Constitutional amendments to be voted on by AC 2009
By J. Richard Peck
Voting members of 134 annual conferences around the world will consider 32 amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church as they meet in the coming months. The 62 U.S. annual conferences begin meeting in May.
Voters will be ordained elders and deacons in full connection and all lay members of the conferences. Members may debate a proposed amendment, but they cannot change it. They must vote either for or against an amendment as it stands.
Twenty-three of the 32 amendments result from a 2005-2008 study by the Council of Bishops’ Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church. That report said the denomination’s present structure makes it appear to be a U.S. church with appendages in Africa, Asia and Europe. At the same time, the number of United Methodists outside the United States is increasing and may soon be 40 percent.
The Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table approved the task force’s report in the spring of 2007 and sent proposed legislation to the 2008 General Conference suggesting that the name of conferences outside the United States be changed from “Central” to “Regional.”
General Conference delegates agreed that “regional” more accurately describes what these conferences do: address issues unique to the mission and ministry of conferences in that geographic area. Some also suggested that “central” is too reminiscent of the racially segregated U.S. Central Jurisdiction (1939-1968).
Amendments 3-5, 7, 10-14, 16, 18, 20, 21 and 23-32 change the name of “central conference” to “regional conference.” If approved, the name change takes effect on Jan.1, 2013.
None of the amendments will eliminate the jurisdictions in the United States where bishops are elected. The proposed amendments would allow regional conferences in Asia, Africa or Europe the right to establish jurisdictional structures.
The name change will not immediately make the United States into a separate regional conference.
In October 2008, Judicial Council, the Supreme Court of the denomination, ruled “the 2012 General Conference must enact enabling legislation in order to effect the creation of a regional conference or regional conferences in the United States and implement the amendment.”
The 2012 General Conference would not change, but decisions made by that body could alter the design of future regional and international assemblies.
Study committee chair favors creation of U.S. regional body
Kansas Area Bishop Scott Jones, chair of a Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church, said that the creation of a U.S. regional body would not change General Conference’s authority over all matters distinctly connectional.
“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,” Jones said. “For example, one part of the church cannot decide in principle not to ordain women. No United Methodist entity can decide to abolish the 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 they must continue to be decided at the worldwide level by General Conference or else our church will split.”
Jones notes that non-U.S. bishops unanimously voted in favor of the plan that would allow the most important and unifying decisions to be made by General Conference. Regional conferences would make other decisions.
Jones says legislation proposes creation by General Conference of 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,” said the bishop. “Similar regional issues should be discussed at regional meetings in Africa, Europe and Asia.”
The plan envisions that the General Conference would meet first with the regional conferences meeting in the succeeding months of that year.
Eddie Fox, World evangelism leader, opposes the creation of a U.S. regional conference
The Rev. Eddie Fox, a General Conference delegate and world director of evangelism for the World Methodist Council, says he will vote against the amendments. He believes changing “central” to “regional” is a not substantive change, but he does oppose the creation of a U.S. regional conference.
“In the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, we did not ‘open the gate’ until we knew what would be coming through the gate,” said Fox. “Why would we change the Constitution as our first action before we do the study?
“In the 2008 Discipline the functions of the jurisdictional conference and the Central Conference are essentially the same,” said Fox. “Another level with its financial cost and added bureaucracy will negatively impact our focus and worldwide ministry and mission.”
Fox, who is also a member of the Connectional Table, says that now is not the time to make this change, as the church is becoming more global. “In 1968, 92 percent of the membership of our church was in the U.S.,” he said. “In 2008, 64 percent of the membership is in the U.S.; 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 on our life together?”
Amendment would grant church membership to all who take vows
Proposed Amendment 1 would clarify that all people are eligible to attend worship services and receive the sacraments by striking the words “without regard to race, color, national origin, status or other economic condition.” The Constitution now states that after baptism and taking vows declaring the Christian faith, people may become professing members in any local church. The proposed paragraph adds a clause stating they must also declare their “relationship in Jesus Christ.”
Writing in the March/April 2009 issue of Good News magazine, the Rev. Walter B. Fenton, a clergy member in New Jersey, calls this amendment “potentially divisive” and “an indirect attempt by special interest groups to ensure the acceptance and full participation of self-avowed practicing homosexuals in all areas of the life of the church.”
Following a 2005 Judicial Council ruling supporting the decision of a pastor in Virginia not to allow a gay man to join his congregation, the Council of Bishops issued a letter stating: “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”
Amendment would extend voting rights
Amendment 19 would allow all clergy members of annual conferences to vote to elect clergy delegates to general, jurisdictional or central conferences. Only ordained elders and deacons in full connection now vote. This amendment would extend voting privileges to associate members, provisional members who have completed all of their educational requirements and local pastors who have completed course of study or a Master of Divinity degree and have served a minimum of two consecutive years under appointment immediately preceding the election.
The Rev. Mary Ann Moman of the Division of Ordained Ministry of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry said that if this amendment passes, associate members, provisional members and qualifying local pastors would be able to vote for delegates to the 2012 General Conference in spite of the fact that Para. 602 of The Book of Discipline 2008 states that they are ineligible to vote.
Amendment 2 would require all United Methodist organizations to adopt ethics and conflict-of-interest policies for board members and employees.
Amendment 6 addresses an issue that followed the 2004 admission of the Cote d’Ivoire Annual Conference to the denomination. The conference has more than 500,000 members, but had only two delegates to the 2008 General Conference. The amendment says that newly established conferences could be represented on a non-proportional basis for two quadrennia.
Amendment 8 adds the word “gender” to paragraphs declaring the power of General Conference to govern membership of agencies. They would allow the conference to fix conditions, privileges and duties of church membership, which shall, in every case, be without reference to race, gender or status.
Amendment 9 would ensure that every jurisdictional conference has at least 100 members.
Amendment 15 would reduce from two to one the number of years a lay person must be a church member before being elected a member of an annual conference. It also eliminates a requirement that they be active participants in church.
Amendment 17 would reinstate legislation adopted by the 2004 General Conference and subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council allowing laity on the committee on investigation to vote on matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of clergy.
Amendment 22 would recognize Bermuda congregations as part of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.
—The Rev. J. Richard Peck is communications director for the General Commission on United Methodist Men.