The church will live for another day

By Riley B. Case

One of the best friends of evangelical United Methodists is The Book of Discipline. It serves as the church’s law book, but it is much more. It also serves as the constitution not only for the denomination but for each local church. The constitution contains our doctrine, our General Rules (designed to give guidance in conduct), and sets forth the principles by which church actions are to be judged.

It was the Discipline that protected us against the liberalism of the early 20th century that wanted to either abolish or re-write the Articles of Religion to reflect “modern times.” A restrictive clause in the Discipline guards the church against just such action. The same issue arose again in 1968 at the time of the Methodist merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, when liberals clamored for a re-write of the doctrinal standards. Because of the Discipline, this was not possible.

It is the Discipline that on the one hand allows the church to file charges against wayward pastors and lay persons, and on the other hand protects pastors and lay persons from the system’s abuses of power. There are still abuses of power in the system but, at least theoretically, these can be corrected by appeals to due process as outlined in the Discipline.

It is the Discipline that outlines and guards the church’s positions on matters such as the practice of homosexuality. Otherwise, United Methodists would be like the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church, which, at the present time, are simply imploding.

Proposed constitutional amendments
Because of the Discipline, the procedures and practices that have guided United Methodism for the past 135 years cannot be overturned or ignored just because bishops or anyone else think they ought to be overturned or ignored. When the Rev. Ed Johnson of Virginia delayed the membership of a practicing homosexual several years ago, he was relieved of his pulpit by the bishop who based her decision on the argument that “inclusiveness” is the bedrock of Methodism (so much for the New Birth, the doctrinal standards and everything else that has been a part of United Methodism); therefore the pastor did not have the authority to deny (or actually delay) membership. However, not only did the bishop and the conference fail to follow due process in removing Pastor Johnson from his pulpit, but their actions were in violation of the Discipline, as upheld by a subsequent ruling of the Judicial Council.

Liberals were irate. The Council of Bishops stood in solidarity with the bishop of Virginia and issued a statement on behalf of “inclusiveness” that raised questions not only about the Judicial Council but the Discipline itself. The bishops followed that by making sure that any person on the Judicial Council who voted to reinstate Ed Johnson would not be re-elected by the General Conference (they pointedly did not even make the courtesy nominations for incumbents, an action unprecedented in the history of the church).

The next step on the part of “progressives” was to seek to change Paragraph IV of the church’s constitution so that “inclusiveness” would be mandated; “all” were to be welcomed and could join the church and participate in the church’s activities. The implications of this are that there would no longer be moral or doctrinal or behavior standards required of church members (or perhaps, even ministers).

With a minimum of debate, the General Conference approved the “no standards” amendment by the necessary 2/3 majority required of any change in the constitution. But, thanks to the Discipline, constitutional amendments must not only be approved by the General Conference (a body that tends to be more liberal than the rest of the church) but also by a 2/3 vote of the members of the annual conferences. So the amendment was sent to the annual conferences this year (2009). The amendment was supported by the General Conference, all the liberal caucuses, a number of the boards and agencies, and the bishops.

Surprise! Common, ordinary delegates to annual conferences simply did not buy the “progressive’s” argument that the constitution must be amended to mandate inclusiveness. After almost all the votes have been taken in the annual conferences (a few overseas conferences have yet to vote), and most have reported the results, Amendment 1 (abolishment of standards by mandated inclusiveness) has been soundly defeated. Needing a 2/3 confirming vote, at the moment the amendment has not even garnered 50 percent of the vote.

The conferences’ votes reveal how dramatic is the church’s liberal-conservative divide. Indeed, it might be possible to rank the conferences on a scale of the most radical to the most orthodox on the basis of its vote. The most liberal conferences which approved proposed Amendment 1 by the required 2/3 vote are: Oregon-Idaho (95 percent); Desert Southwest (94 percent); Pacific Northwest (86 percent); Yellowstone (86 percent); Wyoming (83 percent); California-Nevada (82 percent); California-Pacific (81 percent); Troy (77 percent), Missouri (67 percent), Wisconsin (79 percent), and Minnesota (75 percent). New England, New York, and Rocky Mountain have not yet reported their votes but they will surely also be in this category.

The conferences where the amendment did not garner even a majority of the vote are: Indiana, Virginia, Tennessee, North Georgia, South Georgia, Holston, Western Pennsylvania, Western North Carolina, West Virginia, West Ohio, Peninsula-Delaware, North Carolina, Northwest Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Southwest Texas, Alabama-West Florida, North Texas, Northern Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois Great River, Memphis, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Florida. Conferences not mentioned received more than 50 percent “yes” votes but fewer than 67 percent. None of the missionary conferences or central conferences is included in this tally.

So, thanks to the Discipline and the democratic process, the middle holds and the church will live for another day.

Worldwide Nature of the Church.
A series of 23 amendments would have radically changed the structure of the church so that many of the issues now discussed by General Conference would be assigned to “regions.” These new regions would deal with matters of “regional” interest while the General Conference would deal with matters of “general interest.” The amendments would authorize the structure now and leave the details to be worked out later.

These amendments sought to address what is a real problem in the church, and particularly in the General Conference; namely, that the United Methodist Church is so U.S.-centric that non-Americans have a difficult time relating to the issues that seem to be specific to the churches in the United States. Not only that, but language translation and cultural barriers make the very processes of General Conference difficult to follow. The proposed solution, which required drastic changes to the constitution, would have retained a General Conference to deal with issues of a global nature, and “regional” conferences to deal with issues that are regional in nature.

But another agenda seemed also to be operating: progressives are arguing these days that issues relating to homosexuality are culturally influenced and therefore that these issues should be dealt with in regional conferences and not the General Conference. To put it another way, if the Africans were removed from discussions about homosexuality in America, there might someday be enough liberal votes in the United States to change the church’s stance.

In addition, the amendments were presented before details regarding cost and how the new structure would actually function could be worked out.

The amendments have been solidly defeated by the annual conferences. Needing a vote of 2/3 of all delegates to pass, the amendments have received only about half the necessary votes. Once again, the church divided on this issue basically along liberal-evangelical lines. On one side were the bishops, the Connectional Table, most of the boards and agencies, the liberal caucuses, and the liberal conferences. On the other side were the more conservative conferences, a number of the overseas conferences, Good News, and the other evangelical renewal groups.

This proposal is not yet finished. It will be studied and come back in a different form. Meanwhile, the membership figures continue to shift so that the overseas churches (growing in membership) will soon have more than 1/3 of the total number of General Conference delegates. But for the time being, the middle holds and the church will live to see another day.

Granting local pastors full rights in the conference.
When Good News was organized more than 40 years ago, one of the first issues it addressed was a call to stop discrimination against local pastors and supply pastors. The reasons for this can be explained in a perceptive article that appeared years ago in the historically liberal Christian Century. The article, entitled “What Is Disturbing the Methodists?” (May 20, 1926), argues that Methodists would be much more disturbed about modern thinking (as in theological modernism) except for its system of governance.

According to the Century article, Methodist preachers come in three grades:

• The first grade consisted of bishops, seminary graduates, “men in agencies,” and pastors of large churches. These “men” had no problems with modernism and believed that it was the future of the church.

• The second grade consisted of preachers, most of whom gain conference membership by the Course of Study. They served the medium-size churches and aspired to be in grade one.

• The low grade consisted of those with limited education who served churches with the slimmest of resources. They were the lay pastors and “pastors of rural areas.” Their numbers were not small. According to the article, 4,000 of these pastors made up the bulk of the Methodist ministry in 1926. The gist of the Century article was that those in the lowest grade are the ones most dissatisfied with modernism and cause the dissension in the church. While their numbers were great, their influence was not.

Even though the situation has changed since 1926, the contemporary United Methodist Church still reflects much of the same corporate culture as described in the article. An elite few are in positions of authority and feel they are best qualified to speak to and for the church. A large middle group would aspire to be a part of the elite few but for various reasons must content themselves to be followers rather than leaders. Local pastors (and others) who serve heroically in difficult and out-of-the-way places are loyal to the church but are treated as second-class citizens.

Up until now, they have not been allowed to vote for delegates to General Conference, or to be delegates to General Conference. However, it is not true anymore, as it might once have been, that these persons are uneducated or unqualified. A church that claims to be “inclusive” and open to others has until now reflected its own class system. There were reasons why, in the beginning of the church, that only “traveling elders” made decisions for the church and others were excluded. But those reasons no longer exist. In this case the Discipline does need to be updated.

Finally, after all these years, the matter of full inclusion of local pastors has come before the church. Most United Methodists now see the wisdom in the granting them full rights. Some groups, like some conference boards of ordained ministry, liberal caucuses like the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and persons associated with a few seminaries, opposed inclusion for the local pastors—but the support from the rest of the church has been overwhelming.

Full rights for local pastors required a constitutional amendment. That amendment passed the General Conference by the required 2/3 vote and has now been ratified by annual conferences by a vote far in excess of the required 2/3. We can now claim an ironic victory for the cause of “inclusion.” So, justice rules and the church will live for another day.

Riley B. Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference, assistant executive director of the Confessing Movement, and a member of the Good News Board of Directors. He is also the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon).

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