On Monday, May 7, the Council of Bishops announced [link] that two of the five amendments to the United Methodist Constitution approved by the 2016 General Conference were defeated by the votes of the annual conferences. In order to amend the Constitution, it takes approval by two-thirds of the General Conference delegates and two-thirds of all the annual conference members. Results on the voting had been anticipated last November, but some annual conferences failed to vote in a timely fashion.
The two amendments that were defeated both related to combatting discrimination, particularly discrimination based on gender. Amendment I lost by less than two-tenths of one percent — by my calculations roughly 65 votes out of over 47,000 ballots cast. Amendment II lost by 5.3 percentage points, or a little more than 2,500 votes out of more than 47,300 ballots cast.
The women bishops issued a pastoral letter lamenting ongoing sexism and resolving to continue working for inclusion. The Rev. Dr. Steve Harper identified misogyny and a chauvinistic theology of God as one major factor in the amendments’ defeat.
These and other overwrought statements are simplistic and ignore other concerns that played a role in the defeat of the amendments.
For fifty years, Good News has been a voice for women’s equality, affirming in particular women as pastors and teachers and highlighting efforts to combat human trafficking and rescue girls and women from oppression. While we are aware that a few evangelical United Methodists oppose women in leadership in the church, we have attempted to clearly advocate for the full equal value and participation of women at all levels of the church.
At the same time, in a statement posted last year, Good News expressed concerns (although not opposition) about the two defeated amendments. Amendment I added a whole new paragraph to the Constitution (which we thought more appropriately belonged in the Social Principles) about the equal value of girls and women, acknowledging a long history of discrimination and making a commitment to eliminate such discrimination. We stated, “While this statement is well-intentioned, and we support its strong emphasis on the equality of women, we are concerned with its theological fuzziness being written into our Constitution. The church’s advocacy for women’s equality is well-stated elsewhere in the Book of Discipline.” In particular, we were concerned that “the second sentence raises theological concerns when it says, ‘it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female … maleness and femaleness are … not characteristics of the divine.’ Does this mean Jesus is not male? Or does it mean that Jesus, who is obviously male, is not divine? Either position is contrary to our doctrinal standards.”
In response to Harper, I agree that “God is a composite of genders, the essence of Being that is neither defined by or limited to any specific gender.” However, Jesus Christ is fully God as well as fully human. And male/female gender is a characteristic of being human. So Jesus, while God, did have a male gender. That is not a basis for elevating men over women, discriminating against women, or devaluing women in any way. But the statement in the amendment was confusing and theologically inexact. Putting it in the Constitution had the potential for all kinds of adverse unintended consequences.
Amendment II added the words “ability, age, gender, and marital status” to the list of types of persons against which the church cannot discriminate. Good News stated, “While in sympathy with the intentions of the proposed additions, we are concerned about potential unintended consequences of adopting this amendment as presently worded. We encourage careful consideration of the issues involved before adopting this amendment. We would hope to support better wording in the future that could accomplish the purposes in a clearer and less controversial way.”
We had three concerns about Amendment II:
- The word “gender” is no longer understood to be merely a binary (male/female) term. It has recently become a loaded word in Western culture and carries within it connotations of transgender, gender queer, and other perceptions of gender that we do not believe should be granted blanket and unconditional inclusion in the Constitution.
- We are concerned that adding “marital status” without defining the term could be interpreted to give a mandate in our constitution to recognize same-sex marriage or polygamy in those countries that allow such. The current definition of marriage in the Social Principles could be nullified by this Constitutional language.
- The inclusion of “age” could result in the elimination of mandatory retirement for bishops and clergy. There was no discussion of this possibility at General Conference, and we are concerned that this could be an unintended consequence of adopting this amendment. If we are to eliminate mandatory retirement, it should at least be discussed and considered by the General Conference delegates before being approved.
The women bishops “weep for those who are not protected from exclusion in the church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.” However, our Constitution already explicitly protects persons from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition (¶ 4). While discrimination is alive and well in our church for these qualities, defeat of the amendment did not reflect, nor did it increase the likelihood of, such discrimination against these brothers and sisters. We must continue to be vigilant in eradicating such discrimination.
These concerns were also identified by others, including the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah in Liberia. The United Methodist Church has numerous other statements in our Constitution and throughout the Book of Discipline that affirm the value and role of women in the church and combat discrimination against women and girls.
A Soap Opera Plot Twist
Now it turns out that the very sentence that caused so much concern in Amendment I was actually deleted by the General Conference and should not have been included in the wording that was put up for ratification in the annual conferences. This colossal error following the 2016 General Conference means that the amendment (with the correct wording) will now have to be voted on again by all the annual conferences.
The deletion of the controversial sentence removes most of the concerns Good News had with this amendment, and we predict it will ultimately pass and be ratified by the annual conferences.
Lost in all the controversy was the approval of Amendment V, which grants the Council of Bishops the power to intervene (by a two-thirds vote) in a complaint process against a bishop. This means that, if the Council of Bishops is unsatisfied with the outcome of the complaint process, it can take over the process and pursue a better outcome.
This amendment was ratified by an 81 percent approval, although the Western Jurisdiction voted against it by an 81 percent margin. The Western Jurisdiction annual conferences were evidently concerned that this amendment would now enable the Council of Bishops to ensure that Bishop Karen Oliveto is eventually removed from office.
Although Good News supported this amendment as a welcome enhancement of the accountability process with bishops who are alleged to have violated the Discipline, I have no illusions that a two-thirds majority of the Council of Bishops is willing to ensure accountability for any bishop, let alone for Bishop Oliveto. Someday, this provision might be helpful, but I do not see it having immediate impact (although I could be wrong).
In short, all the hand-wringing and controversy over the supposed misogyny of United Methodists leading to defeating essential protections for women and girls is a tempest in a teapot. Many protections already exist in our Discipline, and the vast majority of United Methodists are committed to equal valuing and treatment for women and girls. What we are hesitant to approve are vague and confusing statements that lock our church into constitutionally protected language that could have serious unintended consequences. For that, our annual conference members ought to be commended, not criticized.
Tom Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.