Many of you know that I’m on the Worldwide UMC Study Committee. There are 20 of us who are trying to discern the direction and shape of our denomination across the world. We are progressing with our work by beginning with a very important question: What are the core principles of the United Methodist Church?
I can think of many such as connectionalism, the constitutive principles of conference and general superintendency, personal & social holiness – sanctification in personal life and justice ministries in the world, evangelical witness (Making disciples for Jesus Christ/MD4C), Wesley’s Scripture Way of Salvation (Stages of Grace), the Quadrilateral as a means of doing theology, hymnody as a vehicle for doctrine, itenerancy and sent ministry, our Doctrinal Standards, the General Rules, minimum standards for credentialing clergy, accountability by local churches and clergy to our covenant community, inclusivity, gender equality, proportional representation, and multiculturalism. I know there are more core principles, but these are the ones that jump out at me.
The question posed to us that is also EXTREMELY important surrounds the reason we’re working on our ecclesiology. You may remember that this study committee arose from the constitutional amendments that were put before each annual conference over the past year. Those amendments would create one or more (Judicial Decision 1100) US regional conferences. The votes have not been certified by the Council of Bishops and won’t be until their May 2010 meeting. The last numbers that I heard were that they were failing by a huge majority.
There are those on the left (However you define such labels) who would love for the US to have the ability to adapt the Book of Discipline (Par. 543.7) as the Central Conferences outside the US do. The primary goal as stated by several members of our committee is so that a separate US regional conference would be able to change its position on self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Conservatives don’t mind the shift to regionalism for a much different reason: money. Right now the areas outside the US pay very little into apportioned general church funds; only a sliding scale amount into the Episcopal Fund. While conservatives would love to keep African votes on human sexuality, the economic downturn has made the price too steep. Unfortunately the same argument works even in the US. There are some from the US Jurisdictions that are larger who are tired of paying the freight for jurisdictions that are declining. Either way, and I KNOW that what I’m saying is overly simplistic, the rationales for moving away from our connectional polity are driven either by sexuality or money, AND THOSE ARE TERRIBLE REASONS TO CHANGE OUR ECCLESIOLOGY.
It seems to me that it would be more simple to change Par. 543.7 and be more clear about what is adaptable and what isn’t, and call all central conferences “jurisdictions.” I don’t want us to lose the non-negotiables of what I think are our denominational hallmarks/core principles at the expense of rearranging the deck chairs on the UMC Titanic, creating regional conferences that are antithetical to Wesley’s “The World is my Parish.” The bigger questions about all of this are “Why are we doing this? What is our vision why this will enhance the missional effectiveness of the UMC?” Duh?
But as quick as I am to pooh-pooh the whole effort, I have to admit how complex this is. Sure, we don’t need a US-centric hierarchy or focus; but I ask the question: Would we still legitimately be UNITED Methodists if we allowed too many regional permutations of who we are? What is unalterable and what is adaptable? What are our core principles that should remain intact. Help me out, weigh in!