By Linda Green

FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS) - Would making The United Methodist Church in the United States a regional body be the best way for the denomination to function as a worldwide body?

Ten speakers explored that question during a Jan. 25 panel discussion during the Pre-General Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist Communications.

General Conference, which meets every four years, is the denomination's top legislative body. During its meeting April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, the 2008 assembly will consider proposed structural changes to the denomination that acknowledge the fact that the church is growing outside of the United States and that 30 percent of United Methodist members now live outside the United States.

Proponents say the structural changes would make the church more effective and equitably organized for worldwide ministry. Opponents say the changes may actually serve to fragment the denomination into national entities, among other things.

A task force examining the issue has proposed four substantive changes to the denomination's constitution in an effort to make regional and jurisdictional structures similar worldwide. Task force members say the current structure gives the U.S. church too much influence and marginalizes United Methodists in Africa, Asia and Europe.

The constitutional changes would pave the way so that legislation could be proposed to the 2012 assembly that would eliminate U.S. concerns from General Conference. Those concerns instead would become the business of a U.S. regional conference.

Specifically, the legislation would make the church's five jurisdictions in the United States a regional body, similar to the church's central conferences that currently exist outside of the United States.

The six-member task force has sent 24 petitions to General Conference to make changes in 24 paragraphs of the constitution. Most of these changes are grammatical or change the words "central conference" to "regional conference."

The committee, chaired by Nebraska Bishop Ann Sherer, also will ask General Conference to allow the task force and the Connectional Table to jointly continue their study of the church's worldwide nature and report to the 2012 legislative assembly.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote of General Conference delegates and must be ratified by two-thirds of the aggregate annual conference voting members.

Kansas Bishop Scott Jones, a task force member, said the proposal does not change the number, purpose and function of jurisdictional conferences; the way bishops are elected or assigned; the purpose or mission of any church-wide agency; the size or power of General Conference; the way the Social Principles are decided upon or amended; or the apportionment formulas and allocations.

The proposal seeks to examine how the church should to carry out its ministry in a world that is increasingly interdependent, he said.

Two panelists disagreed with the proposed structural changes.

"The church is global. We do not have to make it global," said the Rev. Eddie Fox, a staff executive of the World Methodist Council. "On the day of Pentecost, it was declared global. God spoke and God understood."

Fox questioned why a "global" proposal would create a national U.S. entity, particularly at a time when the church is becoming more global and the number of delegates to General Conference from outside the United States is increasing. He called changes to the church's constitution "a very serious matter" and said the proposal's language is problematic because it would mandate central conferences.

Fox questioned the desire to push international delegates away from the discussion table on matters related to the United States. "More and more, every decision we make affects the whole world just as it affects one spaceship called earth," he said.

The Rev. Tim McClendon, a district superintendent in the South Carolina Conference, said he feared the proposal would make the church more fragmented instead of more connected.

"We would lose the important voices of those outside the United States, and we would be left among ourselves debating issues upon issues upon issues that lead us into schism," he said.

Both Fox and McClendon said the 62 proposed word changes to the church's constitution move the denomination toward the unknown.

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Linda Green serves as a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.