by Chris Ritter
A structural plan for the UMC has been proposed by the General Conference delegations of the North Texas and Central Texas Annual Conferences. Called “A Place of Reason”, the proposal calls for the creation of a “U.S. Central Conference”. The purpose of the plan, it is said, is to “create space for U.S. issues.” The authors claim they avoid adding another layer to our bureaucracy and that the proposal would not change the basic functions of other structures:
There are no additional judicial or episcopal groups created, no central conference level boards or agencies. These functions are already and can continue being served within our existing structure. It makes no changes to the existing central conferences outside the US. Their structure and the way they operate are not impacted by this legislation.
The idea is that the U.S. Central Conference would convene at times and locations proximate to our quadrennial General Conferences in order to minimize expense. This would be a U.S.-only body working on issues specific to the U.S. church (in the Philippines in 2024 and Zimbabwe in 2028.)
The actual proposed legislation for 2016 is thin. There are four constitutional amendments that would allow for the creation of “the Central Conference of the United States” (CCUS). These require super-majority passage and ratification in annual conferences around the world. The CCUS would be empowered to make changes and adaptations to The Book of Discipline. In addition to the constitutional amendments, there is also less than 200 words of enabling legislation in Par. 567 that creates an “Interim Committee on Organization” (ICO) to work on organizing the new conference, which would first convene just before GC2020 in Minneapolis. I assume the ICO would develop further legislation governing the work of the CCUS to bring to GC2020.
The legislation does not mention human sexuality, but the effort is viewed as a further attempt to put U.S. conferences and congregations under our own rules related to homosexuality. The growing number of culturally conservative African delegates has been voting as a bloc with U.S. traditionalists to keep our rules, well, conservative and traditional. Africa gains about 200,000 United Methodists each year while the U.S. loses around 100,000. Progressives are losing hope they can get the results they want at General Conference and want to create a body where they will enjoy greater representation.
Beyond any political gamesmanship that might be at work, we have to ask whether the proposal makes sense for the United Methodist Church. To develop an answer for this, we first must consider what a Central Conference is.
There are seven Central Conferences in the United Methodist Church. They all operate outside the U.S. as geographic clusters of annual conferences. There are three in Africa, three in Europe, and one in the Philippines. The duties of these Central Conferences are spelled out in our constitution in Paragraph 31 and are nearly identical to the duties of our U.S. Jurisdictional Conferences: 1) Promote ministry within their territory, 2) elect bishops, 3) establish boards and agencies to get their work done, 4) set the boundaries of their annual conferences, 5) make certain adaptations to the “general discipline” as may be required, and 6) appoint a judicial court to determine the interpretation of their particular rules.
The only difference between a U.S. jurisdiction and a central conference is the ability to adapt some parts of the Book of Discipline. This allowance was originally made in acknowledgement that we were founded as primarily an American church and our international bodies might need to make some adaptations to fit their cultural realities. Our Judicial Council (Supreme Court) has, over the years, incrementally tightened the adaptations allowed by our Central Conferences as to make this provision extremely limited. (See Judicial Council decision 313, in example). The only published “Central Conference Disciplines” are from Europe and the scant adaptations involve certain changes in wording to make our property rules relevant to European law**. Attempts to adapt, say, our Social Principles, have been struck down. European United Methodists would have already liberalized their rules on human sexuality in their central conference if they could. They can’t. The Judicial Council decision cited above specifically forbids central conferences from making adaptations to the clergy standards found in the BOD, something necessary for any central conference to achieve an affirming stance on same sex relationships.
To say we are going to create a “U.S. Central Conference” AND retain our five jurisdictional conferences is impossible under our present polity. Jurisdictional Conferences elect our bishops, set annual conference boundaries, etc. So do central conferences. The type of constitutional re-working needed to make the phrase “U.S. Central Conference” even reasonably coherent would put us at 1968 levels of legislative change. Simply adding some wording that says it can happen does not address the larger vision for how our denomination functions.
Under the “A Place of Reason” plan, the U.S. would have an extra layer of conferencing that the rest of the world does not have. A European conference, for instance, has their annual conference, central conference, and General Conference. The proposal would give an U.S. conferences an annual conference, jurisdictional conference, “central conference”, and General Conference. This seems patently unfair. Although I am critical of the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Global Restructure Plan to add another judicatory layer church-wide (Connectional Conferences), at least they give all United Methodists the same opportunities for conferencing.
Understanding what a Central Conference is also nullifies the claim that there would be no further bureaucracy. Creating another layer of bureaucracy is what Central Conferences do… by design. This function would certainly clash with the mandate already given to our jurisdictional conferences. The plan would be much more coherent if it proposed doing away with our five jurisdictional conferences in favor of the new body, but this is not what is offered for consideration.
It frightens me a bit that two entire General Conference delegations would so fundamentally misunderstand our polity as to make such a proposal and endorse it. A jurisdiction and a central conference are basically the same thing. You can’t have both serving the same geography without totally changing the very definitions of key denominational structures. I also wonder if it is not a bit naive to think that a U.S.-only body would be any less conflicted than General Conference. The divisions we face do not run solely along international borders. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that.
Having been mostly critical of the plan, let me say a word of appreciation to the delegations involved for at least working to offer a constructive proposal. We are a church desperately in need of solutions. Peer review is my way of honoring their work. I very much agree with the stated goal of reaching a solution that allows us to refocus on mission and ministry.
I have authored a plan that would give the power to adapt the Book of Discipline to each our U.S. jurisdictions and allow each annual conference to join any of the jurisdictions they like. This way forward uses structures we already have in place to allow for diverse ministry approaches while avoiding violations of conscience around issues of human sexuality. I invite you to take a look at the complete legislation for amicable unity here.
**This is true as far as my research has taken me. Even the United Methodist Archives at Drew do not have copies of Central Conference Books of Discipline (as of 2015 when I inquired).