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By Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton

The Council of Bishops recently ratified the voting results on the 32 proposed amendments to the United Methodist Church’s constitution. The announcement made official what many assumed for the past several months: most of the amendments, 27 of the 32, failed to receive the two-thirds vote necessary from annual conference members in order to become part of the church’s constitution.

However, this news was still surprising for at least a couple of reasons.
First, annual conference members rarely if ever reject proposed constitutional amendments. After all, a proposed amendment invites the scrutiny of annual conference members only after more than two-thirds of the General Conference delegates have approved of it. Heretofore, the operating assumption has been that annual conference members will ratify what their elected delegates have already approved.

Second, nearly all the amendments not ratified failed by wide margins. For instance, proposed amendment I, having to do with the constitution’s article on church membership, failed to garner even 50 percent support from annual conference members. And even more startling, all 23 of the amendments originally offered by the Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church failed to break the 40 percent threshold.

Kansas Bishop Scott Jones, co-chairman of the task force, was surely correct in his analysis of the results when he stated that the “vehicle for change was flawed.” Ever the church statesman, Jones resisted blaming others. Instead, he noted that we must now look forward to create a better future together. The church surely needs to change, but the rank and file members, as Jones noted, did not think the proposed amendments were the correct “vehicle” to achieve that goal.

However, other bishops reacted quite differently.

Colonial, imperialist, and tainted

Retired Angolan Bishop Emilio DeCarvalho claimed the defeat of the 23 restructuring amendments was “a denial of our worldwide nature,” and kept in place a “colonial” structure.

California-Nevada Bishop Warner Brown maintained that the defeat of the amendments demonstrated that “those who have power have refused to share power with those who have less.” He also argued that the church’s unwillingness to pass the amendments was evidence that it continues to “wrestle with this imperialistic mindset that has labored under this term ‘Central Conferences’ for a long time.”

And finally, Virginia Area Bishop Charlene Kammerer, in an apparent reference to the voting process on all of the proposed constitutional amendments, said, “I feel like the process was tainted for the whole church.”
These are very serious charges, and church members around the world are right to anticipate further clarification from these bishops. On the face of it, however, it seems odd to accuse the rank-and-file members of perpetuating a “colonial” structure when the church as a whole has tried diligently over the past 40 years not only to reject, but to condemn colonialism. And the charge seems particularly off the mark when, as the United Methodist News Service reported, nearly 95 percent of the delegates in Africa joined their brothers and sisters in America and Europe in rejecting the restructuring amendments.

These bishops appear not to have entertained the idea that many United Methodists—whether in Africa, Europe, The Philippines, or The United States—simply did not think the restructuring amendments were the way to move forward at this point in time. Rather than accusing the people of the church of working out of an “imperialistic mindset” or “refus[ing] to share power with those who have less power,” it would have been refreshing had these bishops actually spent some more time reflecting on the results and then engaging the people in the pews in dialogue instead of assuming the worst of them.

Tainted process?

Bishop Kammerer’s conspiratorial charge that “the process was tainted for the whole church” is of a different order, and the entire church should eagerly anticipate evidence being provided of precisely how the process was “tainted.” During the 2009 voting process there were no reports made public by the United Methodist News Service, The United Methodist Reporter or any of the numerous monitoring agencies of the church regarding anything nefarious, irregular, or tainted. If new information has come to light, the entire denomination should be made aware of it.

On the other hand, there are some important lessons to be learned from the process.

First and foremost, it appears to be the case that most of the proposed constitutional amendments were either ill-considered and/or rushed through General Conference in great haste. For example, it is certainly true that General Conference delegates spent several hours considering the 23 restructuring amendments, but a review of the General Conference transcripts reveals that the debate just as often revolved around procedural issues for voting on them as it did on their actual substance.

Second, the vote on proposed constitutional amendment 1 was a classic example of rushing through a petition without due consideration. The proposed amendment came to a plenary session during the afternoon of Friday, May 3—the last day of General Conference.

Bishop Charlene Kammerer, the presiding officer during the session, gaveled the plenary back to order after its late afternoon break. Because of the huge volume of petitions and resolutions still to be considered before the close of the conference, the delegates were forced to constrain themselves to two one minutes speeches for, and two one minutes speeches against any given petition — even when such a petition was proposing to amend the church’s constitution. At 4:14 pm debate commenced, and by 4:25 pm it was over. And debate would have ended in half the time had there not been a glitch in the voting process requiring the delegates to recast their ballots.

There was no time to discuss the actual agenda behind the amendment, originally sponsored by a group called Breaking the Silence, an organization advocating on behalf of the “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer” communities. And many delegates were not aware that passage of the amendment could result in further church judicial proceedings around the practice of homosexuality.

Indeed, proposed amendment 1 was framed, and is still being erroneously framed, as if it were simply making sure “all people are eligible to attend worship services and receive the sacraments.” In actuality, the church’s current constitutional article on church membership already makes this perfectly clear and in no way needs to be amended to guarantee such rights. Even though the proposed amendment failed, all people are still “eligible to attend worship services and receive the sacraments.”

The process worked

In the end, United Methodists can be thankful their church’s constitutional process works. Nearly 50,000 annual conference members from around the world (about as close to the rank and file as the church can get) had several months, and in some cases more than a year, to familiarize themselves with the proposed constitutional amendments. They had the opportunity to talk with friends in their local congregations, read papers or view videos advocating for and against a number of the proposed amendments, and engage in dialogue at the district and annual conference levels before actually voting on them. Weary and overwhelmed General Conference delegates simply did not have these luxuries. Thankfully the church has a constitution that welcomes and invites further reflection and dialogue before doing something as dramatic as amending its constitution.

The church’s general boards and agencies would be doing their brothers and sisters a great service if they limited themselves to proposing far fewer petitions and resolutions to General Conference. Any fair minded observer of General Conference proceedings can easily surmise that the delegates are simply overwhelmed with too many celebrations, too many speeches and thus too little time to carefully consider thousands of petitions in precious little time.

One assumes that there are a number of bishops who want to commend grassroots United Methodists for taking the time to engage in robust dialogue around a number of very important matters, pray, and then vote in good faith. It’s disappointing that the leaders of our denomination could not jointly state with conviction: “The United Methodist Church has overwhelmingly spoken. Let’s move forward.”

The lost art of holy conferencing

One last issue needs to be addressed. United Methodism is in serious danger of utilizing the phrase “holy conferencing” with such carelessness and flippancy that it will lose its potency and meaning.

Is it not possible for good people to disagree without some of our bishops referring to the majority of the church as “colonial” and “imperialistic”—which are little more than veiled terms for “racist.” How will we ever be a unified church when Episcopal leaders choose to attack the motives of those who hold differing views, using the vilest terms possible? Holy conferencing calls us to believe the best of each other, respect differing views, and refuse to brand others in a way that condemns and marginalizes their voices.

We call on the Council of Bishops to condemn this type of language and urge those who used such language to issue an apology to the majority of the church who defeated the amendments, including the nearly 95 percent of African delegates who voted against the amendments. Likewise, we ask Bishop Kammerer to provide evidence that the voting process was “tainted,” or offer a personal apology to the church for making such a sweeping, unsubstantiated declaration.

Condescension, name calling and charges of a tainted process breed disunity and a lack of trust between the church’s people and its leaders. United Methodists around the globe have a right to expect better.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News. Walter Fenton is the Chief Operating Officer of Good News.
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