Bishop and the Rev. Eddie Fox offer opposing views on constitutional amendments to be considered by this summer. (Interpreter Magazine)
The Worldwide Methodist Movement
By the Rev. H. Eddie Fox
The church is global. In the miracle of Pentecost, people heard the good news in their own language. From the beginning, the church, which was born in a multicultural, multireligious society, had a world vision to “the ends of the earth.”
Today the Methodist movement is worldwide in more than 130 countries with more than 70 million constituents. The United Methodist Church is approximately 30 percent of this global community of the “people called Methodists.” The global Methodist family with roots in Britain and the United States of America is linked together in the World Methodist Council. One of our core values is the connection of our people.
It is appropriate and important for The United Methodist Church to study what it means to be a global church in today’s world. How can we be more effective in spreading the good news of Christ Jesus in the world? The General Conference approved that such a study should be made, and a committee has been appointed to study the worldwide nature of The United Methodist Church.
At the same time this study was proposed, the General Conference approved amendments for changes in the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, which are related to the worldwide nature of our church. These amendments will have to be approved by two-thirds of all the delegates to all the annual conferences in order to change the Constitution. When the proposal to change the Constitution came to the Connectional Table, of which I am a member, I stated that the study should be done first and then make changes as needed based upon the clear vision for our church. In the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, we did not “open the gate” until we knew what would be coming through the gate. Some of the constitutional amendments simply change the name “central” to “regional.”
However, there are amendments, which if approved by the annual conferences would have a major impact on the distinctive nature of our church. The result would be a regional conference in the United States. I am convinced that this will have a dramatic negative impact on our church, and these particular constitutional amendments should be defeated. Why would we change the Constitution as our first action before we do the study?
The rationale has been given that the General Conference is focused on U.S. issues and therefore, the regional conference in the U.S. is needed in order to focus on “national issues.” The General Conference is a global conference, and today most issues are international in scope. When the proposal was presented to the Connectional Table, I asked why we would change this now when we have become more global in our membership. In 1968, 92 percent of the membership of our church was in the U.S.A. However, in 2008, 64 percent of the membership is in the U.S.A. When we meet in 2012, the ratio could be close to 50 percent. Why take this action now, when the growth of our church outside the United States has a positive, needed impact upon our life together? An African leader said to me, “I want to be present when decisions are made which impact my church.” The current proposal about changes to the Constitution did not originate in Central Conferences in Africa. We need the presence of a global community to engage in conferencing when decisions are made which do impact the mission and ministry of our church.
In our preparation for and during the process of the General Conference, we need to work even more diligently so that Central Conference delegates are enfranchised. These amendments that will constitute a national regional conference in the U.S.A. move us away from the core values of the connection and toward a national church. We already see divisive consequences of such a national identity in other world communions. Of course, we do not know all that may transpire, but I am convinced that this sets us on a path that will have a negative impact on our “connection.”
The result will be another layer in our church in the United States, which would continue to have jurisdictional conferences. In the 2008 Discipline the functions of the Jurisdictional Conference and the Central Conference are essentially the same. Another level with its financial cost and added bureaucracy will negatively impact our focus and worldwide ministry and mission.
There is nothing in the current proposed changes to the Constitution that states that the General Conference will continue to decide matters relating to ministry, doctrine or Social Principles. We are being asked to change the Constitution without knowing the impact of such a change. There is no clarity as to what belongs to a regional conference and what belongs to the General Conference. One can only imagine the debates in the future as to what belongs in each level of conferences for decisions regarding the covenant and ministry of our church. If the U.S.A. is a regional conference, we can assume that it will edit, adapt or alter the Discipline as central conferences currently do.
I hope that the delegates to the annual conferences in The United Methodist Church will vote “no” on these constitutional amendments, which will result in the creation of a regional (central) conference in the USA. To date there is no specific plan that has been presented, debated or agreed upon for restructuring of The United Methodist Church into regional conferences. To Change the constitution requires a “super majority” two-thirds vote. This is serious. If this is approved now it means that whenever changes are proposed from the study, even major ones, they may be implemented at another General Conference with only a simple majority.
Let us continue the study and then we shall hear the proposed changes with full disclosure and clarity. With such a study, the changes can be presented and, if reasonable and good for the movement, they will pass with the two-thirds majority, and we will follow the process of appropriately changing our Constitution. Therefore, I will vote “no” on these particular constitutional amendments, which will create a central conference in the U.S.A. Let’s study, discuss, pray together and bring a vision with clarity to the next General Conference. At that time, let us take the appropriate action including any change in the Constitution.
–The Rev. H. Eddie Fox, Holston Conference, delegate to the General Conference
and World Director of Evangelism, World Methodist Council
Here is the opposing view of Bishop Scott Jones
Why I Support Amendments Referring
to the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church
By Bishop Scott Jones
I believe the Christian movement needs a united, worldwide Protestant church to serve God’s mission for the world. United Methodism is one of very few churches to be united in its doctrine, mission and discipline while worshipping and serving on four continents. We have a special calling in a world that is increasingly globalized and beset with major problems and challenges. God3s evangelizing, discipling and justice ministries are best served by a church that is globally connected and yet locally diverse.
The number of United Methodists outside the United States is increasing and may soon be 40 percent. Unfortunately, we are still structured as a U.S. church with a few foreign outposts. This is offensive to many of our African, European and Asian sisters and brothers. It is significant that when the Central Conference bishops were asked to consider the task force proposal in the spring of 2007, they voted unanimously in favor of it. We are seeking a shape of The United Methodist Church that provides for greater equality of status while retaining our principle of proportional representation in the General Conference.
The vision behind the constitutional amendments suggests a shape of The United Methodist Church for the 21st century. It addresses two fundamental questions: What aspects of our church are so essential to our global mission and witness that they must be the same everywhere for United Methodists? Conversely, what aspects are so contextually dependent that they should be adapted to local situations?
The General Conference would retain authority over all matters distinctly connectional as it says in Paragraph 16 of the Constitution. The bishops and Connectional Table have proposed that all matters related to doctrine, Social Principles and ordination standards would continue to be decided by the General Conference and applied worldwide. I have argued in my book Staying at the Table that the unity of our worldwide church depends upon the General Conference deciding matters of doctrine, discipline and mission for all. These are the things that bind us together!
For example, one part of the church cannot decide in principle not to ordain women. No United Methodist entity can decide to abolish episcopacy. Our basic ministerial orders of local pastors, deacons and elders apply everywhere. All of the Social Principles are truly worldwide in scope. Because of their controversial nature (think of homosexuality, abortion, racism and sexism), they must continue to be decided at the worldwide level by General Conference or else our church will split.
At the same time, other decisions should be decided by jurisdictions, annual conferences, districts or local churches. The General Conference does not determine how many districts an annual conference should have nor does it set the salaries of pastors. In recent times, greater structural flexibility has been appropriately given to annual conferences and local churches.
The work of the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church will help work out the details of this basic vision.
Central to the vision is that, while the most important and unifying decisions are made by the General Conference, some decisions should be made regionally. The legislation proposes that there be a regional conference grouping together every annual conference. This would mean that the General Conference (which decides how many central or regional conferences there are and sets their boundaries) would create one or more regional conferences in the United States. This would be of great help for U.S. churches to discuss issues like the hymnal, new church planting, seminaries, the Black College Fund and other issues that are unique to us. Similar regional issues should be discussed at regional meetings in Africa, Europe and Asia. At present, there is no clarity about what belongs to the region to decide and what belongs solely to the General Conference. There is also no purely U.S.-centered forum where these issues are discussed. They happen either at the jurisdictional level or at the worldwide (general) level.
The plan envisions that the General Conference would meet first, and in the succeeding months of that year the regional conferences would meet.
So far, I have not addressed the name change from central to regional. The word “central” was applied to this level of Methodist conferencing in the 19th century to allow annual conferences in India to work together without reference to the U.S.-dominated General Conference. In addition, the word “central” has connotations of racism, because of its use by the church for the Central Jurisdiction in the United States between 1939 and 1968. The shift to “regional” better expresses what these conferences do: address issues unique to the mission and ministry of conferences in that region.
–Bishop Scott Jones, Kansas Area, is chair of
the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church.