Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Top Ten Myths about UMC Constitutional Amendments

(While most U.S. annual conferences have already met by now, I felt the need to address several key myths about the proposed Constitutional Amendments that I have seen promoted, whether unintentionally or otherwise. I offer this both in the hopes of its being helpful to someone out there and for the sake of relieving some personal frustration from seeing each of the following myths asserted by various leaders without the record being set straight.)

MYTH #1: In a
"factsheet," Breaking the Silence, the sexually liberal group that originated Amendment One approvingly quotes retired Bishop S. Clifton Ives as describing the Constitutional Amendments as matters that "the General Conference approved after careful study and debate...." while accusing others of "hav[ing] resorted to distortions of the truth."
FACT: To the extent that Breaking the Silence can be trusted in their implication that Ives was including Amendment 1 in his frame of reference, Ives needlessly does tremendous damage to his own credibility, and by extension, that of MFSA, of which he is co-president. The same needless sacrifice of credibility applies to the Reconciling Ministries Network through their promotion of the "fact" sheet on their website. Anyone can go to the General Conference transcripts and read for themselves the extremely rushed debate--with just two minimal-length floor speeches allowed for each side and no clear acknowledgment of homosexuality as the driving issue for the amendment--by viewing pp. 2705-2706. If that qualifies as "careful study and debate" than "Row, row, row your boat" easily rivals any concerto by Mozart.
As for the many amendments dealing with the global restructuring plan, at one point during the GC debate on these, the simultaneous French translation completely cut out, thus abruptly dropping numerous African delegates (who would be most affected by the plan) out of the conversation.

Amendment #1 (Inclusive/Open Membership issue)

MYTH # 2: Amendment One proponents such as MFSA and the Reconciling Ministries Network have in various ways argued that this would not limit the ability of congregations/pastors to require membership classes for prospective members, exercise wise risk management with sexual offenders, and/or withhold membership from individuals seeking membership solely for cheaper wedding fees.
FACT: Discussion must be based on what Amendment One actually says, not what its proponents might like for it to say if they had a chance to re-word it. Elsewhere, an article/speech published online by the Reconciling Ministry Network asserted that Amendment One "would have the affect of repealing [Judicial Council] Decision 1032," which affirmed the historic right of Methodist pastors to discern the readiness of persons for membership. In other words, the argument of the "Reconciling" activists (at least among themselves) has been that this Amendment would prevent a UMC pastor from withholding immediate, on-demand membership from anyone who at least mouthed an affirmation of Christian faith, if the pastor's objection was based on the prospective member's failure to meet any other criterion (namely, abstinence from sex outside of a man-woman marriage). Yet the language of Amendment would equally strike down the imposition of any membership criteria (other than verbal affirmation of a Christian faith of some sort).
Everyone knows that Amendment One would not be promoted with the current zeal of its advocates, and never would have been written in the first place, if most people did not understand that it was designed to defrock any UMC pastor in any congregation who would dare to withhold or delay congregational membership (and hence leadership eligibility) for individuals not abstaining from extramarital sex. Yet Amendment One advocates have yet to produce a reason grounded in the actual logic and language of Amendment One for why the same mechanism throwing out membership barriers in these cases would not equally throw out the barriers for those failing to take membership classes (or failing to meet any other reasonable expectation beyond a one-time verbal affirmation of faith). As for "safe sanctuaries" policies, the fact is that that Amendment One would make it a chargeable offense for a UMC minister to prevent a known sex offender (who couldn't be barred from membership in any local UM congregation anyway) from joining any "organizational unit" of a congregation, including children's or youth ministry.

MYTH #3: Amendment One would not affect ordination standards.
FACT: As others have pointed out (highlighting an oversight in my earlier post on Amendment #1), Amendment One would change the final sentence of Paragraph 4 to "In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body." This sloppily broad wording could quite easily lend itself to interpretations such as that no UMC lay member, including those not abiding by current sexual ethics standards for clergy, could be denied membership in the "organizational unit" of an annual conference's body of ordained clergy (not to mention the countless less-intended chaotic consequences of this final sentence). Remember, anything in the Constitution automatically trumps the rest of the Discipline. I have yet to see any Amendment One proponent demonstrate that there are any effective, commonsense limits within the text of the Amendment/Paragraph itself for the proposed openness in ALL organizational units of the UMC.

"Worldwide Nature of the UMC" aka "Global Restructuring" Amendments

MYTH #4: This plan would keep such matters as theology and Social Principles within the jurisdiction of the general church rather than that of each regional conference.
FACT: No such limit exists in the texts of the Amendments themselves. While the General Conference also passed a companion resolution with a list of guiding principles for the proposed new global structure, and these included keeping doctrine and Social Principles within the domain of the international General Conference, the General Conference record shows that the decision was made to strike the provision that such guidelines be "binding."

MYTH #5: This would make the UMC more global.
We are already a very global denomination. By segregating American UMs in their own domain away from their overseas brethren, this would make us less, not more, global.

MYTH #6: This plan empowers the non-U.S. United Methodists.
The primary practical effect would be to systematically exclude non-U.S. United Methodists from large realms of denominational decision-making within which they are currently involved. Meanwhile, I have not seen anyone articulate how the plan would give the non-U.S. members more "power" beyond what they already have.

MYTH #7: This plan is needed to correct inequities currently suffered by the non-U.S. portions of the denomination.
FACT: It does nothing to address such inequities as the severe under-representation of non-Americans (especially Africans) in the UMC Council of Bishops and on its general boards and agencies.

MYTH #8: This plan helps move us away from colonialism.
This plan is prominently driven by a handful of white, Western bishops and amounts to largely deciding "what's best for those Africans" by dramatically increasing the relative decision-making power of the U.S. portion of the church at the expense of the allegedly benefitted Africans.

MYTH #9: This would increase efficiency.
It would add yet another major layer of cumbersome denominational bureacracy, requiring uncertain long-term financial commitments.

MYTH #10: This would help "save" the U.S. Western Jurisdiction by uniting them with the rest of the U.S. so that they could eventually have an theologically traditional bishop.
This in no way alters the current jurisdictional model for the election of U.S. bishops.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Some Questions for Advocates of UMC Amendment #1

Perhaps the most controversial of the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church on which the denomination’s regional annual conferences are currently voting is Amendment #1. This proposal would change Paragraph 4 of the UMC Book of Discipline as follows:

Inclusiveness of the Church — The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members,. and All persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.

(Key: Bold = added text; Italics = deleted text)

This amendment originated with a caucus group in Texas dedicated to liberalizing the denomination’s standards and teachings on sexual morality, particularly with regard to homosexual practice. It is being heavily promoted by the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA).

On the other hand, the Rev. Walter Fenton, new leader of the denomination’s oldest evangelical caucus, analyzed this proposal from another perspective a few months ago and analysis from a similar perspective is offered by prominent evangelical UM leader and civil rights veteran Maxie Dunnam. Meanwhile UM pastor, blogger, and UMReporter contributor Andrew Thompson has a thoughtful essay on the amendment apart from the baggage of the emotionally charged homosexuality debates (this link should get you there eventually).

Much of the discussions seem to involve a significance confusion about the significance of church membership, with the idea of that if you don’t grant immediate church membership that must mean that you don’t love or will not minister to them. This often seems quite devoid of any recognition of church membership as a serious matter, involving a solemn commitment to a covenant community of sisters and brothers, and eligibility for leadership in this community, and that it is quite possible to love and minister to people within your church without granting immediate membership.

It seems that much of this confusion comes out of the unfortunately myopic experience of some Amendment #1 proponents having only seen congregations in which membership is not treated that seriously and membership numbers are many times higher than that of weekly church attendance—with little appreciation for how dramatically contrary this is to historic Methodist practice as well as to the present reality of many thriving congregations of various denominations throughout the United States and the world. (In my last job I wrote more on this theme in advance of the 2008 General Conference).

The burden of proof is always on those making a positive truth claim or proposal, such as Amendment #1. Yet I have yet to see advocates of this amendment address some very key questions. Given my conviction that no annual conference delegate should vote for this amendment without having these questions first answered, and for the sake of promoting civil and substantive discussion of the issues, I post the questions here and would especially appreciate responses from those who have supported Amendment #1:

-Early voting results have shown significant opposition to this amendment. While this should of course not be binding on the rest of the annual conferences, should this at least give annual conference delegates some pause, and justify scheduling plenty of time for thorough and substantive debate rather than rushing to vote (as so often happens)?

-If the goal is really just to address questions related to homosexuality, why not come back in four years with another Constitutional amendment narrowly tailored to just address that, rather than this much more broadly-worded amendment?

-I recently spoke with a UM pastor who had an actual case of a man seeking to become a full member of his church for the sole purpose of seeking to organize a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan—in New Hampshire of all places! Other cases recently faced by pastors include someone seeking immediate church membership solely for the purpose of being able to participate in an upcoming congregational vote on a land sale in which this person had an interest and a man seeking to join a local congregation solely to harass and cause discomfort for his ex-wife that he had recently divorced in a mean-spirited and vindictive manner. Yet if this amendment passes the minister would be force to grant full membership (and hence leadership eligibility) to these persons upon demand. What positive good is served by depriving pastor’s of their historic role of compassionate pastoral oversight in these specific cases?

-The amendment seems to essentially change the Constitution from saying that no one who takes the vows can be denied membership because of race, etc. to saying that no one who takes the vows can be denied membership for any reason. Wouldn't the somewhat vague wording at least arguably conflict with the practice of many UMC congregations of having required new members' classes?

-Anyone who's seen motions get debated and amended at annual or General Conference can tell you this is often a very rushed process resulting in some embarassingly sloppy wording. This appears to be the case with Amendment #1. If "all persons," period, are eligible to receive the sacramentS," and this is placed in a separate sentence from the one mentioning "taking vows declaring the Christian faith," would this not mean that "all persons" demanding adult baptism shall be entitled to this sacrament, regardless of whether or not they profess Christian faith (as long as they don't seek membership)?

-Would removing the non-discrimination criteria from the final sentence of Paragraph 4 conflict with United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men excluding some UMC members on the basis of gender? What implications would this sentence change have for the myriad of sensible structural rules that, for instance, limit participation in certain "organizational units of the Church" to those affiliated with the annual conference related to this organizational unit?

-In my quiet time last night, I made it to Romans 15 and was struck by verse 7: "Accept one another then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God." This seems to raise some very fundamental theological questions underlying the Amendment #1 debate, such as: How exactly does Christ accept people? Do all individuals have personal sin to repent of, or is Christ's message simply one of affirming us as we are and not daring to call us to any sort of life change? How, if at all, should the Church have a structurally built-in expectation of human fallenness? And in the course of these debates, is our ultimate goal "to bring praise to God," or is it something else?

-This amendment would initially seem to firmly establish for all UMC congregations a divide in which no "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" can ever be ordained as clergy OR denied membership as laity. What exactly is the justification for establishing a rigidly two-tiered system of moral expectations for different members of the body?

-Many proponents of Amendment #1 have seemed to very unlovingly demonize the Rev. Ed Johnson of Virginia, in the course of their 4-year crusade to have this evangelical pastor defrocked, of which Amendment #1 is a part. Some of the rhetoric about him has been so distorted as to qualify as bearing false witness. Has anyone in the MFSA/Reconciling Movement spoken out against such unloving and truth-stretching treatment of him?