Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church’s largely liberal Western Jurisdiction convened in June to vote on five proposed amendments to the denomination’s constitution. 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 voting members from all of the UMC annual conferences around the world must vote for the amendment in question. Amendment Five would give the denomination’s global Council of Bishops the authority to hold bishops accountable when problems arise with their jurisdictional or central conference complaint processes. Currently, bishops are only subject to accountability within their own respective regions—five jurisdictions in the United States and seven central conferences overseas.
If passed, Amendment Five would add the following sentences to the end of Paragraph 50 of the UMC Constitution (which addresses the bishops):
“These provisions shall not preclude that adoption by the General Conference of provisions for the Council of Bishops to hold its individual members accountable for their work, both as general superintendents and as presidents and residents in Episcopal areas.”
The recent deliberations of the Judicial Council around “Bishop” Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area (which encompasses both the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences) has evidently provoked fervent opposition to this amendment. All active and retired bishops of the Western Jurisdiction are on record as wanting to keep Oliveto as a “bishop”, but the Judicial Council has ruled that she cannot continue as one if a review process concludes that she is indeed a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” Again, current church law states that no one outside of a jurisdiction has the right to discipline a bishop within the same jurisdiction. However, the passage of this amendment would empower the entire global Council of Bishops (in which the Western Jurisdiction bishops are a small minority) to discipline Oliveto, or any other errant bishop for whom regional accountability processes have failed.
Listed below are summaries of the available “debates” in the annual conferences of the Western Jurisdiction.
Six members spoke against what each regarded as a forced contraction of the local region’s flexibility. Layman Andrew Ponder Williams explicitly expressed deep concern that this could especially “threaten Bishop Karen Oliveto” and has the potential of directly “harming people who many in this room love.” Laywoman Brenda Winkel lambasted how this proposed amendment allegedly “smacks terribly of colonialism.” “We’re supposed to be one church across the globe, we don’t want to go back to the days of talking about people who we consider other than ourselves as being less than ourselves,” she said. Bishop Hagiya, the Resident Bishop of the Greater Northwest Area, was asked to give his opinions on this amendment. He curiously replied, “I have a fiduciary responsibility to be impartial. It does affect me greatly. It’s hard to not be biased on this because I’m adjudicating Bishop Karen’s supervision as we speak. But I cannot make a statement…Once you retire you have more freedom.”
Rev. Jeremy Scott, Vital Congregations Developer of the Mountain Sky Area who is a close assistant to Oliveto, claimed that voting for this amendment would somehow degrade the “regional autonomy and regional variation in the life of the Church.” There were no other speeches for or against.
Three members argued against Amendment Five. Rev. Dan Hurlbert claimed that removing absolute authority from the jurisdictional body “violates the intentional separation of powers” within the Church and “encourages the Council of Bishops to meddle in areas that are not previously assigned to them.” Before the vote, Bishop Hoshibata bizarrely encouraged conference members to prayerfully ask, “Do you feel that we want to become less of our own identity or do we want to retain our identity?”
Joint Pacific-Northwest and Oregon-Idaho Conference
The General Conference delegations from the geographically adjacent Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences, which share a bishop and met jointly this year, encouraged conference members to vote against Amendment Five, but no other annual conference members gave speeches for or against this amendment.
California-Nevada and Rocky Mountain Conferences
In both conferences, there were reportedly several speeches for and against amendment five (although I have not found available exact records of the featured arguments). This amendment provoked the most debate in the Rocky Mountain Conference, with the Rev. Brad Laurvick (a prominent General Conference delegate who also serves as Western Jurisdiction Secretary), reportedly strongly recommending a vote against the proposal when he first presented it, before any official debate. Others bravely and vocally defended the accountability this amendment would bring about.
While I was unable to find precise records for the Alaska Annual Conference, whose combined congregations total only 3,415 members, all seven of the other annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction featured speeches opposing amendment five. In contrast, among the other 48 annual conferences in the United States, there were only seven conferences that had members who spoke against this amendment.
Many opponents of amendment five ignored or distorted the reason for its existence in the first place. Its original intent was to enhance the global accountability of leaders within the UMC, in specific response to a case of alleged misuse of church funds, and to thereby protect and to bolster the ministry of the Church. Nevertheless, the Western Jurisdiction’s annual conferences focused almost exclusively on concern that this would irrevocably injure their regional authority. 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. In the midst of these misperceptions, continued prayer for clarity and holy conviction is vital.