With all of the frustrations from the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, we should not lose sight of some of the many positive things to come out of the Tampa meeting.
Several of the General Conference’s positive actions improve our denomination’s social witness.
A petition originating from a gay activist group in the fast-declining Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference would have added a lengthy statement to the Social Principles’ Preamble that would stress United Methodists’ broad differences of belief (in apparent attempt to undermine the weight of the Social Principles’ affirmation of Christian sexual morality) and would reflect the Universalism of theological liberalism by suggesting God’s ultimate indifference to any human belief or practice. This petition was passed by its legislative committee (the most liberal-dominated of the thirteen), and progressive delegates fought hard for it on the plenary floor, but the bad parts of it were derailed in the plenary debate process.
On matters of life and death, committee debate over proposed changes to the Social Principles statement on abortion resulted in our now strongly decrying abortion as a means of eugenics, dismissing the attempt of the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) to muddle our opposition to abortion as a means of birth control, and the addition of this sentence: “We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates.” This marks the first time our Social Principles have clearly, unambiguously declared that abortion reduction is an official goal of our church. This puts the GBCS, with its support of abortion-encouraging policies like taxpayer-funded support of abortion, even more out of step with our Social Principles.
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Furthermore, the General Conference added language to the Book of Discipline that prohibits denominational agencies from financially supporting groups that lobby in defense of partial-birth abortion. While the practical applications of this provision may be somewhat limited, it marks an historic turning point. This is probably the very first time that a clear, firmly binding pro-life policy has been written into the United Methodist Book of Discipline (outside of the Social Principles, which are technically not church law).
Also adopted was a good resolution on “Civil Litigation,” which in its final format affirmed the goal of reducing the number of lawsuits and urged Christians to seek to settle their disputes within the church, if at all possible, rather than secular courts, citing the teaching of Scripture and our General Rues against lawsuits between Christians. Beyond the specific issue this petition addressed, it helpfully moved the General Conference discourse to the level of looking directly what Scripture says (1 Corinthians 6:1-11) and then seeking to have that shape our official policies and positions.
A new sub-paragraph was added to the Social Principles (surprisingly with the endorsement of the most liberal legislative committee) expressing “great concern” over excessive government spending and consequent deficits. The new language goes on to call on “public officials to reduce public indebtedness and to begin the process towards balanced and fair budgets.” Given the very one-sided, knee-jerk support of bigger and bigger government that generally characterizes the political pronouncements of our denomination’s leaders, this addition adds some much-welcome balance.
In a key structural change, the Conference added a requirement that from now on, any resolution proposed for The Book of Resolutions Nobody Reads must receive at least a 60 percent supermajority support at General Conference. Our official collection of (technically non-binding) resolutions grows longer and longer the more our church shrinks in the U.S. It currently is mainly filled with sanctimonious pronouncements on political issues, reflecting the monolithic partisan and secular political commitments of the GBCS staff far more than anything particularly Christian. The new requirement that resolutions must receive the support of more than a narrow majority should help make the Book of Resolutions become more thoughtful, nuanced, and non-partisan, and make it much harder for the shrinking heterodox minority of future General Conferences to pass whatever political resolutions they want while evangelicals’ attention is focused on more purely theological issues.
I should note that in contrast to groups like the GBCS or the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), IRD rarely takes positions on specific bills before Congress, as we are not a political lobby group. We do, however, believe the Church of Jesus Christ is called to promote basic Christian principles in the principles in the public square, always taking care to be thoughtful, nuanced, biblically grounded, and humble about the limits of the church’s expertise, rather than simply aping the behavior and tactics of secular, partisan political action groups. Therefore, all of the above actions are welcome steps in the right direction for United Methodism’s official social witness.