The business session of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church included discussion of five proposed amendments to the denomination’s 20-page constitution, which were initially approved by the 2016 UMC General Conference. In order for any of these revisions to be incorporated into the UMC Book of Discipline (of which the Constitution is the foundational section), two-thirds of the aggregate individual delegates from all of the UMC annual conferences around the world must vote for the amendment in question. Amendments I and II are related to diversity and inclusiveness within the UMC, but also include some wording that are “red flags” for many. Debates in the Texas Annual Conference over the first two proposed amendments featured theological and spiritual debates on gender, sexism, and the inclusivity of the UMC.
Amendment I would add an entire new paragraph to the UMC Constitution:
As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. 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. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl’s equality and well-being.
This proposal provoked passionate debate among seven Texas Annual Conference members arguing for its inclusion and eight speaking against it. Similar numbers of men and women on both sides overwhelmingly acknowledged the entrenched sexism of our nation’s history and the continuing international oppression of women and girls. However, things got a bit more complicated as some raised questions about the gender of God. Although the amendment specifically delegates maleness and femaleness as attributes of humans, several seemed to equate these characterizations with a perceived gender of God. Laywoman Marilyn Meeker Williams asked, “God created us in God’s image. So if I was created female…, then how could God be a man?” Some members argued that the intent underlying the language should be the highest priority, and they seemingly overlooked the undeniable masculinity of Christ while misleadingly portraying the feminine attributes of God. However, as layman Trevor Warren claimed, the alleged purpose of this amendment was a large desire to reach out to “every woman in our denomination and in the country who have felt oppressed, who have felt discriminated against, and who every day struggle to find themselves seen as in the image of God.”
Opponents of this change fervently committed to the flourishing of women and girls, but viewed changing interpretations relating to gender and the divine as unrelated, unnecessary, and dangerous. Several argued that the consequences of this approach, however unintended, contradict God’s word and transform our understanding of His nature. As laywoman Janice Christley argued, “I have also been discriminated against because I am a woman, and I would love to vote for something that was against discrimination against women, but I don’t want to do it by recreating my God.” An African-American female articulated the danger of over-contextualizing God to appease the frustrations of secular culture. She echoed many others who believed that instead of debating the gender of God, the Church would better fulfill its mission by further emphasizing evangelism to women and girls. Many agreed, adding that skirting around Jesus’ undeniable masculinity is pointless and detracts from other wonderful efforts to be more inclusive toward females.
Amendment II would, among other things, remove the qualifier “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition” from the Constitution to say “All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.” Further, it would add “nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.” It would therefore add broad, constitutional protections to the new categories of ability, age, gender, or marital status, without making clear what exactly is meant of the latter two categories.
These revisions would result in the following paragraph:
The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.
Three members of the Texas Annual Conference spoke for this change, and four opposed it. This debate was much briefer than the first. Laywoman Michelle Hutchinson, whose statements were representative of some other Texas Annual Conference members, stated that “no matter how we are defining gender, no matter what that means to each person in here, we have two sacraments in the UMC: communion and baptism. No matter your sinfulness, these should be available to all because these are a means of the grace of God working in our lives.” Opponents of this interpretation argued that while worship services are always open to all and that God’s love is unconditional, church membership and access to the sacraments have strict limits that are conditional on Biblically proscribed behavior supported by centuries of tradition. While there may be limits to the practicalities of discerning these limits, such as the knowledge both the administrator and receiver have when entering into baptism, opponents of the amendment noted how its unclear language could become a mandate for entitling transgender activists or people actively and unrepentantly participating in certain sins such as homosexual “marriages” or to unrestricted access to “anywhere in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” As Dr. Dorothy Smith Hubbert articulated, “I don’t think this is an issue of love and grace, it’s an issue of standard.”
All advocates on both sides of these amendments have deeply complex, personal perspectives. Texas is one of the largest-membership annual conferences in the UMC, so this vote will factor prominently into the aggregate global popular vote of the church. The contentious and often unresolved confusion and grief of past attitudes toward gender are reflected in these important debates. For further reference, United Methodist Renewal and Reform Coalition, of which IRD’s UMAction program is a member, unpacks all five proposals in considerable detail. Regardless, as annual conferences continue to convene throughout this year, prayer for discernment and wisdom of the UMC annual conference members is crucial.