A number of United Methodists have been wondering about the odd, unexplained, and perhaps unprecedented silence with which our bishops have been treating the results from the proposed constitutional amendments on which every annual conference of the United Methodist Church was supposed to have voted in 2017.
After some inquiries, I have some answers in which many may be interested.
I have already written about some heavy-handed manipulations and even blatant dishonesty to which several U.S. bishops resorted last year in apparent attempts to influence the results of the voting on these amendments. But this practice of universally concealing results from anywhere is rather new.
Normally, here’s how it works: When the UMC General Conference meets every four years, its actions include approving several proposed amendments to our denomination’s Constitution, the foundational section of our governing Book of Discipline. For any of these amendments to be enacted, they need to then receive a super-majority of votes taken at each of the roughly twelve dozen annual conferences into which the UMC is geographically divided around the world. As different conferences vote at different times throughout the year, it has been common for many to release their respective exact vote totals for each proposed amendment, or at least an approximate summary, almost immediately after their votes are taken. For examples of this in 2013, see here, here, here, and here. Or click here to see even more widespread immediate reporting of the voting results of individual conferences on proposed constitutional amendments in 2009.
Technically, no constitutional amendment is enacted until the spring Council of Bishops meeting the following year, held roughly two years after General Conference, formally announces that it has received to required number of votes. However, our traditional practice of conferences publishing their results soon after they vote has been invaluable for indicating which proposed amendments are on track to be adopted and which are on track to be rejected.
But now a choice has been made that keeps us in suspense.
For the 2017 votes on constitutional amendments forwarded by the 2016 General Conference, I have not seen a single annual conference officially publish its results, even this far into 2018. And I have seen no public explanation for this.
So I recently reached out to the Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga, a spokesman for the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Marcus Matthews, the Council’s Executive Secretary, with some on-the-record inquiries.
Between the two of them, they confirmed that this silence is indeed the result of a formal policy.
This policy came in the form of a memo dated March 22, 2017, sent from both Bishop Matthews and the Rev. Gary Graves (Secretary of the General Conference), and directed to every active bishop and annual conference secretary.
This memo specifically requested that no annual conference voting results be released during annual conference sessions, but that instead everyone wait until the Council of Bishops announced the final results at its spring 2018 meeting, which will be held April 29 — May 4.
As the memo put it: “The vote of each annual conference is only a portion of the larger total and publicly reporting individual sections of the total vote prior to the balloting by other annual conferences could be seen as having influence or charting an early projection of the cumulative results.”
While I may have decided differently, there were reasonable arguments for hiding voting results until everyone else had their chance to vote.
However, it is harder to see a compelling reason to still withhold the results even after everyone has already voted. To my knowledge, the last annual conference session in 2017 was that of the West Zimbabwe Conference, held in mid-December, over three months ago. The memo indicates that some conferences sharing their results even after that could result in “charting an early projection of the cumulative results.” But I fail to see what would be bad about that.
It is also interesting to see that this dramatic new policy change only came with this particular group of proposed constitutional amendments (analyzed here).
In any case, Dr. Mulenga told me that “once the results are announced by the Council, it is expected that all annual conference vote totals will be made available by the respective annual conferences.” So at least after we hear the total global results for the votes on the amendments, those who are still wondering should be able to learn how their own respective conferences voted. And apparently some annual conferences have still not submitted their vote counts from last year.
I appreciate the clarifications provided by Bishop Matthews and Dr. Mulenga.
The full text of the memo from Bishop Matthews and the Rev. Graves is below:
TO: Active Resident Bishop of the Annual Conference
Secretary of the Annual Conference
FROM: Bishop Marcus Matthews, Executive Secretary of the Council of Bishops
Rev. Gary W. Graves, Secretary of the General Conference
DATE March 22, 2017
As we enter the season of annual conference sessions, one of the items which will be part of every agenda is the balloting for the proposed constitutional amendments passed by the 2016 General Conference. ¶59 of The Book of Discipline 2016 states: “…The vote, after being completed, shall be canvassed by the Council of Bishops, and the amendment voted upon shall become effective upon their announcement of its having received the required majority…”
This paragraph gives responsibility for the canvass of votes and the announcement of the results to the Council of Bishops. In order to meet the requirements of this Constitutional paragraph with as much equity as possible, we are asking that the secretary of each annual conference submit the totals of the balloting directly to the Executive Secretary of the Council of Bishops without announcing the results during the annual conference session. The tally sheet provided by former Secretary of the General Conference, Rev. Fitzgerald Reist, would be used to transmit the results according to the instructions contained therein. The annual conference secretary and resident bishop would each keep copies of the form for the records of the annual conference.
As a point of comparison, each annual conference secretary could be seen as a teller and the Executive Secretary of the COB could be seen as the head teller. If a secret ballot were being taken in a large plenary body, the teller of each section would not announce the vote of that section aloud, but, instead, would report that vote count to the head teller who would calculate and report the cumulative total to the secretary and presiding officer for public announcement for the record.
The vote of each annual conference is only a portion of the larger total and publicly reporting individual sections of the total vote prior to the balloting by other annual conferences could be seen as having influence or charting an early projection of the cumulative results. Since the session of the annual conference is an open meeting, any results announced during the session are available for reporting by any journalistic or social media and could have the unintended effect of pre-empting the announcement by the Council of Bishops as required in ¶59. There is no complete announcement to be made until the cumulative votes have been totaled. The official announcement will come from the Council of Bishops.
Thank you for your faithful service in this and many other responsibilities within the United Methodist Church and the Body of Christ!
cc: Episcopal Administrative Assistants