Slowly but surely, church leaders are combing through The United Methodist Church’s main policy book with one goal in mind.
They want to make clear what parts are essentials that bind all United Methodists together and what parts are nonessentials that can be adapted in Africa, Europe and Asia.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, in 2012 assigned the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to determine what in the Book of Discipline truly applies around the globe. In 2016, General Conference reviewed a draft of the committee’s work on chapters dealing with the local church, conferences and church property.
Ultimately, church leaders hope the 2020 General Conference will approve the standing committee’s recommendations as part of what they are calling a General Book of Discipline.
The central conferences are seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Like their U.S. counterparts — the five jurisdictions — central conferences encompass groups of annual conferences and oversee the elections of bishops.
However, unlike U.S. jurisdictions, central conferences have authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.
Guide to leadership bodies
The 43-member Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is a permanent committee of General Conference. It serves as a coordinating body that studies the structure and supervision of The United Methodist Church in Africa, Asia and Europe. It also has the General Conference mandate to make recommendations related to the General Book of Discipline.
In doing the work, the standing committee has the following partners:
- The 16-member Committee on Faith and Order, which works under the Council of Bishops to give leadership on matters of faith, doctrine, order and discipline.
- The 24-member Ministry Study Commission that works with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry to examine matters of leadership preparation and ordination.
- The 59-member Connectional Table, which coordinates mission, ministries and resources in The United Methodist Church.
For example, central conferences already adapt parts of the Discipline to accommodate the requirements of different property laws. They also, in some cases, have different ways of credentialing clergy.
Central and Southern Europe Area Bishop Patrick Streiff said the committee has heard feedback from U.S. church members that shows growing uneasiness that central conferences can adapt parts of the Discipline while the U.S. cannot.
However, he said, trying to address that uneasiness is beyond the scope of the current work on the General Book of Discipline.
“We need to be very outspoken that we work from the present constitution, and that we as a standing committee do not propose any constitutional amendments to the present structure and powers of jurisdictions and central conferences,” said Streiff, immediate past president of the standing committee.
General Conference already has determined that certain parts of the Discipline absolutely are not adaptable. Changing them requires at least General Conference action and possibly annual conference action too. Those parts are the Constitution, Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, The Ministry of All Christians and The Social Principles. The denomination’s teachings on homosexuality, a source of intense debate, are in the Social Principles.
That still leaves the Book of Discipline’s Part VI, Organization and Administration, which contains the chapters most directly related to organizing ministry in the central conferences. It’s also the biggest section in the denomination’s policy book.
Now in its sixth year on the project, the standing committee is collaborating with three other denominational leadership bodies — the Faith and Order Committee, the Ministry Study Commission and the Connectional Table. The standing committee also is incorporating feedback from annual conferences.
Some 75 church leaders from those groups met to continue the work on Feb. 8-12 at La Maison de l’Esperance, or House of Hope, a guesthouse owned by the Côte d’Ivoire Annual Conference. Ivoirians were so excited to host such an international gathering that the meeting made news on national TV.
Beyond the national attention, Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco — president of the standing committee — said he was pleased with the progress the church leaders made.
“What they are doing now, after the meeting, are working on how to write (the legislation) and how to organize it,” said Francisco, who also leads the Manila Episcopal Area in the Philippines.
He emphasized the work is ongoing. The church leaders will not make any final decisions about what to submit to the 2020 General Conference until they meet in March 2019 in Manila.
Much of what the leaders are doing is going through Part VI’s paragraphs one by one to see what can be adapted in local contexts. Whatever the committee deems adaptable, it plans to propose moving to a new Part VII in the Book of Discipline.
This new part of the Discipline will still apply to the United States, and at least in the immediate future, it will apply to central conferences as well until they adapt portions of it.
The church leaders have broken down the nearly 700 pages under review among three work teams. One of the teams is solely working on the chapter that deals with the work of church agencies, and another is solely working on the chapter that deals with judicial processes.
The team focusing on Chapter 5, which deals with church agencies, began its work by developing a “theology of agency.”
“From a theological perspective, the word ‘agency’ refers to the God-given ability and authority to act,” said New York Area Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, quoting from a paper fellow team members wrote. “Thus, individuals, congregations and conferences all exercise agency.”
That central idea informs his team’s work as it reviews the tasks assigned to the denomination’s general agencies, Bickerton said. In practical terms, that means his team is trying to preserve the essentials these agencies do while keeping in mind how other parts of the church exercise their own agency.
“We’ve found that simply trying to parcel out adaptable and non-adaptable in that chapter is just highly confusing,” he said. “We are making an attempt to look at what are the essentials that can be found in a rewrite that will encompass our theology.”
To carry out that revision, Bickerton said in a later session, his team will be consulting with the agencies’ top executives.
The work on the General Book of Discipline is just one of many denomination-wide projects that could make significant changes to the church’s top policy book.
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society, also at General Conference’s behest, is working with representatives from around the globe to propose revisions to make the Social Principles more globally relevant.
However, the effort drawing the most attention is the Commission on a Way Forward, which is looking at possible structural changes to help the church deal with deep divisions around the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. The Council of Bishops plans to submit legislation based on the commission’s work to a special General Conference in 2019.
During the Côte d’Ivoire meeting, the church leaders heard an update on the Way Forward Commission’s work. The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional ministries officer for the Connectional Table, asked what impact the commission might have on the ongoing General Book of Discipline effort.
Retired Bishop David Yemba, a commission moderator, acknowledged he could not answer her question.
“We have been given a task as this committee has also been given a task by General Conference,” said Yemba of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The standing committee’s next big meeting will take place after the 2019 General Conference.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.