by Chris Ritter

I want to address a significant inaccuracy repeated in the recent update by The Commission on a Way Forward.  As justification for the Local Option, the claim was made that central conferences can currently establish their own ministry and marriage standards apart from those approved at General Conference.  This is simply not the case.

The Commission describes the “One Church Model” (Local Option) as follows:

“Under this plan, each conference would be able to decide whether to ordain LGBTQ individuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary or receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination of LGBTQ clergy would not be required to do so. Central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — could maintain their own standards on ordination and marriage, just as they do now. The model would essentially make legal what is already happening in some parts of the connection.” (emphasis added)

[Update:  Heather Hahn, the author of the article, issued a quick and helpful response stating that the phrase “just as they do now” will be removed from her article.  I wish to express my gratitude to Heather and state that I don’t fault her for the error as she was simply passing along the description of the One Church Model as it came to her.**]

The liberties assigned to our seven central conferences are defined in BOD ¶¶ 31.5, 543.7 and 543.16 and are routinely misunderstood and overstated.  The narrative usually goes as follows:  “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.”  Not so.  The history is actually quite the opposite.  Here is some clarifying information:

Central conferences are fully accountable to our ministry standards.

The U.S. was not too worried about contextuality 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 contextualization. This is the very definition 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.

Central Conferences are accountable to United Methodist marriage standards.

When Western missionaries went forth to Africa and other parts of the developing world, they carried the clear message that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.  When people converted to Christianity, they were expected to conform to this teaching.  Many family arrangements were disrupted as practices of polygamy were halted.  The truth is that our marriage standards are just as counter-cultural today in some parts of the world as they are in the Western world… only in different ways.  Polygamist pastors are disallowed or subject to trial based on the standards set at General Conference.

The African Central Conference has an addendum to the Discipline called the “Special Advices.”  This speaks to several matters in ways unique to their context, including marriage.  The Special Advices are divided into five sections: Christian stewardship, entertainment, temperance, marriage, and tribalism and are offered in the spirit of the words of advice given by Wesley to the early Methodists, as mentioned in our General Rules.  Older Disciplines all contained a “special advices” section.  The African version makes more explicit the expectations of our church around the topic of polygamy and interprets dowry customs, but it nowhere mentions homosexuality.  This document stands beneath the United Methodist Book of Discipline, not above it.

Central conferences cannot change or adapt 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 led 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 challenges arise in the process of translating the Discipline 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 alterations 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.

Central Conferences have their own Disciplines (sort of), but they must tightly align with the general Discipline.

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 permission 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 actual African Book of Discipline.  It seems they are not often published and updated.  I am assured they do exist, however.

Conclusion

Changes made under the “One Church Model” at General Conference 2019 would be in effect for the entire global church unless The Commission offers a new mechanism for exempting them.  Short of this, there would be no basis to disallow a pastor in a same-sex marriage in Africa, the Philippines, or elsewhere.  The claim that an exemption from UMC standards currently exists for the central conferences is simply not so.

 

** Heather Hahn from UMNS pointed out in her helpful correspondence with me that there is some practical variation in ordination standards, but these arise at the annual conference level in the form of rule-bending.  She cites the Philippines where it is very difficult to get pastors through school for license as a local pastor given the various island locations, so exceptions are often made in granting sacramental rights.   Divorced clergy have faced scrutiny in Liberia.  She noted Poland dragged its feet on women in ministry and is only now in the process of approving its first female candidate for ordination.  She notes that the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is currently working on what should be adaptable and what should be standardized.  She says their recommendations will come before General Conference 2020.  I want to thank Heather for her excellent reporting on the Way Forward and I do no fault her for the erroneous wording.

 

Photo Credit: http://dataremixed.com/2016/11/fact-check-fact-check-fact-check/

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