August 26, 2014

How NOT to Globally Empower the United Methodist Church

As reported earlier, the leadership of the Connectional Table (CT) of the United Methodist Church appears eager to revive earlier failed efforts to establish what some have nicknamed the “Global Segregation Plan.”

The general idea is to move the currently global denomination towards being a looser international federation, in which the U.S. wing of the church would be able to unilaterally create, to some extent, its own rules and policies without the input of generally more orthodox non-American brothers and sisters.

The policies of our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline are set at once-in-four-years General Conferences, whose balance of voting delegates is increasingly shifting from the United States to overseas. At the moment in our denomination’s history where the numbers of non-U.S. members have become large enough to significantly and increasingly influence General Conferences, some began energetically pushing for a Global Segregation Plan that would move a huge portion of our denomination’s governance under the jurisdiction of a new, U.S.-only central conference in which non-Americans would have no voice or vote.

Not long ago, a prominent leader in African United Methodism told me that, as he sees it, it is perfectly appropriate for non-U.S. delegates to be involved in even such seemingly U.S.-centric matters as pension policies for American clergy, given how the financial health of the U.S. wing of the church impacts the overall financial health of the denomination in a way that is simply not true for any of the seven overseas central conferences. After all, most of the UMC’s money and the headquarters of all of our denomination-wide general agencies are concentrated in the States.

Now the CT is seeking input by this Sunday, August 31, about possibly re-proposing the already-rejected U.S.-only central conference (or similar structure). They have a web page set up, with several links providing a mix of factual information and one-sided talking points in favor of this apparently predetermined agenda.

Bishop Bruce Ough, the CT’s chairman, explains in a video that results of their survey and invitation for input will be used to inform what sort of restructuring proposals the CT and Council of Bishops submit to the 2016 and 2020 General Conferences, which he hopes will establish “a Global Book of Discipline, and a new organizational structure” (emphasis added).

Much of the relevant commentary has focused on how the Global Segregation Plan has been most energetically promoted by U.S.-based theologically liberal caucus groups, who see it as perhaps their “only hope” for deleting current requirements in the Book of Discipline requiring our clergy to uphold biblical standards for sexual self-control. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that largely (though by no means monolithically) orthodox central-conference delegates play a key role in maintaining and strengthening General Conferences’ commitment to traditional Christian values. And if a U.S. central conference was created, nothing in the current Discipline would prevent this new structure from changing its U.S.-only Discipline to remove current restrictions on clergy blessing same-sex unions, using apportioned church funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality, or personally be sexually active outside of man-woman marriage. This fact is not at all changed by the 2012 addition of a new ¶101 to the Discipline which begins to specify a few paragraphs of the Discipline as not subject to regional adaptation – a thus-far very limited restriction already being challenged on constitutional grounds. Creating a “No Non-Americans Allowed” zone could have major liberalization implications for other parts of denominational life, such as seminaries and general agencies.

Delegates to the 2012 General Conference got a taste of the potential for mischief in classifying something as “a U.S.-only issue” when that trick was used to deprioritize and thus effectively prevent consideration by the full body of delegates of two petitions that would have ended the UMC’s current blank-check endorsement of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which celebrates the elective killing of unborn children as “holy work” (their phrase). These petitions were suspiciously classified as “U.S.-only issues” even though they focused directly on the work of a global UMC agency, were enthusiastically supported by delegates from four continents, and one of them specifically addressed issues with the United Nations and South Africa.

But what about the vague arguments presented about how the Global Segregation Plan will somehow empower overseas central conferences and make our denomination life less colonial and U.S.-centric?

As with previous, failed efforts, the aforementioned webpage has some rhetoric very misleadingly suggesting that such a U.S.-only structure is somehow needed to shift our global church away from Western/U.S. dominance, empower non-American regions to make regionally appropriate governance decisions, and to correct “[t]he inequity in the UMC organization” which “privileges some cultures over others.”

But the fact is that creating a U.S.-only central conference (or an equivalent U.S.-only structure while playing semantic games to call it something else) would do absolutely nothing to “empower” non-U.S. United Methodists. It would grant them no new privileges, powers, or flexibility beyond what they already have. Americans are the only ones who would be at all empowered by such a plan, as it would dramatically expand the unilateral power of the U.S. wing of the church to a significant, if somewhat uncertain, extent.

When we talk about non-American United Methodists, we should be honest that we are primarily talking about United Methodists in Sub-Saharan Africa, who account for 94.6 percent of all United Methodists in the overseas central conferences, and 38.7 percent of global United Methodism, according to the latest available (2012) membership statistics.

Thus, the primary practical effects of creating a U.S.-only central conference would be to consolidate, protect, and strengthen unilateral American power in the life of the church, at the price of dramatically and permanently excluding large numbers of other United Methodists, mainly Africans, from any voice or vote in huge areas of the governance of our denomination, including matters with important theological, moral, and missional implications, in the nation in which most of our denomination’s money, general-agency structure, and governing leadership remains concentrated.

There are indeed great inequities in the UMC structure, but the Global Segregation Plan (which I suppose could also accurately be called the “Protection and Consolidation of Unilateral American Power Plan”) would do nothing to address these.

One major systemic inequity is the marginalization of African United Methodists.

With their smaller numbers, the three central conferences of Europe as well as the Philippines Central Conference are actually over-represented on several leadership bodies, thanks to requirements that every region gets a minimum representation of one. There is value in allowing some minimum representation for all such major regions of our church, as it allows our denomination a chance to truly hear and learn from all regions as we seek to be a faithful global expression of the diverse body of Christ.

In approving “Plan UMC,” some 60 percent of 2012 General Conference delegates expressed their desire for a system of global proportional representation. Provisions of this plan (as amended) would have given each of the U.S. jurisdictions and overseas central conferences more justly proportional representation on denominational agencies and leadership bodies, so that regions with more members would have had more leadership slots. There was widespread, deep disappointment when that plan was judicially invalidated for reasons other than its global proportional representation.

So now we have a structure that marginalizes nearly 40 percent of our church’s membership to token slots in denominational leadership.

It is dramatic to compare the representation in general agencies and other denomination-wide leadership bodies of the radicalized U.S. Western Jurisdiction (WJ), home to less than three percent of United Methodists (343,894 laity and clergy as of 2012), with that of the three Sub-Saharan African central conferences, in which 38.7 of United Methodists (4,862,427 combined membership for 2012) live:

 

Structure (voting members) WJ Africa
UMC Publishing House (40) 4 (10 %) ZERO
General Board of Pensions and
     Health Benefits (33) 2 (6.1 %) 1 (3.0 %)
United Methodist
     Communications (27) 3 (11.1 %) 1 (3.7 %)
General Council on Finance
     and Administration (23) 1 (4.3 %) 1 (4.3 %)
General Board of
     Discipleship (22) 1 (4.5 %) 1 (4.5 %)
General Board of Church and
    Society ( 61) 4 (6.6 %) 3 (4.9 %)
Commission on Religion
     and Race (20) 3 (15.0 %) 1 (5.0 %)
Connectional Table (47) 8 (17.0 %) 3 (6.4 %)
General Commission on
     Archives and History (24) 3 (12.5 %) 2 (8.3 %)
General Board of Higher
     Education & Ministry (23) 2 (8.7 %) 2 (8.7 %)
Commission on the Status and
     Role ofWomen, CoSRoW (19) 2 (10.5 %) 2 (10.5 %)
General Board of Global
     Ministries (34) 2 (5.9 %) 6 (17.6 %)
Standing Committee on Central
    Conference Matters (39) 3 (7.6 %) 10 (25.6 %)

 

(The source for the above is the official 2013-2016 United Methodist Directory, except for CoSRoW, which lists its directors’ geographic regions online, the Connectional Table, for which relevant info comes from the official CT membership list distributed at the start of the quadrennium, and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, whose membership was emailed to UMAction.)

We have already reported on similar structural inequities in the Council of Bishops.

In every one of these UMC general agencies and other denomination-wide leadership bodies, African United Methodists are drastically under-represented while radicalized leaders from the Western Jurisdiction are significantly over-represented. (The Commission on Religion and Race is especially egregious, given that this is the agency tasked with addressing racial injustices, and has named as its president Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who infamously vented for the Reconciling Ministries Network about how the biblical perspective of “our African delegates” was simply a matter of them failing to “grow up.”)

Justifications of African under-representation in denominational decision-making on the grounds of their paying less of our denominational bills were effectively rebutted by the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, then a District Superintendent in Liberia, in 2008 when he noted that this argument “has the tendency to be prejudicial and racist because the same argument is not being raised to the Western Jurisdiction,” whose unjustifiable over-supply of bishops is subsidized by other regions of our church.

And yet for all the vaguely professed concerned with “inequity,” I have been carefully monitoring CT meetings since the start of last year and have yet to see any move by its leadership to address these specific inequities.

Allotting a couple token slots cannot provide African United Methodists the influence they should have. For example, when Connectional Table members debated formally committing the group to the agenda “to fully include LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of the church” at their Spring board meeting, the conversation was entirely one of Americans and Europeans, with the liberal majority expressing no interest in hearing the perspective of the two African CT members who were present.

In joining other homosexuality-affirming caucus groups to push for the Global Segregation Plan, the Connectional Table leadership is demonstrating a similarly rude disregard for African United Methodists. The Global Segregation Plan was in fact already considered by every annual conference around the world after the 2008General Conference, in the form 23 amendments to our denomination’s constitution which were decisively rejected. According to a May 4, 2010 United Methodist News Service article announcing the results, “[i]n looking at preliminary figures broken down by conference, voters from the central conferences in Africa were the strongest opponents to the proposed changes, rejecting the amendments on restructuring by as many as 4,900 votes out of 5,165 votes cast” (94.9 percent). That same article reported that “the proposed changes were most strongly supported in the Western Jurisdiction and soundly defeated in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.”

Okay, I get that 90 percent of energy behind pushing for a U.S.-only central conference would simply not be there were it not for liberal Western United Methodists’ hopes that this could provide a means for the moral and theologically liberalization of at least the U.S. part of our denomination. I get that many central-conference delegates are annoyed to have to spend endless time debating political resolutions from liberal Americans insisting that the church take a predictably partisan position on every controversial U.S. public-policy issue under the sun – though most grassroots American United Methodists would also agree that this is a waste of the church’s time. I get that some Americans wish we also had the fairly broad right granted by ¶¶31.5 and 543.7 of the Discipline to make regional adaptions to that rulebook (even if currently this right may be surprisingly under-utilized abroad) – though such a change would do nothing to address the fundamental questions some have raised of why any portion of our global church should be able to make such decisions without some check of global accountability. I understand that not long ago there was a very strong movement in the Philippines Central Conference to become completely autonomous from the rest of the UMC. I realize that German United Methodists tend to be liberal on sexuality issues, and thus would predictably support anything that would at least partially dismantle what their representative on the CT recently denounced as the Discipline’s “discriminatory” policies against homosexual practice. And perhaps some may have other reasons for supporting Global Segregation that I have yet to see clearly articulated.

But as a matter of basic intellectual honesty, let’s please stop couching a plan to increase unilateral American power and drastically curtail non-American (especially African) power in misleading rhetoric about somehow “empowering” anyone other than Americans.


7 Responses to How NOT to Globally Empower the United Methodist Church

  1. DMurphy says:

    [Thunderous applause] Thank you, Mr. Lomperis. Excellent article.

  2. Greg says:

    (Pardon the seditious language. It’s used for effect.)

    Once again, whitey must show the savages how to live (and think, and do, and interpret). They’re too primitive to know how to do right.

  3. Byrom says:

    Would the USA wing of the UMC also scrap/rewrite the Apostles Creed, which is frequently recited in churchs, to eliminate belief in the holy catholic (universal) church and the communion of saints?

  4. eMatters2 says:

    “Delegates to the 2012 General Conference got a taste of the potential for mischief in classifying something as “a U.S.-only issue” when that trick was used to deprioritize and thus effectively prevent consideration by the full body of delegates of two petitions that would have ended the UMC’s current blank-check endorsement of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which celebrates the elective killing of unborn children as “holy work” (their phrase). These petitions were suspiciously classified as “U.S.-only issues” even though they focused directly on the work of a global UMC agency, were enthusiastically supported by delegates from four continents, and one of them specifically addressed issues with the United Nations and South Africa.”

    That’s their model. Straight from the father of lies.

  5. halehawk says:

    This post suffers from a lack of vision and imagination. I believe a new, GLOBAL Book of Discipline is the BEST hope of The United Methodist Church.

    Certainly some heretics view this as a hopeful alternative that will allow them to continue to promote their heresies. But our current Book of Discipline is a heresy in itself. Operating a Christian church with an American-style democracy is NOT Biblical at all.

    It seems to me that a new Book of Discipline could actually CORRECT some of the problems the church in the United States has created. For example, if we changed the way bishops are selected and assigned, we might see ORTHODOX bishops appointed to regions that have gone astray. This could bring regions/jurisdictions back into line.

    If we could establish LIMITS to clergy compensation (perhaps based on 1 Timothy 5:17-18), we might release the stranglehold that money has on our congregations.

    Sorry, John. I disagree with you in this matter. I see the prospect of a new, Global Book of Discipline as a real reason for hope.

    • John S. says:

      Since the BIshops seem to be far less orthodox than the laity it seems unlikely that this will bring orthodoxy to the errant jurisdictions.

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