In the United Methodist system, there are important “legislative” decisions that are not supposed to be made by bishops, but rather are responsibility of other duly selected leaders.
It is worth recalling the not-so-distant history of how at the 2012 General Conference, while certain decisions were supposed to have been up to the duly elected delegates to make, United Methodist bishops and their direct appointees acted in effective collusion with non-delegate protestors to forcibly intervene in legislative outcomes by denying delegates the right to make some key decisions that the whole denomination had entrusted to them.
As United Methodist annual conferences meet across the United States this spring, we are seeing a new wave of heavy-handed intervention by American bishops to influence the results of important decisions, this time on constitutional amendments.
One of the most important decisions entrusted to the voting lay and clergy members of each United Methodist annual conference around the world is whether or not to ratify proposed amendments to the UMC Constitution. This year, annual conferences are voting on five proposed constitutional amendments, which are analyzed here.
Yet in several U.S. conferences, bishops have gone out of their way to stifle the deliberative decision-making that has been entrusted to the members of their annual conferences, by preventing any debate or discussion on the amendments before the vote is taken.
Furthermore, several bishops have had people present one-sided arguments in favor of each proposed amendment, separate from any formal debate or speeches, without any acknowledgement of reasons some faithful United Methodists may have for voting against them.
In most cases, this has the practical effect of pressuring annual conferences members to rush to pass all five proposed amendments overwhelmingly (“Why not? General Conference has already endorsed these and I have not heard anyone argue against any of these.”) without opportunity to even hear any negative concerns about any of them.
Proposed Amendments #3, #4, and #5 (related to consistency in General Conference elections, fairness in central conference bishop elections, and accountability for bishops, respectively), have not provoked too much open opposition in the United States, and so are likely on track to pass anyway.
I know of at least one liberal bishop who allowed one floor speech for the position she evidently favored on a particular amendment, and then immediately rushed to force annual conference members to vote right after that speech, refusing to acknowledge a member of that conference’s General Conference delegation who sought recognition to speak on the other side before the vote. Even though several people pointed and called out that this delegate was waiting to speak, this new bishop declared that it looked like no one else was seeking to speak on the amendment and forced an immediate vote.
The effects of such heavy-handedness by bishops have been especially seen with proposed Amendments #1 and #2. In at least one conference, the bishop reportedly made everyone in the conference see a slickly produced propaganda video promoting Amendment #2 shortly before the vote on it. I have received reports of bishops themselves, or others who present the amendments (but for whose conduct the bishop is ultimately responsible), or individuals the bishop invites “to give information” about the amendments presenting one or both of these two amendments in very non-neutral, positive ways that obscure some of the more controversial aspects of these amendments. This has even gone to the extreme of such presenters, when questions and concerns have been raised about some of the more controversial sections of either of these two amendments, going beyond the actual text people are voting on to make very speculative and unprovable claims about the alleged intentions or implications of the amendments being nothing to worry about, and about how we can trust that these amendments would only be interpreted in very narrow and uncontroversial ways.
But such remarks are wildly inappropriate, because no one can know for certain how exactly every one of the UMC’s Judicial Council members, bishops, and other interpreters of church law would actually interpret these proposed laws at every point in the future.
Amendment #1 would add to the UMC Constitution an entire new paragraph of largely uncontroversial and redundant statements affirming women’s equality – plus a more controversial second sentence: “The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine.” While there is much truth to that sentence, it is not very carefully written, and so raises serious theological questions, such as: Given how some theological radicals in the UMC deny the eternal divinity of Jesus Christ, if we adopted this new language, couldn’t it be used to bolster their cause, as Jesus Christ is obviously a human male? Could this be used by others to bolster the cause of how some liberal United Methodists refuse to address the First Person of the Trinity as “Father God”? What is the urgency of passing this largely redundant amendment NOW, rather than coming back next time with a more carefully worded amendment affirming women’s equality but avoiding theological sloppiness?
Amendment #2 is a bit more complex. It would, among other things, add new language to the UMC Constitution’s article on inclusiveness (which currently covers the categories of race, color, national origin, status, and economic condition) to mandate absolute inclusiveness at all levels of “the life, worship, and governance of the Church” regardless of ability, age, gender, or marital status. This website has already noted serious problems with how the categories of age, gender, and especially “marital status” could be used.
Perhaps the most blatant example of heavy-handed dishonesty was the actual ballot used for the constitutional amendments in more than one conference, which you can view for yourself here. For Proposed Amendment #1, the ballot on which annual conference members voted simply said that it would add a “New ¶6.” and that “This amendment declares, ‘men and women are of equal values in the eyes of God.’” If that’s all that the amendment said, who could be against it? Whoever put the ballot together chose the least controversial part of that proposed amendment, and the part that could paint opponents in the worst possible light, without clearly indicating that there was a lot more to the amendment than that single, rather unrepresentative phrase.
For Proposed Amendment #2, the ballot claimed that this was simply an amendment “to add gender, ability, age and marital status to the list of characteristics that do not bar people from membership.” While the ballot description of #1 was inaccurate because of selective sins of omission, this description of #2 is an even more blatant and direct falsehood. The amendment would NOT add any specific category to who should be included in church membership. Rather, it would actually take away the listing of specific characteristics that cannot bar people from church membership (race, economic condition, etc.) to instead simply say that “All persons” shall be eligible for membership. This proposed amendment would indeed add in the new non-discrimination characteristics of gender, ability, age, and marital status, but in the context of talking about “an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church” (emphasis added), which is VERY different from mere church membership. Particularly if we are talking about the eligibility for leadership of individuals with the “marital status” of being in a same-sex union or polygamous marriage, or the “non-binary genders” now being treated as perfectly acceptable for ordination candidates by some liberal United Methodists.
It strains credibility to the breaking point to suggest that whoever the bishops (plural) entrusted with putting this ballot wording together would not have the competence and basic literacy to understand how misleading they were being.
I know that at least one of the annual conferences using this ballot provided other materials with more information of the texts of each amendments, but it did NOT provide annual conference members with clear, non-confusing, and easily accessible documentation of the full extent of the changes all of these amendments would make in context.
Now to be sure, many other bishops have ensured that the constitutional amendments were considered with fairness and integrity in their respective conferences. But the reports cited above have been occurring too frequently, with too geographically and theologically diverse a range of American bishops, for this to simply be dismissed as “a few bad apples.”
What is going on? Why are so many U.S. bishops so eager to choose to go out of their ways to heavy-handedly silence discussion, manipulatively lobby their annual conference members, and/or even allow the promotion of blatantly misleading statements?
We can observe the fact that this serves to help promote Proposed Amendments #1 and #2 get rushed through with more positive votes than they may have received if there was more honest and open discussion about some concerns. We can observe the fact that Amendment #2, in our view, almost certainly would repeal the Discipline’s current requirements for bishops to retire upon reaching a certain age, which means that the passage of Proposed Amendment #2, which several U.S. bishops are effectively going out of their way to heavy-handedly help, would potentially allow bishops to continue indefinitely.
But we cannot know their motives for sure if these U.S. bishops are unwilling to speak clearly and publicly about the reasons for their rather strange behavior.
Whatever their motives, these U.S. bishops are doing a lot to further erode trust in this already tense time in the life of our church.
(If you were present at your annual conference’s meeting this or last month and experienced any such heavy-handedness with the constitutional amendments as that described above, please feel free to share in the comments.)