UPDATE: Since this article was first posted, there has been some very important clarification about Amendment #1. Click here for more information.
After imposing an unusual degree of secrecy, the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops today finally released the results of votes on the five proposed amendments to the denomination’s constitution. The results on all five show how our denomination is moving in an increasingly orthodox, faithful direction overall, whether our bishops like it or not.
Every four years, amendments are proposed to the UMC’s foundational Constitution. Unlike changes to other parts of our governing Book of Discipline, which can be made by a simple-majority vote at our denomination’s governing General Conference, constitutional amendments can only be adopted after a difficult process of first being supported by two-thirds of General Conference delegates and then, the next year, being voted on at each of the UMC’s dozens of geographically limited annual conferences around the world, and receiving the support of two thirds of these more locally cast votes.
Last year, United Methodist pastors and laypeople around the world met in their respective annual conference sessions and voted on five proposed constitutional amendments. At that point in the process, there was no opportunity to amend any amendment—each one had to be voted either up or down in its entirety.
Proposed Amendment #1 would have added a new paragraph on “Gender Justice.” For both principled and personal reasons, this was difficult for me to criticize, as I strongly affirmed most of its language and the general intent.
But there were good-governance concerns about adding an entire new paragraph to our limited Constitution anytime anyone has a well-intentioned idea, especially when much of the wording is redundant.
More importantly, there were serious theological concerns about a single 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.”
Were it not for that one sentence, I expect Amendment #1 would have passed overwhelmingly, with no significant opposition. I strongly affirm every other sentence, without hesitation. And I earlier noted how there is some truth to this one contested sentence. But given how some radical United Methodists have undermined belief in Jesus Christ being fully God while He also remains (in both the past and present) a human male, or refused to say “Father God” in worship, I raised questions last year about how this new sentence may be used to advance such agendas, if it were made part of our denomination’s foundational constitution.
Among older generations of seminary radicals in our denomination, there was once a strong movement to avoid using any “masculine words” in reference to God – such as “He,” “Him,” “His,” “Father,” “King,” or “Kingdom” – no matter how awkward this could make some sentences sound. The defeat of Amendment #1 would seem to indicate that this movement has crested, and is now mercifully fading within the United Methodist Church. Thanks be to God!
Proposed Amendment #2, which was heavily pushed by some powerful denominational agency leaders, just barely received the minimum required number of votes at the 2016 General Conference, after little plenary discussions of its serious implications, before being rejected at last year’s annual conference sessions. It would have committed our denomination to absolute non-discrimination for ALL levels of leadership (“in the life, worship, and governance of the Church”) on the basis of “gender,” “marital status,” “age,” or “ability.” Again, while we affirm the good intentions of many who supported this amendment, a careful examination shows many practical problems this could have caused, which many probably did not realize.
It is important to remember that what is in the UMC Constitution basically trumps any other part of church law. And any time you amend the Constitution, it is crucial to think carefully about the practical, legal, long-term consequences of particular words—regardless of the original intent.
So the main question to ask with any proposed constitutional amendment is not “Do I like the sound of this?” but rather, “How might certain denominational officials, especially bishops, use this?”
Outlawing any discrimination over “age” would have ended UMC’s longstanding requirements for bishops and other leaders to retire before reaching a certain age. Thus, this provision would have effectively served as a power grab for bishops seeking to consolidate and hold onto their power for far longer than what would be healthy for the church.
Inserting into the UMC constitution a commitment to fully include all “genders” and “marital statuses” at all levels of denominational leadership, without clearly defining what we mean by these terms, would have almost certainly been used in liberal attempts to try to force UMC leaders to accept clergy with the “marital status” of being in same-sex partnerships, adhere to transgenderist ideology, and to insist on any absolute “right to ordination” in every region of the UMC by individuals who reject their God-given sexual identity and claim a “gender” of being something other than male or female.
At one point, some prominent supporters of Amendment #2 apparently resorted to “dog-whistle politics” in subtly signaling to certain voters that this amendment may have somehow advanced the LGBTQ cause within the UMC.
The defeat of Amendment #2 shows that not only have liberals been losing ground in their efforts to get our General Conference to submit to LGBTQ ideology, but that liberals lack the strength to sneakily achieve their goals even through such a roundabout way as this innocent-sounding, hard-to-oppose proposal, which was effectively a Trojan horse.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition, of which IRD/UMAction is a part, took no official position on these first two amendments, but instead publicly noted pros and cons of each. However, given the balance of the concerns noted above, especially with Amendment #2, and given how supporters of these proposals presented no reasons for why it was urgent to pass them now, we at UMAction believed that it would be ideal for the church to vote these two down now (since they could no longer be amended), and then come back next time with a single, simple, more carefully worded amendment to affirm women’s equality, against the very real problems of discrimination and mistreatment targeting women and girls, without bringing in any other complications.
In a couple of statements released today, our liberal-dominated Council of Bishops uses strong language to say they are “dismayed,” and “deeply grieved” by the defeat of the amendments and accuse opponents of these proposals of somehow imposing some sort of unspecified “harm” on “women and girls.”
One of these statements acknowledges how the UMC already has strong statements and policies “[t]hroughout our Book of Discipline” affirming the equality and full inclusion of women in church and society. Our bishops specifically highlight official UMC statements affirming the equality of men and women in God’s eyes, rejecting false teachings about the superiority of any gender, affirming the equality of men and women in common life, and welcoming both men and women into ordained ministry.
We at UMAction strongly affirm these UMC teachings and policies. But ironically, by stressing all that we already have in our Discipline, our bishops have raised the question of what adding on either of these amendments would have actually achieved for women—apart from the unrelated agendas of rejecting biblical and creedal language about God, ending mandatory retirements, and advancing LGBTQ causes. Neither our bishops nor any supporter of either amendment appears to have offered an answer, in my observation.
What is especially tone-deaf, or perhaps just plain cynical, is how our bishops sanctimoniously frame these results as largely being related to female equality, with no honest acknowledgement of how Amendment #2 would have served to extend the power of the very bishops now claiming less self-serving reasons for bemoaning its defeat.
The Council of Bishops emphasize, accurately, the relatively close margins by which these two amendments were defeated. But we must keep in mind that the number of votes supporting both defeated amendments were rather unfairly inflated by a number of U.S. bishops stooping to such heavy-handed tactics as preventing people from speaking against any proposed amendment at some annual conference sessions and even by some annual conference voters being given official ballots that blatantly misrepresented the truth about what the first two proposed amendments would actually do. (I noted some of these irregularities back in June.)
But even when some bishops and other officials chose to avoid playing fair, they still could not get either of these amendments passed!
Another factor likely inflating the reported support for Amendments #1 and #2 was that, for some unexplained reason, the official results exclude those from the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) Annual Conference. But this is the largest annual conference in its central conference, reporting almost as many members as every other West African annual conference combined. Given how every other West African annual conference voted overwhelmingly against these two amendments, one would expect that including the Côte d’Ivoire’s results would shift the overall percentages to even less support for these two amendments.
All of this indicates that the official results paint a misleading picture of suggesting that these two rejected proposals had a much greater level of informed support than they actually did.
At this point, we at UMAction would like to extend our hands out to any sisters or brothers who are disappointed by the defeat of these proposals, and offer to work together in good faith to find wording for a constitutional amendment to the next regular General Conference session that could affirm our shared support for women’s equality—but without tacking on the problems and unrelated controversies that led to the defeat of these latest attempts.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition endorsed Proposed Amendments #3 and #4, which will ensure greater fairness, openness, and democracy in elections for General Conference delegates and bishops outside of the USA. Both passed with over 90 percent support.
We especially strongly supported Proposed Amendment #5, which could eventually bring a sea change of greater accountability for our bishops.
For decades, United Methodist bishops around the world could only be held firmly accountable by their fellow leaders in their respective regions (five “jurisdictions” within the USA and seven “central conferences” overseas). This led to a growing system of “church anarchy” in the UMC’s numerically tiny, geographically huge U.S. Western Jurisdiction, whose bishops protected each other in blatantly disregarding church laws against same-sex union ceremonies and openly homosexually active ministers. This disobedience reached its height in 2016 when the Western Jurisdiction’s disobedient bishops illegitimately consecrated openly partnered lesbian activist Karen Oliveto to the office of UMC bishop.
But under our longstanding system of regionally divided accountability, there was little that could be done about such disobedience in one region by United Methodists in other regions.
With the passage of Amendment #5, our church law has now been changed to let the global UMC Council of Bishops – which includes every bishop from Europe, Africa, and the Philippines as well as every part of the USA – have significant new powers to examine and discipline any wayward bishop anywhere in the world.
No wonder that this was very strongly opposed by Western Jurisdiction leaders, as well as by supporters of Dr. Oliveto elsewhere.
On this amendment, supporters of keeping Oliveto in the office of bishop chose to pick a fight—and lost overwhelmingly, with over 81 percent of the church voting for this proposal!
Bishops across the spectrum have complained that our church laws have not given them enough authority to provide the leadership the UMC needs to meet our present challenges. With this change, much of that excuse has been taken away.
Now that they have been given this tool, it is time for our bishops to stop complaining about people not trusting them or not giving them enough power, but rather finally step up and lead.
Now all United Methodists who have been hurt and disappointed by the unfaithfulness and lack of Christian leadership in much of our denominational hierarchy should understand that the amount of blatant unfaithfulness we see on the part of any bishop is limited by how much all active bishops as a group, including your own bishop, is willing to either enable or correct.
Interestingly, the Council of Bishops chose to take the highly unusual step of not releasing these results until today, three days after the conclusion of their business meeting, despite the release having been originally scheduled for Thursday. The publicly stated reasons were that our bishops wanted to release the results in conjunction with their statements responding to the defeat of the first two amendments, and to begin this week in conversation about both the results and their response statements. But since the adopted amendments only become effective upon their public release today, when the Council of Bishops is no longer meeting, this may serve to delay some of the implementation of the new system of global accountability until the Council’s next meeting in November.
In any case, with these results, the people of the UMC have spoken. We overwhelmingly want greater accountability, especially for our bishops, as well as more openness and democratic fairness in denominational governance. The people of the UMC also made clear that we strongly support welcoming all people into our churches and the equality of women, but we will NOT let these noble sentiments be twisted or hijacked into advancing secular LGBTQ activist ideologies or otherwise shifting our church away from biblical teaching.