth. The Renewal and Reform Coalition supports the African request for additional bishops for Nigeria, Southern Congo, and North Katanga beginning in 2016. This request cannot wait another four years.
Fair representation of churches outside the U.S. at General Conference has improved, but there are still problems. While African churches have nearly 40 percent of the denomination’s membership, they receive only 30 percent of the delegates at General Conference. This is because Europe and the Philippines have more than their fair share of delegates. The imbalance is caused by the requirement that every annual conference is entitled to at least two General Conference delegates. The Renewal and Reform Coalition supports a proposal to guarantee a minimum of two delegates per episcopal area instead, bringing the numbers more in balance.
The final area where fair representation is needed is on general church boards and agencies. Right now, church membership outside the U.S. accounts for over 40 percent of all United Methodists, but only about 10 percent of board and agency members. Even the Connectional Table, Methodism’s most important coordinating agency, has only seven non-U.S. members out of 59. The Renewal and Reform Coalition supports efforts to increase non-U.S. members on our boards and agencies, as they continue to evolve into serving the worldwide church.
Biblical teachings, integrity and accountability, and fair representation and empowerment capture the heart of the Renewal and Reform Coalition agenda for General Conference 2016. We believe these themes reflect not just a narrow partisan agenda, but embody what is needed to help the whole United Methodist Church take positive steps toward renewal. As we face the crisis of declining membership and financial support, our church needs to unite around our common core of biblical teachings, hold our leaders and members accountable to the integrity of our covenant, and empower our non-U.S. members as equal partners in a shared worldwide ministry. This is truly the way forward for our beloved church.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.