Following the defeat of proposed constitutional amendments aimed at restructuring the United Methodist Church into a series of more-autonomous regional conferences, the bishop who heads the Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of the UMC is appealing for help in finding a restructuring approach that will gain approval across the denomination.
Speaking last week at a breakfast sponsored by the Wesleyan Renewal Movement, a group of clergy in the North Georgia Conference, Bishop Scott J. Jones said the defeat of the amendments shows a different approach is needed.
“There is lots of conversation going on, especially within the study committee which I chair, as to why they were rejected. But the most important question is how to move forward,” Bishop Jones said.
“The problems which gave rise to the [series of restructuring amendments] have not gone away,” he said. Those problems, the bishop noted, stem from an increasingly out-of-date structure designed for “a U.S. church with a few foreign outposts.”
In recent years, the United Methodist Church has grown rapidly in Africa and the Philippines, even as membership in the U.S. and Europe has been shrinking. At the next General Conference in 2012, 40 percent of the delegates will likely be from outside the United States.
Even so, the denomination’s Book of Discipline and the work of its general boards and agencies remain U.S.-focused.
“Can you understand the frustration experienced by…non-American delegates?,” Bishop Jones asked.
“They come all the way to the U.S. for a meeting and spend 12 days working on U.S. issues and paying little attention to things that matter [to] their own home conferences,” he said.
Bishop Jones said one task facing the Worldwide Nature committee is to make recommendations regarding which parts of the Book of Discipline should apply to all United Methodists and which parts should be “adaptable to local contexts.” The Discipline allows central conferences to make certain “changes and adaptations,” but the language is imprecise (see paragraphs ¶31.5 and ¶543.7) regarding the types of alterations that can be made, the bishop noted.
Our current situation is this: All of the Book of Discipline applies to [conferences in] the United States, [while] central conferences [i.e., outside the U.S.] can adapt portions of it…. I am going to ask four questions to which I do not know the answer….
- Can a central conference — on principle — refuse to ordain women?
- Can a central conference decide to ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals”?
- Can a central conference amend the Social Principles?
- Can a central conference ordain deacons only as a transitional stage toward ordination as a elder?…
[The Worldwide Nature study committee has determined] that a few things are so crucial to the worldwide unity of the church that they must always be decided on by the General Conference and that no variation among central conferences should be permitted.
The list begins with the Constitution, our Doctrinal Standards, doctrinal statements including the Social Principles (PDF), the mission statement, and basic descriptions of episcopacy, ordained ministry, and annual conferences….
We’ve agreed that issues of human sexuality, including ordination, must remain the responsibility of the General Conference. Further, we’re not proposing any new layers of bureaucracy….
[W]e’re working toward deeper connections throughout the church, greater local authority, and more equitable sharing of power and representation around the world…. But to claim this future we must remove a long list of blockages that are preventing us from moving forward….
It’s clear from the votes on the constitutional amendments that there needs to be a lot more conversation across the church to discern how best to live into that worldwide nature.
Bishop Jones argued that what that should tie United Methodism together around the world should not be an abundance of structural rules, but rather a relatively small number of requirements that directly relate to core doctrine and common mission.
Imagine a copy of the Book of Discipline that had only those things in it that would truly be applicable to every United Methodist conference in the world. What if we went back to the old name as the Doctrines and Discipline of the United Methodist Church?
You can listen to Bishop Jones’ 20-minute presentation, “The Worldwide Future of the United Methodist Church,” below — or right click (Windows users) to download an mp3.
The text of his remarks, as prepared for delivery, is here (PDF).
Bishop Scott J. Jones, formerly a professor of Evangelism at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, is the episcopal leader of the Kansas East and Kansas West Conferences. He was elected to the episcopacy by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2004.
His books include:
Bishop Jones posts material on United Methodist doctrinal and theological issues at ExtremeCenter.com. The website of the Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of the United Methodist Church is WorldwideUMC.org.
The Wesleyan Renewal Movement, the group to which Bishop Jones spoke, describes its purpose as seeking “to promote the election of delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences who are committed to ensuring the Book of Discipline and the election of bishops reflect [the] principles of Wesley and the Bible.”
The group sponsors a breakfast each June, concurrent with the yearly gathering of the North Georgia Annual Conference, the largest U.S. annual conference in the UMC.
Previous WRM breakfast speakers include Dr. Bill Bouknight, now an associate director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church, and Dr. Jimmy Buskirk, founding dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Oral Roberts University.