GENERAL CONFERENCE WILL MEET
IN FORT WORTH APRIL 24 – MAY 2
Every four years the United Methodist General Conference, with delegates from all the annual conferences, both in the United States, meets to set budgets, formulate policy, initiate programs, and set the course for the church for the next four years. Only this body can officially speak for the United Methodist Church.
The Confessing Movement has been concentrating for a number of months on how evangelicals in the church can influence legislation and delegates toward a greater vision for renewal. Along with several other evangelical renewal groups-Good News, UM Action, Lifewatch, Transforming Congregations, and Renew-The Confessing Movement has entered into a Renewal and Reform Coalition so that the evangelical voice can be united at General Conference.
The Confessing Movement will seek to communicate with the church on the developments at General Conference through email messages (to get on the email list contact email@example.com) and through this web page.
At the winter meeting of the Confessing Movement several issues of special interest to evangelicals were discussed. The following is a brief on these issues.
BRIEFS OF KEY GENERAL CONFERENCE ISSUES
OF INTEREST TO EVANGELICALS
Despite the fact that numbers of groups have indicated that homosexuality is not the most important issue before the 2008 General Conference, it must be noted that nearly 1,000 petitions involving at least seven different legislative groups have been submitted that relate in one way or another to the issue. A number of the petitions want liberalizing change. They want to redefine marriage so that it is no longer understood as the uniting of one man and one woman. Other petitions want to change the language which states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Still other petitions wish to remove the stand that practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained or appointed as pastors in the United Methodist Church.
The coalition believes there is nothing to be gained from any of these kinds of changes. The church in all ages and in all places has stood on the Biblical view that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman (and the basis for the Biblical teaching on the relationship between Christ and the Church) and on the sexual ethics principle of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.” To depart from this traditional understanding of human sexuality would put us outside the mainstream of catholic Christianity.
The argument is based on appeal to Scriptures and tradition. Other arguments that appeal to “science” or personal testimony or inclusiveness or “new understandings” are at best secondary arguments. At the same time we make careful distinction between homosexual orientation and sexual practice. We assume “sexual orientation” does not necessarily imply “practice.” Petitions that argue the church cannot discriminate on the basis of “sexual orientation” are extremely confusing.
2) JUDICIAL INTEGRITY
An issue that will be more important at this General Conference than at previous General Conferences has to do with judicial integrity. More directly, it has to do with the kind of persons elected to serve on the church’s Judicial Council.
The underlying issue is, once again, homosexuality. Progressives believe they might gain by judicial activism what they cannot gain by legislative action. Certain annual conferences and jurisdictions have used fanciful judicial arguments to undercut the church’s historic and legislative positions on homosexuality (or any other issue). In the case of Karen Dammann (Pacific-Northwest) some months ago, for example, a jury unanimously ruled not guilty despite the fact that Karen Dammann had declared herself openly to be a practicing homosexual. The jury made appeal to a “higher law” and therefore basically ruled the Discipline not applicable. There was no recourse. In the case of the Judicial Council It only takes five votes to undermine the church’s clear stand.
The challenge is quite real. We have for many years been able to hold the Judicial Council in high regard and believe that their rulings have upheld the balance of powers (legislative, judicial, executive) in the church. We believe that should continue.
3) PASTORAL AUTHORITY
Within United Methodism a novel idea has developed within the past several years, namely, that since the church is “inclusive” all persons must be received into church membership as long as they are willing to take the vows (as they themselves interpret them). In this view the pastor is not the executive in charge of the affairs of the church but is reduced basically to a recording secretary for church membership.
The matter needs to be clarified by the General Conference.
Our church polity is based (like the U.S. government) on a balance of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Every Discipline of every former branch of the UM Church has indicated that the pastor is the executive in charge of the local church. The ministry study says of the elder: The …”presidency for the good order of the community is then extended into the elder’s administration of the whole life of the congregation…” (P. 1391). To claim that any person desiring membership must be received into membership if the person is willing to take the vows is to invite chaos.
There would be no question about this except the clear statement of the pastor’s authority on membership was omitted at the time of the Methodist-EUB merger (thus the confusion). There is no reason to believe this was anything but unintentional.
As with a number of other issues the drive behind denying pastoral authority relates to homosexuality and a single incident of a pastor delaying membership to a practicing homosexual. To remove pastoral authority in regard to church membership would basically deconstruct Methodist polity as historically understood.
4) UNITED STATES AS A REGIONAL CONFERENCE
There is a proposal that comes from the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table that would divide the world-wide church into regions, thus segregating the overseas churches from the American church for matters of national concern. The argument is that much of what the present General Conference does relates primarily to the United States and is of little interest to those in other countries.
Behind the proposal is the realization that the church in places like Africa is growing rapidly while the church in the United States is in decline, and without structural change the balance of power would eventually shift to churches outside the United States. There is also the realization that the overseas churches are more evangelical and conservative (on some issues) and that this evangelical presence would undercut some liberal stances.
Jermoe King Del Pino, General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education, in a paper being circulated entitled “Global Leaders for a Global Church” makes reference to Philip Jenkins with this comment:
In terms of both theology and moral teaching, Southern Christianity tends to be far more conservative and moving toward forms of supernaturalism and Christian orthodoxy that many of their fellow Christians in the North will resist as outdated, superstitious, and authoritarian….It’s very likely that in a decade or two neither component of global Christianity…will recognize its counterpart as fully or authentically Christian.”
Persons have thrown out ideas as to how regional conferences might function practically, but the truth is, no one has any guarantee that regional conferences would function as the advocates claim. Rather, there is much suspicion that regional conferences would not work and that in the end, regional conferences would segregate the Americans from others in the connection and that a progressive agenda which often characterizes bishops and boards and agencies in the U.S. would be untempered by United Methodists outside the country.
Of particular concern is that in order to restructure to regional conferences a number of constitutional amendments must be approved, since the whole idea is quite foreign to the way United Methodism has set up its church polity. Advocates (including bishops) say a favorable vote does not commit us to this proposal but only to study. Studying is fine but it seems but constitutional amendments are not necessary to have the church study such drastic change.
The argument is also given that the overseas churches are in favor of this proposal. That claim must be challenged. This was initiated and advocated by Americans.
There are, of course, problems that the Regional Conferences idea seeks to address. Cultural differences, language differences, economic differences-but surely these are not insurmountable problems. It should be possible under the present system to put legislation or policies in place that would be regional specific. We would not need constitutional amendments to address many of the concerns that are driving this proposal.
5) DISTRIBUTION OF MEF FUNDS (MINISTERIAL EDUCATION FUND)
We believe the church would be best served by a different distribution of Ministerial Education Funds (MEF). At the present time the church seems to assume that ministerial leadership is tied to education and education in turn is tied to a degree in an official UM seminary, or with a degree in a school approved by the University Senate. The University Senate is restricting the number of schools it approves, for reasons not always clear. The suspicion is that the UM seminaries need the enrollment. To keep the seminaries afloat money is poured into seminaries at the rate of 15 million dollars a year at an average of more than $5,000 per UM student. The money goes to operating costs and is not available to help students directly. Still the seminaries are short on students (many of whom would choose, if they could, to attend other seminaries). The church has the same number of seminaries as it did when there were 3 million more members. Meanwhile, overseas seminaries, where the church is growing and education is desperately needed, receive no funds. Higher Education argues it has interest in education overseas and refers to the Global Education Fund (money to be raised outside apportionments) but this fund received in 2007 only $22,000 (compare that with 15 million).
It seems only fair that the MEF funds should be distributed more equitably. Either change the formula so that more money goes to the annual conference for scholarships (make the 75%-25% distribution 50%-50%), and/or make some of the funds available for Africa and other seminaries overseas. The Africans will have available a petition to do that.
6) INTEGRITY OF MEMBERSHIP
There are a number of petitions that want to insert the provision that no person can be denied membership if that person is willing to take the vows. Some petitions more specifically say that “No person shall be excluded from the United Methodist Church for reasons related to his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.”
This is unnecessary legislation because, at least in recent times, it is not known that any person has been excluded from membership because of sexual orientation or gender identity. The sexual ethic, celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage, has nothing to do with orientation. It is practice, not orientation, that is the issue.
Para. 2702.3 has a whole list of charges that may be made against a professing member. These charges assume a certain high standard of belief and practice for membership. It is illogical to insist that no kind of belief or behavior disqualifies one for membership, and then make provisions for chargeable offenses for the beliefs and actions after the person becomes a member.
7) PRIVILEGES OF THE LOCAL PASTOR
Ever since the earliest days of Good News (40 years ago) evangelicals have sought to champion the cause of the local pastor. Since the earliest days of American Methodism there has been tension between the traveling pastors and the local pastors. Only the traveling pastors were members of the conference with the privilege of election to General Conference, passing on new conference members, and eligibility to be appointed as presiding elders or elected as bishops.
Yet local pastors have served faithfully and today the church could not exist without them. We have made advances. Local pastors are considered clergy; have the authority to celebrate the sacraments (in their own parishes), and have become members of the annual conference. One more barrier exists: the right to vote on constitutional amendments and General Conference delegates and to serve as delegates. The issue is neither education nor ordination but rather privileges and rights granted by the church.
The church suffers from too much clergy elitism. Offering local pastors full rights will move the church toward inclusiveness and equity.
This can be done with a petition to come from one of the Central Conferences which would amend to also add the words: “eternal salvation of souls” (not sure of the wording on this). Not all of the petitions from the Central Conferences are in the Advanced Christian Advocate.