by Chris Ritter
As the presidential primary season in the US moves into full swing, some in the Democrat Party are surprised to learn the nuances of how their upcoming convention is populated. Besides the elected delegates whose loyalty is pledged to a particular candidate, certain party dignitaries are granted vote, as well. These “superdelegates” can vote however they want.
Voters sometimes resent the liberties granted superdelegates. Similar umbrage is taken among some United Methodists as we approach our own quadrennial gathering. The narrative goes like this: “Delegates from our international ‘central conferences’ make up nearly half of General Conference, but they don’t have to abide by what is decided. They get to tell us what to do but can adapt our rules to suit their own situation.”
Central conference liberties (¶¶543.7 and 543.16) are mentioned often by progressives. The United Methodist Church has a mostly traditionalist stance on homosexual practice. The growing number of African delegates, it is thought, is serving to reinforce the status quo. The UMC is perhaps the only mainline denomination that has not either split or liberalized on this issue. The ability of our seven central conferences to adapt our rules is the justification given for a list of proposals that would silence these international bodies as rules affecting the U.S. church are framed.
As far back as 2008, the “Worldwide Nature of the Church” legislation passed at General Conference was widely rejected in ratification because it became tied up in the sexuality debate. It would have put Africa under separate rules and prevented central conferences from having voice in rules affecting the US. A move continues toward creating a thin “Global Book of Discipline” that would be accompanied by separate beefier versions used in the U.S. and central conferences. Another proposal from the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Global Restructure Task Force adds yet another layer to our church in an attempt to get Africans and Americans under separate rules. There is even a group that wants to create “The Central Conference of the United States.”
Darryl Stevens wrote a recent commentary published by the United Methodist News Service highlighting a rule passed by the Liberian Annual Conference stating they will not nominate anyone for bishop who has been divorced. Stevens cites this action as an example of the varied cultural landscapes in which United Methodism operates and argues that a spirit of Connectionalism does not require that we all live under the same rules. He makes repeated reference to the fact that central conferences are granted the power to adapt our Book of Discipline. Liberians, however, were not using any special “central conference liberty” when they defined their own internal process for selecting their episcopal nominees.*
The liberties granted Central Conferences are both misunderstood and overstated. Central conferences are not “superconferences” that can do whatever they want. As with most issues in the church, there is some history that needs to be understood.
FIRST, CENTRAL CONFERENCES CANNOT CHANGE OUR MINISTRY STANDARDS
The U.S. was not too worried about diversity of approach when we mandated the Central Conferences to accept female clergy in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Judicial Council Decisions 142, 147, 155) before most felt culturally ready to do so. The central conferences only had token representation at GC, but we told them at the time that uniformity of approach was good for the whole church and the right thing to do… everywhere. Now that African delegates actually have a more proportional seat at the table and help us make the rules, some here are making the case that we can’t expect UM’s from across the globe to be bound by the same standards. We want to compartmentalize them. This seems like double-speak and a manifestation of our sense of Western privilege. We don’t mind there being only one set of rules as long as we are the ones making them.
Yes, central conferences have to live with the same ministry rules as the rest of us. Consider Judicial Council Ruling #313 in response to a European central conference’s attempt to customize the ministry standards there:
The power to establish standards, conditions and qualifications for admission to the ministry is a matter of distinct connectional importance and is initially placed by the Constitution in the General Conference. The General Conference has acted to establish the basic obligations and qualifications of candidates for license to preach and for admission to probationary membership in an Annual Conference (Pars. 318 and 326), and has thereby pre-empted this authority until expressly delegated by it. The general power conferred by the General Conference on a Central Conference to make changes and adaptations regarding the ministry and other subjects (Par. 631.9) does not authorize a Central Conference or its Annual Conferences to add to or subtract from the basic ministerial obligations established and pre-empted by act of the General Conference.
SECOND, CENTRAL CONFERENCES CANNOT CHANGE OUR SOCIAL PRINCIPLES
When the Social Principles were adopted in 1972, there were early attempts in some central conferences to customize them. These attempts were later reversed at General Conference and by the central conferences themselves.
The Northern Europe and Eurasian Central Conference makes the following statement in the preface to its Discipline:
When the Social Principles were introduced in 1972, Northern Europe Central Conference initiated a hearing process in the annual conferences, which lead to a number of adaptations in the Nordic edition of the Book of Discipline in 1976. Since then, however, the General Conference has made it clear that the power to adapt is related to “the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area…, especially concerning the organization and administration of the work on local church, district, and annual conference levels.” (¶543.7) It is difficult to interpret this as a power to change the Social Principles. Principles have to be implemented in a variety of contexts, but the same church cannot have different sets of principles. Most of previous adaptations have been in paragraphs that later have been changed, and therefore “disappeared”. Remaining in BoDNE 2000 was only the one in ¶160.F about “Food Safety”, where a single sentence has been inserted: “We will not accept that our food is genetically manipulated.” It is now removed.
Some tweaks are made, however, in the process of translation into different languages. Darryl Stevens wrote for the North Carolina Religious Studies Association about the history of central conferences translating the Social Principles. The German version of the Social Principles at one time contained perhaps fifty alternations that slightly affected the meaning, such as the statement that United Methodism “interprets the Bible in such a way that it cannot approve the practice of homosexuality” rather than “considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” The German version has since been brought into tighter alignment with the general discipline.
THIRD, CENTRAL CONFERENCE “BOOKS OF DISCIPLINE” ARE NOT THAT BIG A DEAL
Paragraph 543.16 of the BOD authorizes central conferences to publish their own “central conference discipline” that contains adaptations of the general discipline. While this sounds like it grants carte blanche to our central conferences to write their own rules, the adaptations they can legitimately make are very limited. Several months ago, I contacted the library at Drew University where the United Methodist Archives are housed. The UMC theoretically has eight books of discipline simultaneously in effect. Where are these shadowy central conference disciplines? The librarian, who was otherwise very helpful, didn’t have them. I wondered: “If Drew doesn’t have them, do they even exist?”
If one digs around online deep enough, the European versions can be found. Here is one. The changes are extremely mundane. Property laws are adapted to the European context. “University Senate” is replaced with another body. The changes made are quite minimal. Many European United Methodists would love to liberalize our stance on human sexuality. If they could have, they would have. They can’t.
I have yet to get my hands on an African book of discipline. (If you have access to one, please let me know). My sense is that our African brothers and sister don’t spend a great deal of time pouring over the written rules like we do in the U.S. They are fairly unified in their vision of the Christian life and do not engage in legislative warfare like American United Methodists.
FOURTH, CENTRAL CONFERENCE “CANNOT NOT” BE CENTRAL CONFERENCES
A proposal endorsed by two Texas General Conference delegations makes promises it cannot it possibly hope to keep. It seeks to create a “Central Conference of the United States” (CCUS) to work on U.S. only issues. The CCUS would not create any new bureaucracy, we are told. It is almost as if the framers of this plan view a central conference as a magical legislative body where anything is possible.
A “conference” in our polity is not just a meeting. It is by design a standing bureaucratic layer with duties and responsibilities. You cannot have BOTH a central conference in the United States AND our existing jurisdictional conferences. They have nearly identical functions. Both elect bishops, organize for the work of ministry, and set the boundaries for their constituent annual conferences. The category of “central conference” is not just a meeting where we can go make rules.
The only way a “U.S. Central Conference” would make any sense is by abolishing the Western, Southeastern, South Central, North Central, and Northeastern Jurisdictions. The politics of such a move are completely unworkable. Central conferences have very defined responsibilities and these are virtually identical with our jurisdictional conferences. Central and jurisdictional conferences cannot stop being what they inherently are because someone in the United States wants to write some new rules. And, as stated above, if you want a body that can change our ministry standards and Social Principles, you don’t want a central conference anyway. They can’t do that.
It is time for United Methodists in the U.S. to get over our central conference envy. Central conferences are not super conferences. The humble liberties granted to our international bodies were done so in acknowledgement that the United Methodist Church is a quintessentially American denomination. The thriving church in Africa is not a problem but a great success story. It is unsightly how we triangle African delegates into our domestic disputes instead of learning from their witness. If we want to fix what is broken in our system, we need look no further than our own shores.
If granting liberties is what is needed, we will need to expand these liberties well beyond those currently granted to central conferences. We will also need to do so in a way that avoids causing one side to “win” at the expense of the other. I am an advocate for a comprehensive settlement at General Conference 2016 that ends the political gamesmanship. As for the Africans and other central conference delegates, they have earned their seat at the table and I will not be part of any plan that sends them away.
* This may very well be subject to review in light of Judicial Council decision 1278 which reads: “No restrictions on or evaluation of candidates for bishop may be made other than the requirement that the candidate be an elder in full connection in an annual conference of the central conference.”