Constitutional Amendments 2009 William J. Abraham

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Constitutional Amendments 2009
William J. Abraham
Outler Professor of Wesley Studies and Albert Outler Distinguished Teaching Professor
Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

I am not a politician; nor do I aspire to be a politician.  If truth be told, I stay out of politics as much as I possibly can in both the church and the university.  As a resident alien in the United States I do not have a vote; and I am too far removed in space and time to participate in Irish politics.  I am a vagabond Irish scholar, preacher, and teacher.  Yet I am a keen observer of politics.  Politics is the ultimate blood sport; it is a constant source of intellectual entertainment.  Over the years I have become something of an informal student of politics; so much so that I have a full manuscript on terrorism yet to be published which I have written as a lay observer and as a student of political philosophy.

As a professor and a member of my Annual Conference in Southwest Texas, I find, of course, that ecclesiastical politics are unavoidable.  For the most part I prefer to be left alone and get on with my vocation in the gospel.  However, we are never left alone, for our ecclesiastical system is a veritable hive of political activity.  We are constantly developing ecclesiastical legislation in our Book of Discipline that affects all of us from top to bottom in our church.  I do not object to this in any strong sense.  Indeed, I think that canon law (the technical term for our Book of Discipline) is extraordinarily important in the church as a whole.  Of course, canon law is not as important as the gospel, or the scripture, or the sacraments, but in its own place it is a vital part of our life together.  Hence when we are faced with constitutional amendments, we all have to sit up and pay attention.  This is so because constitutional matters are like the DNA of any organization; they are at the very core of our life together as they set the stage for what we do every day.  This is why constitutional issues require more than minimal majorities to pass; they are so important that the default position lies with those who want to initiate substantial change; the onus is on the innovators to make a strong case.  This is a matter of prudence and not the byproduct of gloomy conservative instincts.  Our tradition wisely insists that changes at this level should only be entered into after really serious arguments; we need persuasive arguments that will take us way beyond those needed for a mere majority vote. Moreover the arguments need to be carefully considered in the councils of our church.

This insistence on substantive argument should be borne in mind as we ponder the constitutional amendments before our Annual Conferences this year.  While we have a whole raft of amendments, the core amendments are effectively two in number.  The first proposes that we develop Regional Conferences in between Annual and General Conferences; the second relates to membership of The United Methodist Church.  Initially I shall look at some length at the first of these.  My primary concern is to identify and assess the arguments advanced in favor of this substantive as opposed to verbal amendment.  Beyond that I want to get below the surface and ferret out the deeper issues that I think need to be identified and addressed at every level of leadership and not least at the level of the episcopate.  Within this arena I shall say a word about the amendment on membership.

The advocates of Regional Conferences come with very powerful credentials.  The relevant amendment has the endorsement of the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table and, of course, there is the vote of the last General Conference itself.  Its primary advocate is a younger bishop who has already distinguished himself as a scholar and as an ecclesiastical politician with uncommon skills and abilities.  I count Bishop Scott Jones as a friend, a former colleague in the academy, and a fine advocate of comprehensive renewal in the church as a whole.  He fits snugly into a network of revisionist and reformist bishops elected in 2004.  Taken as a whole, this group of twenty bishops and more represents a sea-change within The United Methodist Church.  We know that at one of the first meetings of the Council of Bishops they met dramatically under a tree and made a clear decision together that the way of business as usual was over.  They are strong leaders who are determined to face up to the reality of decline.  They are equally determined to fill the vacuum in leadership that developed in the nineteen seventies when we went to a centralized, bureaucratic form of governance in the General Agencies.  They rightly recognize that that arrangement while workable is flawed, that it is losing credibility, and that it has led to deep alienation in some quarters.  They also want to claw back power and influence that has been garnered by a host of caucuses and interest groups that have grown like Topsy over the last generation, especially those that hail from the more conservative side of the aisle.  The top tier of this new group of bishops are academically trained, they know our system intimately, they love the church, they know what levers to pull and what buttons to press, and they have the stamina to stay the course.  They know exactly the ideological code words that work in our ecclesial culture (they supplied these in the first place), and while they are amiable and courteous, they are not afraid to take on opposition.  I have no doubt that they can be ruthless in thought and practice.  Without denigrating the role of the Connectional Table or the General Conference, I think it is fair to say they are in fact the prime movers and shakers in the pressing for the creation of Regional Conferences.

The strength of the current episcopal leaders and their place in the move for constitutional change cannot absolve us from the responsibility of looking carefully at the arguments that have been mounted in its favor.  Our tradition rightly treats bishops in a very particular fashion.  They are not a third order in the church; they preside without vote at our conferences; because of the potential abuse of power they are severely restricted in the kind of advocacy they can generate.  The arguments they present deserve a fair hearing nonetheless.

What are those arguments?  We can divide them into two categories, the positive and the negative.  The primary positive argument is that the creation of Regional Conferences will move us more fully towards being a truly global church.  Thus if we develop in this direction we will be less of a USA-centric church.  We will cease, it is said, to be a US church with a few foreign outposts.  We will be much more representative of our growing international nature as seen in the decline of the USA division and the growth outside the USA.  This move is therefore unanimously supported by the current Central Conference bishops; indeed it is claimed that the whole idea originated with them.  Second, the creation of Regional Conferences will allow for more context-sensitive missionary strategy.  Church growth strategy will, for example, be radically different in Africa than it will be in Northern Europe and than it will be in the USA.  Third, such conferences will allow us to get rid of anomalies that currently exist.  Thus Regional Conferences will be able to develop context-relative hymn books and create, say, seminaries fitted to their region.  Fourth, if we take this bold step it will make The United Methodist Church the leading worldwide Protestant in the twentieth first century.  At the very least, it will create the conditions for this welcome development.  Without abandoning our ecumenical commitments we can move forward with confidence as a global Christian community united in doctrine, discipline, and mission but context-sensitive in region-specific practices and sensibility.

On the negative side, the development of Regional Conferences is neutral on the contested issue of homosexual practice.  Strictly speaking, it is argued, the debate about this is irrelevant; the disagreements on homosexual practice will continue to rumble on whether we do or do not have Regional Conferences.  Hence the attempt to drag in the current divisions in the Anglican and Episcopal Church is beside the point; there are no parallels here that should worry us.  Second, the proposal does not involve any changes in the Judicial Council; there will still be one Judicial Council for the church as a whole.  Third, the proposal does not involve any serious challenge on the grounds that it will require new bureaucratic structures or exorbitant expense.  The General Conference can be shortened and Regional Conferences held, perhaps, in the second week.  This way there will be little extra expense.

What should we make of these arguments?  The immediate observation to make is that nothing here addresses the issue of how we are to fulfill the mission statement of The United Methodist Church.  Nothing specifically is said about how this fits our mission statement to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world; no particular evidence is advanced.  At best this is asserted or assumed.  I shall argue later that this is a matter of vital importance; the silence at this point is deeply revealing and should drive us to think more deeply about what is really at issue.  But what should we say about the specific arguments that are advanced?

The primary positive argument that developing Regional Conferences will make us more of a global church and less of an imperialistic USA-centric church is simply unconvincing.  Here is my reasoning.  First, we already are a global church in the relevant sense.  This is clear in the existence of one, single General Conference.  Adding Regional Conferences is going to move us into a differentiated church across regions.  It does nothing either to add to or take away from current reality.  Even the protests, deliberations, and good intentions of the bishops of the Central Conferences cannot change this hard reality.  Second, however it is figured, the balance of representation within the General Conference will be exactly as it is now.  If we are an imperialistic USA-centric church now, we will equally be one in the future given the internal proportions involved.  Nothing can alter the proportionate numbers at this point, so the same difficulties will arise in the new arrangement that beset us now.  Of course, folk may feel differently about it all, but this is being sentimental and naïve; the power-relations will not change at the top in our General Conference.  Indeed the power-relations are likely to be even more hidden because folk will think that the creation of Regional Conferences somehow takes care of the problem.

These considerations equally undermine the claim that we will become the leading worldwide, Protestant Church of the twentieth first century.  Either we are or are not that at present; adding Regional Conferences will not change this.  Consider an analogy.  The USA is considered by most to be the premier power-player on the world stage.  Suppose we were to develop an added tier of decision-making and administration in between the states and congress; would this alter the power-relations across the nations?  Of course, it would not.  The problem of power-relations will not go away that easily either in the world or in the church.  So long as we have a General Conference dominated by American numbers, prestige, arrogance, caucuses, political skill, politically astute bishops, and money, the problem will remain.  It is delusional to hold that Regional Conferences will change this unpleasant reality.  Indeed, it is not a stretch to believe that the whole move to think of ourselves as the leading, worldwide Protestant church of the future is itself an illusionary effort invented by North American leaders to make up for the decline of The United Methodist Church in the USA.  It is an effort by the USA to find prestige by the pretense of new global structures cleverly cast as an anti-imperialistic ideology which appeals to the ephemeral code words of contemporary culture.

To be sure, the proposal generally speaks of a move towards a more global church.  The argument can be cast in a more modest, self-deprecating mode.  It will be said that I have cast the issue much too sharply and starkly.  What is at issue, it will be averred, is really a matter of degree.  As a soft rationalist, I have sympathy with this line of reasoning; often all we can hope for in politics is to move things forward a little here and there.  However, the problem we now face is that the proposal becomes so vague and thin that it is impossible to assess its merits with respect to the end that is supposed to be achieved.  We simply have to trust our hunches that things will somehow improve; and the danger of the feel-good factor operating as a substitute for real evidence is enormous.  The revised, more moderate version is intrinsically weak from an evidential point of view.

What about the argument that this proposal will take care of anomalies, relative to, say, the hymnbook and seminary education?  I cannot see the force of this argument.  Seminaries and other educational institutions are already handled in Jurisdictional Conferences.  They can easily be accommodated if need be (as they sometimes are) by Annual Conferences.  The hymnody issue can also be readily solved within the current structures.  The General Conference can readily mandate several hymnbooks; or we can simply allow the current trend to improvise and use lots of varied hymnody to continue.

The attempts to neutralize the negative arguments against the proposals are even more threadbare than those in its favor.  Contrary to what is said we will indeed have another massive layer of decision-making, bureaucracy, and expense.  We cannot have Regional Conferences without tears: they will be very expensive in terms of energy and money.  It is foolish to think otherwise.  Moreover, the creation of a new tier of conferencing will mean a General Conference even more remote from the local level than at present.  This will mean less ownership, much more intensive politicking for membership, more alienation, and extra burdens for bishops who are already stretched to the limits.

Most importantly, regional conferencing will give the USA-church the platform and opportunity over time to press for its own agenda on contested issues like homosexual practice.  Let’s assume for the moment that contested issues like this will be decided at the General Conference.  It would be folly to assume this given the wording of the legislation, but let that pass.  The issue here is not one of the immediate content of canon law but one of long-haul pressure and irreversible arrogance on the part of North American Christians on moral and theological issues.  In this there is both an analogy and a disanalogy with the situation in the Anglican and Episcopal tradition.  The disanalogy is that the Anglicans/Episcopalians do not have an agreed canon law while The United Methodists do.  Thus the Anglican tradition lacks a vital instrument of unity, and current prospects for the development of that instrument look extremely dim.  The reason for pessimism in the Anglican Communion on this score stems from the disposition and power of the Episcopal Church USA.  It is utterly dogged in its political maneuvering, patience, and self-assured conviction of correctness.  This is precisely where the analogy holds.  It is bizarre to think that the same kind of forces and dispositions will not hold in The United Methodist Church over time.  Happily they will be constrained formally and in the short-term by canon law; but canon law is always vulnerable and can readily be worn down over time by persistent efforts from below.  To put it simply, all the canon law in the world will not hold if there is a strong Regional Conference (or network of Regional Conferences) below it that persistently stands in opposition.  Persistent piercing of the ice from below can be as effective as jumping on it from above; seasoned activists will find the cracks and exploit them.  Moreover, once in place the Regional Conferences will provide immediate lines of fracturing of the church as a whole.  So it is naïve to ignore the real analogies with what is happening in the Episcopal tradition.  What is anticipated to be a worldwide united Protestant church could very easily divide not because of a dramatic crisis but because of internal erosion over time.

The interim conclusion is this: the case for significant constitutional change with respect to Regional Conferences has not been made.  All things considered the arguments deployed in favor of it are exceptionally weak.  Furthermore, there are compelling objections.  We could leave the issue there, vote, and move on.  However, this would be a mistake.  I suggest there is more below the surface; the current debate should act as a catalyst to further reflection. I will be brief in making three simple points that are inter-related.

First, it is hard to envisage a worse piece of legislation in terms of clarity.  Bishop Jones is refreshingly frank:  “At present, there is no clarity about what belongs to the regions to decide and what belongs solely to the General Conference.”  The assumption he makes is equally clear.  He has given his word as chair of the committee that he will do all in his powers to ensure that the General Conference rather than Regional Conferences will decide matters of doctrine, discipline, and mission.  This is not a prudent way to proceed; he is really in no position to give these assurances.  The simple tests of any piece of legislation, much less of legislation related to constitutional change, are these: Is it clear so that we know precisely what we are signing up for? Is it devoid of promissory notes that cannot be secured in advance and which leave room for hidden (or not so hidden) agendas?  On both these counts the legislation fails.

This permits a brief aside on the amendment on membership.  Here we face exactly the same problems.  Thus we have no idea what is meant by the pious phrase, “upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relation in Jesus Christ,” that will now figure in conditions for membership.  Worse still the final clause which insists that no unit of The United Methodist Church can be “structured” so as to exclude professing members from any unit in the church is fatally ambiguous in that it can be taken in a maximal or minimal sense.  In the minimal sense we could take “structure” to mean that all the procedures put in place to indicate relevant conditions, say, for ordination or boards of trustees, can apply.  In the maximal sense “structure” can mean that no constraints or conditions can apply.  I myself would prefer and urge the former reading; but the latter cannot be ruled out given the way the amendment is worded.  This then means that we are voting in the dark and are hostage to fortune as to how it will be played out in the life of the church.

The upshot of these observations is that we are losing the ability to draft good legislation on constitutional issues.  This makes a bad situation worse for it creates further space for the cantankerous manner in which we conduct our business.  We need to get our act together in canon law.

Second, the agenda in favor of Regional Conferences is being pushed first and foremost by the bishops of the church.  The Connectional Table is too weak in its experience and too obscure in its deliberations to be given the same weight as the Council of Bishops in pondering the forces behind it.  The General Conference is too unwieldy and short-lived to consider legislation carefully; this is no doubt one reason why its power is balanced by that of Annual Conferences.  What is at stake is a clear case of over-reach on the part of the bishops of the church.  This became crystal clear in a meeting with Bishop Jones in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference.  When asked what would happen if the amendments on Regional Conferences was rejected he replied that the Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church would come right back with new legislation to much the same effect.  The issue, he insisted, is not going to go away.  I am sure that the intentions are noble and good, but in plain English we now know exactly where stand: no matter how the church as a whole votes the advocates of this legislation will not take ‘no’ for an answer and will come right back at us and wear us down with their superior wisdom.  It was precisely this kind of arrogance of power that early American Methodism sought to curtail when it refused to give bishops voting rights in the conferences.  Given what I said earlier about the new generation of bishops who are determined to press their authority and power in the church, I see this response as a serious warning light that must be heeded.  We are faced with over-reach on the part of the bishops.

Third, and most importantly, all of the amendments before us betray a deeper malaise in our midst that cries out to be addressed by the whole church and not least by our bishops.  Reading through the full set of amendments is an arduous undertaking for even those who are experienced in dealing with Conference legislation.  Going through them is like watching the paint dry.  It takes enormous amounts of secondary commentary to get hold of what is at issue.  There is little here to set the heart on fire to make disciples or to move on to perfection of any sort.  Beyond this, it is surely clear that institutions turn to massive efforts at restructuring in periods of decline.  Invariably this is a sign of denial or distraction or false hopes.  We are now embarked on a massive effort to restructure our church quite literally from top to bottom on promises that this will make us the leading inclusive, worldwide, Protestant church of the future.  It matters little whether this is a matter of denial, distraction, evasion, of false hope.  It is time to challenge the mindset that lies below the surface.  We should reject this whole raft of legislation and make it abundantly clear that we need a totally different mindset if we are going to survive much less thrive as a significant embodiment.

We can sympathize with the dilemma of the new generation of bishops at this point.  When they arrived they found the drive to restructuring already on their plate; the political cost to sending it quietly to the garbage disposal below the sink would have been very high for anyone with aspirations to provide leadership in the Council of Bishops.  Hence the best way forward was to make a virtue out of necessity and use the issue as a bridge to significant renewal.  Perhaps it was reckoned that it might be possible, were the legislation on Regional Conferences to pass, to turn it to good account theologically and spiritually.  We can certainly hope for this as a back-up position; but I would not bet the store on it.  Happily, there is still time to stop the direction we are headed and avoid wasting another ten years before we come to grips with reality.  Make no mistake about it: we are wasting precious time in denial and distraction.

This radical response will appear drastic and uncompromising, so let me fill out the wider evidence that should be considered.  I suggest that this conclusion dovetails with two other observations.

In 1996 the General Conference decided on making disciples of Jesus Christ as the mission of the church.  In ten years we have done absolutely nothing at the connectional level to move from avowal to operation, from theory to practice, from talk to walk.  Thus none of the four priorities adopted at the last General Conference in any serious way expresses the goal of making disciples.  Moreover, we also updated the mission statement and added the phrase, “for the transformation of the world.”  Few have seen the oddity of seeking to improve on the mission given to us by the risen Lord of the Church spelled out so clearly in the Great Commission.  Few have also seen the extraordinary spiritual and political arrogance and lack of realism built into this updating.  It is hard not to interpret this development as a return to the twentieth century mentality of Methodism – or more precisely a nineteen sixties mentality – in which we really think we can fix the world through a mixture of thin piety and social activism.  Letting all this pass, few also seem to realize that our chances of transforming the world without making robust disciples is pretty close to nil.  We want the ends without the means.  This is a sure recipe for failure.  We say our goal is to make disciples and transform the world, but we are not even at the initial stages of putting in place the practices that might lead to these goals.

The other consideration is this: we are inundated with organizational proposals as a way forward in the renewal of the church.  We simply bounce from one set of business models to another, substituting secular for any real theological or spiritual considerations.  It is by no means easy to get the right theological or spiritual perspective on our current malaise; but there is next to no chance of getting this right if we make secular considerations the centre of gravity in our thinking.  There is a deep irony here in that some recent work in business studies, as represented by Otto Scharmer, has been looking to spirituality for help in resolving longstanding institutional failure.

If we survey the overall situation within United Methodism, then we have to conclude that we have not really come clean on the deeper crisis that is at the heart of our tradition.  We are fiddling with restructuring, failing to implement our own mission statement, and constantly looking to secular solutions to our problems.  The deep crisis we face is spiritual, missional, and theological.  We should rise up and insist that our bishops and our conferences really tackle this crisis openly, frankly, and in radical repentance.  If we were to do this, then we could begin to think seriously of being a significant worldwide Protestant denomination in the years ahead.  In the meantime we will simply have to work as best we can with the ecclesial world we have created for ourselves.

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