Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.
Last week, I listed a run-down of the various systemic changes that are underway in The United Methodist Church related to becoming a more global denomination. These include a set of global Social Principles, a global Book of Discipline, and adding more bishops to Africa. I also mentioned the debate on human sexuality, which has potential implications for global polity.
In examining the timeline for these various plans for the denomination, one can see a potential problem. The first three proposals, related to the Social Principles, Book of Discipline, and bishops, are intending to collect information at General Conference 2016 but not take final action until General Conference 2020. The debate over sexuality is likely to come to a head in 2016, and most proposals surrounding that debate are focused on 2016 only.
Thus, these conflicting timelines present a danger: that the UMC could make dramatic changes in polity in 2016 to resolve debates about human sexuality that would derail longer-term, more deliberate efforts to develop a more globally-even and less US-centric polity in 2020. Of course, not all proposals to resolve the sexuality debates significantly alter UMC polity, and the proposal from the official Connectional Table does not do so. Nevertheless, a larger number of the other proposals do call for significantly altering how the UMC is structured in the US and abroad.
In pointing out this potential problem, I am not arguing against all changes in UMC polity, nor am I arguing against resolving debates over human sexuality. What I am arguing is that changes in polity hastily made to resolve one issue are likely to cause a large number of other problems. I think the processes in place to develop global Social Principles and a global Book of Discipline are promising processes and must be allowed to play out without being short-circuited by American Methodists' need to resolve their issues regarding sexuality. That is an important issue needing resolution, but the Central Conferences' need to see changes in polity for the sake of greater local flexibility and greater equality with the US must not be sacrificed for the sake of primarily American concerns.
Many readers will remember that at General Conference 2008, a series of resolutions were passed that significantly changed UMC polity to make the denomination less thoroughly US-centric. These resolutions, though passed by General Conference, were voted down in the Annual Conferences, in large part over fears that they would have opened the door to greater acceptance of homosexuality. At that time, the sexuality debate derailed the UMC's efforts to become a more global denomination. We must not let the same thing happen again in 2016.