Gender Justice and Regional Conferences

This is another piece I’ve been working on about the constitutional amendments and gender justice:

This year there will be a flurry of proposed amendments to the United Methodist constitution that will be voted on by lay and clergy members of annual conferences across the connection. Since many of these amendments affect the structure and polity of the worldwide denomination, one must be aware of how our current structure and proposed amendments impact issues of gender justice for women. In our deliberations it should be recognized that there is a history of gender justice issues against women in general and particularly full clergy rights for women in the central conferences. Judicial Council Decisions 155 and 172 (, “Our Church” tab – Judicial Council) are examples of this controversy from decades ago that precipitated the desire for autonomy from some of our former central conferences. However, this is not just a sad saga from our not-so-distant-past. There are current situations both overseas and in the United States that threaten gender justice for women. Therefore, these amendments are not new issues, but call us to sharpen our understanding of United Methodist ecclesiology and its specific ramifications for women.
This has personal importance. My daughter is an Elder in the South Carolina Annual Conference. It would be an anathema if she were not welcome to serve as a clergyperson in any of our annual conferences whether in central conferences or jurisdictions. In addition, we declare (¶ 215.4, 2008 Book of Discipline) that any baptized or professing member of any local UM congregation is a member of the “global United Methodist connection …” By our common baptism we are all, male and female, called to be servant leaders. This means that there must be no discrimination or gender bias across the connection.
“Connection” is the operative word in deliberating these amendments from an ecclesiological and justice perspective. In my second quadrennium as a member of the denomination’s Connectional Table, in my role as a District Superintendent, and as an Adjunct Professor for “United Methodist Discipline and Polity” at Candler School of Theology, it is keenly apparent to me that we are and must be a connectional church. Each of these venues adds to my perspective on connectionalism. At the Connectional Table the effort is made to holistically bring resources and mission together for the entire United Methodist Church. Then there is the fact that District Superintendents are one of the most visible signs of the connection between the greater Church and the local Church. From a local perspective in SC, 4 out of 12 District Superintendents are female while the AC percentage of female clergy is near 20%. Unfortunately, as a District Superintendent, there are those churches that are still reluctant to have a woman as their pastor. In polity class one sees the Wesleyan distinctive of sanctification shaping our way of being and doing church. After all, our book of polity is not called a Book of Suggested Rules, but a Book of Discipline. The theological underpinning of our book of polity’s title and the reason we care about social issues is wrapped up in our historic understanding of sanctification: God makes disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.
Connectionalism is the primary vehicle for this distinctive theological emphasis in the United Methodist Church. It is our connectionalism that promotes a unity of purpose across the denomination. With these worldwide structure amendments we are voting on connectionalism and how that supports our theology. Key in this discussion is whether or not sanctification looks the same in every context. There are things that are universally good, and things that are contextual. The problem is in deciding the difference. This is where one encounters potential difficulties in our current ecclesiology and that which is proposed. These present and proposed difficulties directly impact gender justice issues. At issue is the little-known but factual diversity of adaptations of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. ¶ 543.7 states that “A central conference shall have power to make such changes and adaptations of the Book of Discipline as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require, especially concerning the organization and administration of the work on local church, district, and annual conference levels, provided that no action shall be taken that is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of the United Methodist church., and provided that the spirit of connectional relationship is kept between the local and the general church.”
If these particular amendments pass, not only will central conferences be able to adapt the BOD, but so will the United States regional conference or conferences (Cf. Judicial Decision 1100, Fall 2008). This fragmentation and diocesan ecclesiology will divide our denomination and reverse Wesley’s adage, “The world is my parish.” This fragmentation leaves great room for latitude and could cause divergent opinions to run amok. It is usually the marginalized who suffer the most in a hands-off approach to local autonomy. Left to do as each area of the church pleases breaks our connection and the checks and balances necessary to protect those who need it most. To ensure connectionalism and gender equity perhaps we need to clarify with absolute certainty the non-negotiables of our entire denomination. With sensitivity toward cultural relevance, ¶ 543.7 needs to be tightened up.
It does not even cover the Social Principles, and, because of that, they differ across the connection. These adaptations are accepted because they are not in violation of the constitution or the General Rules. However, some adaptations of the Social Principles may violate the “spirit of connectional relationship” mentioned in ¶ 543.7. Te Social Principles are not church law but they do impinge on church law in deciding the character of those who serve on the Church Council (¶ 244.3) and the use of United Methodist property (¶ 2532.3). Now to be sure, there are no Social principles that have been discovered or Special Advices, an additional set of rules/guidelines that many central conferences have, that overtly discriminate against women. However, the numbers tell a provocative story. They beg one to ask what is the state of our connection if these amendments are approved and regional adaptations are allowed.
What happens to regional attitudes toward women? For instance, there are no female clergy in one European annual conference. The number of female clergy in two African annual conferences is miniscule, 7 out of 438 or .015%, and 7 out 134 or .05% respectively. The total female percentage reported by the thirteen conferences for which we have up-to-date records is 11.6%. This includes conferences in Europe, Africa, and the Philippines. There is nothing that is written in those Central Conference or Annual Conference’s Social Principles that officially denies women’s ordination or clergy privileges. However, the fact remains that a number of annual conferences outside of the United States have very few clergywomen. The U.S., if it were a separate Regional Conference, has statistics that are telling in terms of gender justice, too. There are 44,842 clergy in the U.S. UMC, and 10,378 are female, or 23.1%. The percentage of female laypersons is 57.6%. Of U.S. Bishops, 28% are female, and, of U.S. District Superintendents, the percentage that is female is 26.8%. The issue of gender discrimination is certainly a question to ponder as we vote to change our constitution and ponder our historic connectional identity as United Methodists. Perhaps the better path is to allow the Worldwide UMC Study Committee to complete its work for the 2012 General Conference before we constitutionally codify a system that perpetuates the possibility of gender discrimination.

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