By Pastor Bill Hitt and John Lomperis
At 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church, there was no bishop to elect, leaving time to discuss other matters. At the end of that meeting, Bishop Grant Hagiya said to the members: “Take thou authority and do what you have been planning and thinking and saying.”
Accepting the charge of the Bishop Hagiya, the Western Methodist Justice Movement (WMJM) was born. The purpose was to “organize all forces to work together and relate to each other in making a difference in the world and the church that we love,” according to the Rev. Dr. Frank Wulf. While the organization was formed out of conversations that began at the 2012 Jurisdictional Conference, no action has been taken to make the WMJM an official organ of the Western Jurisdiction.
The Western Jurisdiction is home to less than three percent of the global denomination’s membership. But the region’s leaders have long enjoyed prominence and privileges dramatically out of proportion to their meager numbers.
The January 15 gathering of the WMJM featured a presentation by Dr. Marjorie Suchocki promoting resurrecting a version of a major restructuring proposal critics labeled “the Global Segregation Plan.” Suchocki is Professor Emerita at the UMC’s Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the seminary’s Center for Process Studies devoted to the promotion of radical “process theology.” She also serves as Convener of the WMJM’s Worldwide Nature of the Church Action Network.
The Global Segregation Plan was championed at the 2008 General Conference and 2009 annual conferences with all sorts of high-sounding but extremely vague rhetoric. But the entire point and substance of the proposal was to allow the U.S. portion of the global church to make many of its own internal decisions without the input of more orthodox overseas members.
The Global Segregation Plan was openly championed by liberal activists as a vehicle for the sexual and theological liberalization of at least the U.S. portion of the church, and strongly opposed by U.S. evangelicals for the same reason. It was also voted down by an amazing 95 percent of delegates in Sub-Saharan African annual conferences, who understood that the Plan’s primary practical effect would have been to drastically limit their voice in denominational affairs. Once the global votes of all 2009 annual conference sessions were tallied, the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. But since 2012, some theologically liberal United Methodists have clung to the idea as their last remaining hope for getting their way in the denomination.
Suchocki shared about her experience serving on the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the UMC created by the 2008 General Conference. She described this 20-member group as including a mix of laypeople, bishops, and other clergy of diverse theological perspectives from around the world.
She lamented that people failed to understand the alleged need for the Global Segregation Plan. She also characterized as “misinformation” the idea that it was primarily designed to support the theologically progressive cause within the UMC.
Dr. Suchocki summarized the main goals and rationales supported by the study committee. The most important proposal was that the Book of Discipline should be divided into a global section, which could only be changed at General Conference and would be binding on United Methodists around the world, and then a separate local section which each region, including the United States in a U.S.-only central conference, could unilaterally change with no input from the rest of the global church. Such local adaptions would be noted on the main UMC website.
The fact is that Paragraph 32.5 of the Book of Discipline already gives non-U.S. central conferences the right to make such locally necessary adaptations. Thus, the effect of the Global Segregation Plan would be to simply empower the U.S. wing of the church, where the UMC’s power, money, and key institutions are already concentrated, to make unilateral decisions without consulting more orthodox United Methodists overseas. This would do nothing to empower United Methodists in overseas central conferences.
Suchocki echoed the talking point about the need for less American paternalism in the denomination, but did not explain how this would be helped by a plan to essentially increase the unilateral power of the U.S. wing of the church at the expense of the power of non-American United Methodists. She also noted that the Book of Discipline was almost irrelevant to some overseas central conferences due to their very different contexts. She cited the example of the need to better allow for alternative forms of ministerial education in non-U.S. areas where access to education is severely limited. This example was rather misleading, since this specific need is already covered in the adaptability provisions of the current Discipline, while the Global Segregation Plan would not help the problem she cited. Furthermore, she touted the study committee’s recommendation for the denomination’s Social Principles to be shorter and more globally minded. One attendee suggested replacing the Social Principles with the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.
Suchocki also argued that General Conferences should be somehow more devoted to the mission of ministry of the church and less for legislative business.
During the question-and-answer session, there was some discussion about the implications of the Global Segregation Plan for the progressive United Methodist cause, especially in terms of the possibility of allowing the denomination to liberalize its policies in America on homosexuality. Suchocki denied that the proposals were originally designed to advance the theologically liberal United Methodist agenda.
However, Suchocki also significantly said that the Global Segregation Plan might be the “only hope left” for the progressive United Methodist cause.
UMAction has long protested how non-Americans are relegated to a tiny number of unrepresentative, token slots on the boards of directors of UMC denominational agencies. For example, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has over 60 directors, but only three of these are Africans, despite the continent being home to 40 percent of the world’s United Methodists. But apparently even this token representation was too much for Suchocki, who protested the burden of flying overseas United Methodist leaders in for meetings of US-focused agencies. She did not suggest reforming denominational agencies to be more globally focused. One result of the Global Segregation Plan would be the fragmentation of at least some of the UMC’s current denominational agencies into autonomous, siloed agencies exclusively focused on and governed from within their home central conference (including the proposed United States Central Conference).
In response to alleged “misinformation” about the Global Segregation Plan, Suchocki assembled a study guide which purports to explain the problems supposedly addressed by the Plan. She expressed her ambition for every United Methodist congregation in the United States to devote one month to four one-hour classes on the study guide and then take a vote on their support of the study committee’s proposals. Expressing confidence that her study guide would convince people to support the Global Segregation Plan, she said she would send the results of these votes to the UMC’s powerful Connectional Table, in hopes of lobbying that body to petition the next General Conference to implement Global Segregation. This fall, Suchocki will send her own lobbying communication to all of the delegates from the previous General Conference.
She was asked about the financial implications of these Global Segregation proposals. Suchocki’s replied by quipping that that the extent of her financial understanding only went as far as her checkbook. Thus it appears that a major part of the reorganization promoted was not addressed.
In the discussion, it was noted that in some countries, being a part of our global denomination prevents United Methodist churches from being labeled as cults and suffering consequent government repression.
There was some brief discussion of creating separate theology-based central conferences for orthodox and progressive United Methodists. The view most vocally expressed was that the progressives might be kicked out, but they would never voluntarily withdraw from the church.
Last but not least, Dr. Suchocki urged participants to make the WMJM group an official arm of the Western Jurisdiction, which she said would give them more clout in lobbying the Connectional Table.
The Discipline explicitly prohibits any use of annual conference funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (Paragraph 612.19), which any official financial support for WMJM would do. But bishops and other church officials in the Western Jurisdiction who have vowed to God and the church to uphold the Discipline have not exactly shown themselves to be men and women of their word.