Constitutional amendments - whether in government or in the church - should be taken with a great deal of seriousness. The United States has amended its constitution only 27 times during its 200-year history. The United Methodist Church, by contrast, will seek to amend its constitution 32 times in one year. (See here.)
Thirty-two amendments passed by the General Conference in 2008 will be before the annual conferences (including the Indiana conference) this year for ratification. Several, like the ones giving local pastors vote, should be approved. Others, however, would radically change the nature of our church and should be rejected.
An amendment to Article IV (Paragraph 4 in The Book of Discipline) would read: "all persons … shall be eligible to attend … services … and upon taking vows … become professing members." The paragraph is entitled "Inclusiveness of the Church" and as presently worded precludes discrimination based on race … color … or economic condition. By striking references to "race … color … or economic condition" the meaning of the proposed amendment shifts so that discrimination is precluded for any reason at all.
This amendment seems so simple, yet it is so deceiving. The implications go far beyond homosexuality in their unintended consequences. If the amendment becomes constitutional it will mean that no behavior, no motive, no belief system, no life style, would be deemed inappropriate for church membership. In other words, there would be no standards. If one is baptized and takes the vows (however he or she chooses to interpret them), that person would not need to be converted, or even believe in God, or take membership training.
Their motive for joining might be to harass an ex-spouse, or seek a reduced fee for a wedding, or gain credibility as a casino owner or a drug dealer. No matter. "Inclusiveness" would now mean there are no barriers whatsoever for any reason. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost if this proposed amendment is ratified.
Another amendment, or actually a series of 23 amendments, would divide the entire United Methodist Church into "Regional Conferences." It is addressed to a problem, namely, that the UM Church is so USA-centered that much of our present Discipline (and the discussions at General Conference) seem not to apply to overseas churches. The amendments would change church structure so that a shortened General Conference would deal with a limited general church agenda, and then Regional Conferences could deal with more localized agendas.
What is really happening is that while the U.S. church is shrinking, overseas churches, and particularly the African churches are growing. Thus the Americans, who give the money and have provided the leadership (at least to this time) for the whole church, might eventually have to share power with overseas churches.
The answer is to "Balkanize" the church. Americans handle American affairs and other churches handle theirs. This does not have the feel of a global church. It also has financial implications. For example, Americans would always be able to control how the Ministerial Education Fund is spent. At the moment American seminaries are subsidized $15 million a year from this fund while the African seminaries receive almost nothing. What would happen when Africans have enough votes to change how the funds are distributed?
Reasons for voting "no" on these 23 amendments are as follows: 1) This was not the idea of the overseas churches. It smacks of American imperialism. 2) We don't know the cost. It will obviously cost a lot more at a time when money will probably be harder to come by. 3) We don't know how the Discipline will be divided up so that some parts will be assigned to a General Conference and some parts to Regional Conferences. Better first to receive the report of the task force which is working out details, and then, if it makes sense, to approve the amendments. 4) The whole matter suggests racial and cultural separation. "Regional" conferences have the same feel as the old "Central Jurisdiction," which was nothing more than institutionalized racial segregation.
The idea of Regional Conferences may have some merit, but not until the church can see the details. For the moment these 23 amendments need to be voted down.
Rilely B. Case is a retired pastor of the former North Indiana Conference. He lives in Kokomo.
Editor's note: The 32 amendments coming to all annual conferences this spring are available online here.