Amendments, colonialism, and the lost art of Holy Conferencing

Editorial by Rob Renfroe

The Council of Bishops recently ratified the voting results on the nearly three dozen proposed amendments to the United Methodist Church’s constitution (news story on page 5). Of the 32 proposed amendments, 27 of them failed to receive the two-thirds vote necessary from annual conference members in order to become part of the church’s constitution.

This news was surprising, actually shocking, for at least a couple of reasons.

First, to our knowledge, annual conference members have never before rejected a proposed constitutional amendment. After all, a proposed amendment comes to annual conferences after more than two-thirds of the General Conference delegates have approved it. Heretofore, the operating assumption has been that annual conference members would ratify what their elected delegates have already approved at General Conference.

Second, nearly all the amendments not ratified failed by wide margins. For instance, proposed amendment I, having to do with the constitution’s article on church membership, failed to garner even 50 percent support from annual conference members. And even more startling, all 23 of the amendments originally offered by the Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church failed to break the 40 percent threshold.

Kansas Bishop Scott Jones, co-chairman of the task force, was surely correct in his analysis of the results when he stated that the “vehicle for change was flawed.” Ever the church statesman, Jones resisted blaming others. Instead, he noted that we must now look forward to create a better future together. The church surely needs to change, but the rank and file members, as Jones noted, did not think the proposed amendments were the correct “vehicle” to achieve that goal.

According to a story in The United Methodist Reporter, however, other bishops reacted quite differently.

Colonial, imperialist, and tainted. Retired Angolan Bishop Emilio DeCarvalho was quoted as claiming the defeat of the 23 restructuring amendments was “a denial of our worldwide nature,” and kept in place a “colonial” structure.

California-Nevada Bishop Warner Brown maintained that the defeat of the amendments demonstrated that “those who have power have refused to share power with those who have less.” He also argued that the church’s unwillingness to pass the amendments was evidence that it continues to “wrestle with this imperialistic mindset that has labored under this term ‘Central Conferences’ for a long time.”

And finally, Virginia Area Bishop Charlene Kammerer, in an apparent reference to the voting process on all of the proposed constitutional amendments, said, “I feel like the process was tainted for the whole church.”

These are very serious charges, and church members around the world are right to anticipate further clarification from these bishops.

Honestly, do the bishops quoted above believe that the majority of United Methodists are imperialistic and colonial in their thinking? And how do they account for the fact that according to The United Methodist News Service, nearly 95 percent of the delegates in Africa rejected the restructuring amendments?

These bishops appear not to have entertained the idea that many United Methodists—whether in Africa, Europe, the Philippines, or the United States—simply did not think the restructuring amendments were the way to move forward at this point in time.

Nor did they seem to consider that perhaps many delegates voted against the amendments because, though they were touted as empowering the church outside the U.S., they were crafted and proposed primarily by persons from the U.S. Could not these bishops at least imagine that some of us believe that any restructuring of our worldwide connection in order to help the church in the developing world should come from the church in the developing world—not from Americans thousands of miles away and worlds apart, well-meaning or not?

Rather than accusing the people of the church of working out of an “imperialistic mindset” or “refus[ing] to share power with those who have less power,” it would have been refreshing had these bishops actually spent some more time engaging the people in the pews in dialogue and learning their motives in voting against these amendments. Why is it so difficult for some of our leaders to assume the best of our people instead of the worst?

Tainted process?
Bishop Kammerer’s conspiratorial charge that “the process was tainted for the whole church” is of a different order, and the entire church should eagerly anticipate evidence being provided of precisely how the process was “tainted.” During the 2009 voting process there were no reports made public by The United Methodist News Service, The United Methodist Reporter, or any of the numerous monitoring agencies of the church regarding anything nefarious, irregular, or tainted. If new information has come to light, the entire denomination should be made aware of it.

Between General Conference 2008 and the annual conferences of 2009, the church had more than a year to discuss and debate the proposed amendments. Annual conferences posted position papers for and against the amendments on their websites. District meetings were held to discuss their implications. Bloggers and editorialists wrote about their pros and cons. YouTube videos were created to promote and to counter the amendments—and were watched by tens of thousands of people. There was time for healthy debate and the give and take was lively, interactive, passionate, and informative. If anything, our bishops should be congratulating the church on taking these amendments so seriously and for finding such creative ways to engage in dialogue.

Contrast that open and lengthy process of debate with the “debate” that occurred at General Conference regarding proposed constitutional amendment 1 when it came to a plenary session during the afternoon of Friday, May 3—the last day of General Conference.

Bishop Charlene Kammerer, the presiding officer during the session, gaveled the plenary back to order after its late afternoon break. Because of the huge volume of petitions and resolutions still to be considered before the close of the conference, the delegates were forced to constrain themselves to two one-minute speeches for, and two one-minute speeches against any given petition—even when such a petition was proposing to amend the church’s constitution. At 4:14 p.m. debate commenced, and by 4:25 p.m. it was over. Debate would have ended in half the time had there not been a glitch in the voting process requiring the delegates to recast their ballots.

There was no time to discuss the actual agenda behind the amendment, originally sponsored by a group called Breaking the Silence, an organization advocating on behalf of the “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer” communities. Many delegates were not aware that passage of the amendment could result in further church judicial proceedings around the practice of homosexuality.

The process worked. In the end, United Methodists can be thankful their church’s constitutional process works. Nearly 50,000 annual conference members from around the world worked diligently to familiarize themselves with the proposed constitutional amendments—luxuries that weary and overwhelmed General Conference delegates simply did not have in the waning moments in Fort Worth.
Thankfully the church has a constitution that welcomes and invites further reflection and dialogue before doing something as dramatic as amending its constitution.

One assumes that there are a number of bishops who want to commend grassroots United Methodists for taking the time to engage in robust dialogue around a number of very important matters, pray, and then vote in good faith. It’s disappointing that the leaders of our denomination could not jointly state with conviction: “The United Methodist Church has overwhelmingly spoken. Let’s move forward.”

The lost art of holy conferencing. Is it not possible for good people to disagree without some of our bishops referring to the majority of the church as “colonial” and “imperialistic”—which are little more than veiled terms for “racist”? How will we ever be a unified church when our most outspoken Episcopal leaders choose to attack the motives of those who hold differing views, using the vilest terms possible?

United Methodists believe in holy conferencing. It is a process held dear since Wesley’s time and it calls us to believe the best of each other, respect differing views, and refuse to brand others in a way that condemns and marginalizes their voices.

We call on the Council of Bishops to condemn this type of language and urge those who used such language to issue an apology. Likewise, we ask Bishop Kammerer to provide evidence that the voting process was “tainted,” or offer a personal apology to the church for making such a sweeping, unsubstantiated declaration.

Condescension, name-calling, and charges of a tainted process breed disunity and a lack of trust between the church’s people and its leaders. United Methodists around the globe have a right to expect better.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.

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