United Methodism’s discerning vote

By Rob Renfroe

The United Methodist News Service has published an article declaring that the 23 proposed amendments regarding the Worldwide Nature of the Church and the proposed Amendment 1 regarding membership eligibility have all failed. Though not all of the annual conferences have released their tallies, there are not enough votes in the unreporting conferences to change the outcome.

What do these results mean? Something unusual and important, that’s for sure.

Rarely have proposed constitutional amendments adopted by General Conference failed to garner the necessary two-thirds endorsement of the annual conferences. Yet, the 24 referenced above did not even come close to passage.

Proposed Amendment 1. This amendment would have removed the pastor’s responsibility to discern a person’s readiness for membership. Clergy would have been required to receive any person willing to recite our membership vows even if the pastor knew that he/she did not hold to the Christian faith or had no desire to live a Christian lifestyle.

When all the votes are tabulated, proposed Amendment 1 is likely to end up very close to 50 percent for and 50 percent against—far short of the 66.67 percent necessary for ratification. No doubt, some will use these results to make the same case they tried to make in Fort Worth—that we are a divided church when it comes to the practice of homosexuality and we should no longer say that it is incompatible with Christian teaching; and that we should admit how divided we are as a church and state that good people can differ on this issue.

It will be most interesting (actually humorous) if groups like the Reconciling Movement try to make that case on the basis of Amendment 1. Why? Because in every annual conference we were told by advocates that this amendment was not about homosexuality—that it was simply offering a warm welcome to those who wanted to be received into the church.

So, which is it? Was Amendment 1 not about the practice of homosexuality? Or was it a cleverly written piece of legislation, claiming to be about one thing when in reality it was pushing an agenda that the church has explicitly rejected for almost 40 years?

What does the failure of Amendment 1 mean for us? First, that important matters having to do with the church’s constitution deserve more time at General Conference. This amendment received less than five minutes of debate on the last day of the conference, as delegates were rushing to finish their deliberations. Later, some delegates reported that they had no idea about the true agenda behind this amendment.

Second, United Methodists trust their pastors. Radicals have created a myth that there are pastors who are using their authority in the most capricious and unkind ways, preventing sincere seekers from the ministry and the membership of the church. But persons in the pew, not motivated by a political agenda, know differently. They know their pastors to be principled and compassionate persons who can be trusted to open the doors of the church to all who come in good faith.

Third, laypersons want membership to matter. Membership is not reserved for the sinless or those who have “gone on to perfection.” But the vows of membership do call for a commitment to the Christian faith as revealed in the Scriptures. And the person in the pew knows that once the vows can mean whatever any person wants them to mean, in actuality, they come to mean nothing—and so does church membership.

Fourth, the defeat of this amendment means that many people organized and worked and were willing to take a controversial stand publicly—many in conferences where there might be a heavy price to pay for speaking out. We owe them our deepest gratitude.

The proposed Worldwide Nature of the Church amendments. It appears that these 23 amendments will be defeated by a margin of 60 percent against and 40 percent for. What their defeat does not mean is that those promoting these amendments were ill-intentioned. Many of those behind these proposals were motivated by a sincere desire to help the church in the developing world to be more effective in its ministry. And neither does their defeat mean that we should not revisit the question of how the church should be structured in the future. We should.

But to fail by such a large margin means that clergy and laypersons, conservatives and liberals, northerners and southerners all found the proposed amendments unacceptable. Some, no doubt, voted against them because they feared the additional bureaucracy and costs required by the new structure. Others questioned why this strategy was being proposed by a mainly American committee, rather than originating with leaders in Africa and Asia. Still others simply could not grasp why we were being asked to approve a structure that had not been fully spelled out—a study committee will make its recommendation at General Conference 2012. We were being asked to pre-authorize the General Conference to adopt a structure without knowing what that structure would be—or what it would do to the church. In essence, we were being asked to sign a blank check. And you simply don’t do that unless you have complete trust in the person to whom you’re giving the check.

And that’s what it comes down to—trust. Many of us simply could not trust that our permission to re-structure the church would not be used by a political faction to promote their single-issue agenda. Though perhaps not intended by the originators of these amendments, there was the suspicion that the creation of separate regional conferences, each with the authority to amend The Book of Discipline, would lead to the exclusion of the international delegates’ input regarding the most controversial and divisive matters before the church.

Radicals, who once thought that the marginalized around the world would adopt their liberal positions, have found that African and Asian delegates are more motivated by biblical faithfulness than what progressives think of as political correctness. And the progressives have become tired of these developing world delegates impeding their agenda of ordaining practicing gays and marrying homosexual couples.

Many of us in the reform and renewal movements feel certain that radicals would attempt to use this new structure to lessen the voice and the vote of delegates where the church is uncompromisingly biblical, most diverse, and actually growing by leaps and bounds. We felt, and still do, that the church in the United States will be better with their full inclusion and input, not worse.

What does it all mean? It means your prayers, your giving, your organizing, and your faithfulness made a difference—and it will be needed again. You can be sure of that.

Rob Renfroe is the new president and publisher of Good News. He is the pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and is the former president of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church.

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