by Chris Ritter

“Africans have their own Book of Discipline.  Why do they get to vote on ours?”  I have heard several versions of this comment in recent days.  It is probably time for a review of what central conferences (bodies overseas) can and cannot do to adapt the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Central conference liberties (¶¶543.7 and 543.16) have been mentioned by Americans often over the past few years as the African vote has become an obstacle to liberalization of our sexual standards.  Darryl Stevens wrote a commentary published by the United Methodist News Service highlighting a rule passed by the Liberian Annual Conference banning divorced persons from being considered for bishop.  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.  The Liberian Conference action, however, ran afoul of Judicial Council decision 1278 and was the Central Conference level.  It turns out that we do live under the same rules.  The liberties granted Central Conferences are both misunderstood and overstated.

Searching for Disciplines

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 the Drew archive 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 Western European United Methodists would love to liberalize our stance on human sexuality.  If they could have, they would have.  They can’t.

Since there are three African central conferences, there are theoretically three African disciplines.  I held my first African Book of Discipline just last year.  The current edition was published in the 1990, nearly thirty years ago, and stands beneath our general discipline.  It contains a section called “Special Advices” that addresses topics unique to the African context, like dowries.  It repeats our UM position on divorce, but makes explicit that divorce should not be used as a way to get rid of a barren wife.  It is obvious that the African discipline stands subservient to the UM Book of Discipline.  It is more of an interpretation than a separate set of rules.  The fact that no one bothers to update it speaks two things.  (1) The general Discipline, updated every four years,  is the main governing document, and (2) the African church runs more on relationships than rules.

Central Conferences Cannot Adapt Our Ministry Standards

The U.S. was not too worried about diversity of approach when we mandated the Central Conferences 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… “contextualization,” and all that.  The lesson: We don’t mind there being only one set of rules as long as we Americans 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 Cannot 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, for example, attempted to add a statement against genetically modified food.  The Judicial Council later ruled that such adaptations were not allowed and the adaptation was removed.

Other adaptions were attempted through the process of translation into different languages.  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.

The One Church Plan, defeated with the help of African delegates, would have changed the view of marriage for the entire church.  The plan gave central conferences a space of time of which they could vote to deviate from the OCP for their own context.  That reserval, however, would have been incomplete.  The Social Principles, for example, would have stayed in place.  And the plan would have forced Africans to be part of denomination where bishops and clergy practice things understood to be incompatible with Christian teaching.

It is time for United Methodists in the U.S. to get over our central conference envy.  The thriving church in Africa is not a problem but our greatest success story.   Africans are accountable to our Book of Discipline and have as much right as any United Methodist to participate in shaping it.