Commentary: Holston Annual Conference Highlights Power of Liberal Church Officials in Stifling Dissent

on January 24, 2008

Many have wondered about the vast distance separating the views of grassroots United Methodists from the official pronouncements of their denomination on social issues. On the one hand, over two-thirds of U.S. United Methodists live in “red” counties that voted for President Bush. Some 90 percent of United Methodist laity self-identify as politically “conservative” or “moderate,” and polling repeatedly shows that the majority of church-going mainline Protestants generally vote Republican. Yet observers of the political resolutions adopted by U.S. annual conferences or collected in the denomination’s Book of Resolutions are often surprised to see how closely most of these statements track with the platform of the Democratic Party. The notable exceptions are matters related to the U.S. military or the Arab-Israeli conflict, where such UM resolutions tend to be decidedly to the left of the Democrats.

A number of explanations have been offered for this extreme disconnect. Some have suggested that it is the self-sustaining legacy of the decades of liberal dominance in leadership of the denomination. Others have proposed that while evangelicals are generally more interested in evangelism and molding disciples of Jesus Christ, theological “progressives” gravitate toward a political agenda. So the unofficial compromise has been this: The liberals will not do much evangelism, but they usually refrain from hindering evangelicals in their pursuit of that mission. And, conversely, the evangelicals generally steer clear of politics, but do not stand in the way of liberals passing political resolutions to their hearts’ content.

The reasons are ultimately varied and complex. But the 2007 session of the Holston Annual Conference in eastern Tennessee provides an interesting case study in the power that liberal denominational elites can have to stifle the concerns of more conservative grassroots church members.

A Culture of Deference
It should be kept in mind that such denominational meetings tend be characterized by a culture of deference. These are conferences of generally nice church people gathered for the sake of loving and humble ministry. And because so many of the lay delegates are conservative, they act as consistent conservatives in granting respect to the authorities running the meetings. Annual and General Conferences still have a fundamentally different atmosphere from arenas for secular political fights such as the U.S. Congress, however much certain groups may seek to change that attitude.

Half of the delegates at such gatherings are laypersons who generally have full-time occupations apart from their United Methodist involvement. During the often complex and confusing proceedings at these conferences, there is understandable hesitation for such delegates to directly challenge the “professional United Methodists” on the podium, particularly on points related to process. The other half of the delegates are clergy, who before their retirement run the risk of punishment in the appointment process if they challenge the annual conference establishment. The result is that technically democratic processes often appear to amount to little more than rubber stamps for the views of relatively small denominational elites, who have tremendous influence over the voting of delegates.

Three resolutions submitted to the 2007 session of the Holston Annual Conference would have declared support for specific sections of the United Methodist Book of Discipline that have been targeted by pro-homosexuality activists for revision or removal. Together, these resolutions would have supported the denomination’s present policies treating homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teaching and would have opposed proposals for more accommodationist standards for ordination and church membership. Such a stance would not have been terribly unusual, as over the last several years a number of annual conferences have adopted similar non-binding resolutions.

However, all three of these homosexuality-related resolutions at the 2007 Holston Annual Conference were opposed by the majority of the members of the Conference’s Joint Committee on Petitions and Resolutions. In presenting these resolutions for consideration, the Rev. Jim Green, chairman of the committee, did not address their substance. Instead, he urged the delegates to refer the resolutions back to their submitters and to encourage these individuals to submit their legislation directly to the General Conference. Green’s referral motion essentially prevented the delegates from even discussing or voting on the three resolutions that two coalitions of individuals had taken the trouble to write and submit.

Green misleadingly portrayed the situation as if there were two mutually exclusive options: either the submitters could have their resolutions considered at the annual conference, or else they would have to take the trouble to learn the often-confusing process for submitting General Conference legislation. But the fact of the matter is that the annual conference’s being allowed to discuss and vote on these resolutions would have in no way limited the ability of the submitters to also submit legislation themselves directly to the General Conference.

A Double Standard
The thrust of Green’s argument was that since these resolutions addressed sections of the Book of Discipline, which only the General Conference has the authority to change, neither adopting nor defeating these annual conference resolutions would accomplish anything. However, Green later presented another resolution that would have taken a position on a less controversial section of the Discipline (concerning the age range defining “young adults”). It was noted that a General Conference petition had already been submitted to change this other section of the Discipline. This time, however, Green made no attempt to prevent a direct vote on the motion. Apparently, he considered it acceptable in this case for the conference to take a position on a matter to be considered at the 2008 General Conference.

Numerous delegates were quick to notice this apparent double standard and expressed their confusion at the microphone at several subsequent occasions. Green and Bishop James Swanson acknowledged that the young adult resolution would take a position on a matter on which the 2008 General Conference would vote, and that no such annual conference action could bind the General Conference. Nevertheless, they said the resolution would serve the goal of encouraging Holston’s General Conference delegation to support this same position.

However, the Rev. Bill Duncan pointed out the glaring “inconsistency” between this favorable treatment of the young adult resolution and the less favorable treatment of the three homosexuality-related resolutions, which were sent back to the authors without the conference even “discussing the merits” of them. Yet all these resolutions made essentially the same request: that the Holston Conference deliver an advisory opinion on a matter on which the 2008 General Conference would vote. Bishop Swanson responded to Duncan and others who subsequently raised similar concerns by ruling them out of order, as the matter had already been decided (albeit amidst obvious confusion).

Lobbying from the Podium
Green’s extreme double standard in his treatment of resolutions is more understandable when one reviews the record of the 2006 Holston Annual Conference. At that time, he used his same position to lobby delegates (unsuccessfully) to vote down an IRD-drafted resolution affirming state laws defining marriage “as the union of one man and one woman” (a position in accord with the United Methodist Social Principles). Green cited, among other things, his belief in “progressive revelation” that presumably might change the definition of marriage. And he expressed his concern that homosexual men and women would be “left out of the conversation” if the conference took a stand for the traditional definition of marriage.

Thus it was ideologically consistent—although procedurally not fair—that in 2007 Green used his position to prevent any direct vote on the three resolutions affirming biblical and United Methodist teachings on homosexuality. For the Holston Conference to have adopted any or all of the three “remanded” resolutions would have added significant political weight against the pro-homosexuality agenda. But the result of Green’s actions was to ensure that this did not happen.

Green also used his introduction of a 2007 resolution calling for reduced United Methodist funding of the leftist National Council of Churches (NCC) to denounce the resolution at length and urge delegates to vote it down. He avoided directly addressing any of points made in the resolution, which focused on the fact that amidst its own growing budget challenges, the United Methodist Church was providing twice its fair share of financial support to the council (compared to other NCC-affiliated denominations in terms of giving per member). Instead, Green broadly defended the NCC’s political work and declared that “we” had unqualified trust in the denominational elites making the decisions about funding levels.

Nobody Benefits from Anger?
The conference official also indulged in an ad hominem argument. Without evidence, he asserted that “of course, this particular resolution comes straight from the Institution [sic] on Religion and Democracy.” Green protested that “we do not need outside groups telling us how to spend our money.”  But the fact of the matter is that while the resolution certainly affirmed a position supported by IRD/UMAction, it was written by the individuals in the Holston Conference who submitted it.

One delegate decried Green’s attacking the resolution “when he should just be presenting” it. But in the end, after debate on both sides, his attacks may have carried the day. The narrowest majority of delegates voted down the resolution. A switch of just four votes (out of over 800 that were cast) would have resulted in the resolution being adopted.

The power of a conference leader’s presentation to influence votes was clearly seen with the different treatments in 2006 and 2007 of resolutions addressing the denomination’s membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). In 2006 the conference considered a UMAction resolution “urging withdrawal from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,” in view of problems such as RCRC’s opposition to many points in the United Methodist Social Principles. In his presentation of that resolution, Green made a point of defending RCRC. The anti-RCRC resolution was subsequently supported by only about one-third of the delegates. But in 2007, a resolution noting similar concerns and opposing continued United Methodist endorsement of RCRC was presented by one of that resolution’s submitters. (Green was unavailable, due to logistical issues.) This time, the resolution was passed by a majority that was too overwhelming to have needed a precise hand count.

After the vote on the NCC resolution, Green gave a speech angrily denouncing IRD for having its “own agenda … which is not a friendly agenda to the ongoing work of Christ in this conference.” Without elaborating, he asserted that IRD “benefit[s] when we are not rightly and warmly and lovingly related to each other.” Yet it is hard not to notice the irony of this conference official declaring, “Nobody in Holston benefits from anger,” even as he appeared quite angry in his denunciations of IRD. Nor is it easy to ignore the disconnect between Green’s rhetoric about the need to be “rightly and warmly and lovingly related to each other” and his demonstrated lack of interest in pursuing civil dialogue and the principles of “holy conferencing” with more conservative fellow United Methodists in his own conference and at the IRD.

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