The Worldwide Methodist Movement
By the Rev. H. Eddie Fox
The church is global. In the miracle of Pentecost, people heard the good news in their own language. From the beginning, the church, which was born in a multicultural, multireligious society, had a world vision to "the ends of the earth."
Today the Methodist movement is worldwide in more than 130 countries with more than 70 million constituents. The United Methodist Church is approximately 30 percent of this global community of the "people called Methodists." The global Methodist family with roots in Britain and the United States of America is linked together in the World Methodist Council. One of our core values is the connection of our people.
It is appropriate and important for The United Methodist Church to study what it means to be a global church in today's world. How can we be more effective in spreading the good news of Christ Jesus in the world? The General Conference approved that such a study should be made, and a committee has been appointed to study the worldwide nature of The United Methodist Church.
At the same time this study was proposed, the General Conference approved amendments for changes in the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, which are related to the worldwide nature of our church. These amendments will have to be approved by two-thirds of all the delegates to all the annual conferences in order to change the Constitution. When the proposal to change the Constitution came to the Connectional Table, of which I am a member, I stated that the study should be done first and then make changes as needed based upon the clear vision for our church. In the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, we did not "open the gate" until we knew what would be coming through the gate. Some of the constitutional amendments simply change the name "central" to "regional."
However, there are amendments, which if approved by the annual conferences would have a major impact on the distinctive nature of our church. The result would be a regional conference in the United States. I am convinced that this will have a dramatic negative impact on our church, and these particular constitutional amendments should be defeated. Why would we change the Constitution as our first action before we do the study?
The rationale has been given that the General Conference is focused on U.S. issues and therefore, the regional conference in the U.S. is needed in order to focus on "national issues." The General Conference is a global conference, and today most issues are international in scope. When the proposal was presented to the Connectional Table, I asked why we would change this now when we have become more global in our membership. In 1968, 92 percent of the membership of our church was in the U.S.A. However, in 2008, 64 percent of the membership is in the U.S.A. When we meet in 2012, the ratio could be close to 50 percent. Why take this action now, when the growth of our church outside the United States has a positive, needed impact upon our life together? An African leader said to me, "I want to be present when decisions are made which impact my church." The current proposal about changes to the Constitution did not originate in Central Conferences in Africa. We need the presence of a global community to engage in conferencing when decisions are made which do impact the mission and ministry of our church.
In our preparation for and during the process of the General Conference, we need to work even more diligently so that Central Conference delegates are enfranchised. These amendments that will constitute a national regional conference in the U.S.A. move us away from the core values of the connection and toward a national church. We already see divisive consequences of such a national identity in other world communions. Of course, we do not know all that may transpire, but I am convinced that this sets us on a path that will have a negative impact on our "connection."
The result will be another layer in our church in the United States, which would continue to have jurisdictional conferences. In the 2008 Discipline the functions of the Jurisdictional Conference and the Central Conference are essentially the same. Another level with its financial cost and added bureaucracy will negatively impact our focus and worldwide ministry and mission.
There is nothing in the current proposed changes to the Constitution that states that the General Conference will continue to decide matters relating to ministry, doctrine or Social Principles. We are being asked to change the Constitution without knowing the impact of such a change. There is no clarity as to what belongs to a regional conference and what belongs to the General Conference. One can only imagine the debates in the future as to what belongs in each level of conferences for decisions regarding the covenant and ministry of our church. If the U.S.A. is a regional conference, we can assume that it will edit, adapt or alter the Discipline as central conferences currently do.
I hope that the delegates to the annual conferences in The United Methodist Church will vote "no" on these constitutional amendments, which will result in the creation of a regional (central) conference in the USA. To date there is no specific plan that has been presented, debated or agreed upon for restructuring of The United Methodist Church into regional conferences. To Change the constitution requires a "super majority" two-thirds vote. This is serious. If this is approved now it means that whenever changes are proposed from the study, even major ones, they may be implemented at another General Conference with only a simple majority.
Let us continue the study and then we shall hear the proposed changes with full disclosure and clarity. With such a study, the changes can be presented and, if reasonable and good for the movement, they will pass with the two-thirds majority, and we will follow the process of appropriately changing our Constitution. Therefore, I will vote "no" on these particular constitutional amendments, which will create a central conference in the U.S.A. Let's study, discuss, pray together and bring a vision with clarity to the next General Conference. At that time, let us take the appropriate action including any change in the Constitution.
--The Rev. H. Eddie Fox, Holston Conference, delegate to the General Conference
and World Director of Evangelism, World Methodist Council
*Read Bishop Scott Jones' rebuttal to this commentary here.