By Tom Lambrecht –
In the aftermath of the highly contentious General Conference last February in St. Louis, many ideas have surfaced as a way to attempt to resolve the conflict dividing our church.
One of these ideas is a proposal from the denomination’s Connectional Table to create the United States portion of the church as its own Regional Conference, allowing it to make changes to the Book of Discipline as it relates specifically to churches here in the U.S. The church constitution already gives the central conferences outside the U.S. the ability to “make such rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries including such changes and adaptations of the General Discipline as the conditions in the respective areas may require.” The new proposal wants to give the U.S. part of the church authority to make the same “changes and adaptations” that the central conferences may.
The original reasoning behind the proposal was to allow U.S. delegates to act on matters that pertain only to the U.S. church. The prime example is the pension program for U.S. pastors and professional staff. There are also some resolutions on political or moral issues that pertain to conditions in the U.S. It has been asked: Why should delegates from outside the U.S. be forced to sit through arcane discussions about provisions that do not pertain to them?
More recently, however, some progressives and centrists have attached themselves to this proposal as a way to provide for the U.S. delegates to change the standards in the U.S. to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings and for practicing gays and lesbians to be ordained. That way, conservative African UM churches could keep the current restrictions on such practices, while they are allowed in the U.S.
This is actually not a new idea. A similar proposal was passed by the 2008 General Conference in response to the report of the World Wide Nature of the Church study committee. While the constitutional amendments needed to implement such a proposal passed General Conference by more than the requisite two-thirds vote, it failed to be ratified by the members of the annual conferences. In fact, it failed to garner even a majority of annual conference member votes, let alone the two-thirds needed to ratify the proposal. The idea was tried again in 2016, but was defeated in legislative committee. The same arguments that were persuasive in defeating this Regional Conference idea in the past still apply.
1. There is no clarity on which parts of the Book of Discipline can be “changed or adapted.” Paragraph 101 of the Discipline lists the parts that cannot be adapted, including the doctrinal standards and the Social Principles, covering paragraphs 1-166. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters was supposed to come back to the 2020 General Conference with a proposal as to which of the remaining paragraphs (paragraphs 201-2719) could be adapted. They have wisely decided, in light of the deep conflict in the church and the possibility of separation, that they will delay their defining proposal until 2024.
That means under the current Discipline everything after Paragraph 166 can be adapted or changed by a central or regional conference. The adaptable section would cover over 80 percent of the Discipline, including matters related to ordination, marriage, and sexual ethics. Under this Regional Conference proposal, almost any part of the “operation, governance, witness, and ministry” of the church (in the words of the relevant petition) could be changed or adapted by U.S. delegates for U.S. churches.
What was originally being sold as a way to handle a few specific issues now has the potential to further erode our connection. Rather than continuing as a unified global church, we could evolve into a conglomeration of diverse national churches.
2. There is no evidence that this proposal will save money or time of the General Conference. Proponents believe that, by allowing U.S. delegates to deal with uniquely U.S. matters, several days could be cut from the ten-day General Conference, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, proponents have produced no evidence of such a saving. There has been no analysis of the petitions and resolutions proposed at previous General Conferences to determine how many of them would actually be able to be dealt with by only U.S. delegates. There has been no analysis of the time spent in legislative committees or in plenary sessions on U.S. only issues.
3. This proposal sets up a whole new level of bureaucracy. This bureaucracy would exist between the jurisdictional conference and the General Conference. It would include a regional “judicial court” to decide questions of church law arising from the region. The proposed legislation also gives the regional conference the authority to “establish such other agencies, commissions, or committees as it may determine are important to the work and witness of the Church in the United States.” At a time when we are cutting the general church budget by 20 percent and apportionment payments are drastically declining, why would we create an expensive new bureaucratic structure in the church? It has the potential of siphoning funds from the global church and from the mission and ministry of the church.
4. Many central conference delegates do not favor this proposal. In 2008, the annual conferences outside the U.S. – particularly in Africa – voted almost unanimously against this idea. While this proposal is being portrayed as coming from the central conferences, delegates from Africa whom I have talked to do not support it. They have told me they wonder why, now that delegates from outside the U.S. are approaching a majority of the church, the U.S. wants to cut itself off from the global voice. For 50 years, while global delegates were a small minority of the General Conference, the U.S. was content to set policies and procedures for the whole church, with a very limited right of adaptation given to acknowledge the differences in legal structures outside the U.S. But now, the U.S. does not want to be subject to the voice of the global church and is proposing to allow itself to “opt out” of the global policies and procedures at will. Such an approach does not feel to them either respectful or fair.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes this proposal for a U.S. Regional Conference does not merit resurrection.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.