The Wesleyan Covenant Association last week released its draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, which provides the framework for a new denomination that the WCA expects will form out of the current turmoil in the UMC, either as a result of a split or as a way for individual departing congregations to regroup.
The WCA has stated that their preference is for a split along the lines of the Indianapolis Plan, which was endorsed by both the WCA leadership team and last weekend's Global Gathering. Under the terms of the Indianapolis Plan, the new denomination would include not only US Traditionalists, but also many from the central conferences, who become part of the new denomination by default.
The expectation that United Methodists from the central conferences will become part of this new denomination raises a fair question: What would the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines (D&D) mean for United Methodists in the central conferences?
First, a disclaimer: the D&D as released is a DRAFT. Significant sections, including one on conferences, are yet to be written. Existing sections may be significantly modified. Yet, despite this caveat, the draft D&D contains enough to have some sense of the implications for the central conferences.
Second, a note about authorship. The WCA stated that a 16-person team wrote the draft D&D, but they did not state who these 16 people were. 15% of the WCA Council is from the central conferences, and there have been people from the central conferences speaking at all WCA events. Yet, given the overwhelmingly American nature of both the Council and Global Gatherings, it is likely that the writing team for the D& was overwhelmingly American.
Moreover, the recent Global Gathering does not appear to have been streamed in any central conferences, so there appears to be limited involvement by the United Methodists from the central conferences in affirming the draft D&D.
However, if the central conferences except for Western Europe were to join the new denomination, along with, say, 25% of US membership, then Methodists from the central conferences would represent 75% of the membership of the new denomination.
Thus, there's already an issue in a (likely) largely US group making decisions that will impact a largely non-US group. That pattern is not confined to the WCA but is unfortunately all too common in the UMC as a whole.
Let's turn now to what the draft D&D says. I'll discuss four points:
1. Central conferences and episcopal areas, as they are now, cease to exist.
The draft D&D refers only to annual conferences and regional conferences. Regional conferences are primarily about overseeing shared ministry. They do not have the power to elect bishops or adapt the D&D, and thus are significantly different from central conferences, as they currently stand. Moreover, the draft D&D envisions bishops serving a single annual conference, not episcopal areas of more than one annual conference. This leads to my second observation:
2. Ending episcopal areas would force a massive reorganization of the central conferences.
Currently, in many places outside the US, bishops serve multiple annual conferences. Requiring each annual conference to have its own bishop would either result in many more bishops or many fewer annual conferences outside the US, or both. To cite just one instance, would the 2,000 United Methodists in Poland get their own bishop, or would they become a district of some transnational annual conference?
In whatever way such questions are answered, this new denomination would require a massive reorganization of current UMC central conference structures. Any such reorganization is likely to have significant economic, legal, and church political implications.
3. There is not currently any indication that people outside the US will be able to adapt the D&D.
When the section on Conferences is written, this power may be given to annual conferences outside the US, but currently the draft D&D makes no provision for adaptation by context.
This raises at very least some legal and logistical questions. The draft D&D includes extensive rules around trusteeship. Will these rules meet the legal requirements for all countries in which this new denomination would function? The draft D&D requires an online database of all pastors and open appointments. Will this apply to remote congregations in the DRC as well?
In general, the draft D&D seems to repeatedly presume a US context of formal organizational rules and procedures, easy printing enabling frequent use of forms and paperwork, and easy internet access. These conditions do not exist in many parts of the UMC around the world.
4. Bishops are significantly weakened in the new denomination.
Under the draft D&D, bishops are term-limited to twelve years. They also have curtailed powers, including a hybrid call/confirmation system for pairing clergy with congregations instead of the current appointment process.
Bishops, especially in Africa, are currently positions of great power and usually great respect. Bishops in Africa serve for life after winning 1-2 elections. They frequently have the power to appoint not just clergy, but leading laity as well.
Thus, the proposed reduction in the powers of the bishop would go over much differently in Africa than in the anti-institutional, anti-bureaucracy culture of the United States. Of course, views will differ among Africans, and Filipinos and Europeans will have still other views, but this change is not likely to be as welcome in the central conferences as in the US.
In short, the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines struck me as overwhelmingly US-centric and often unaware of the consequences its proposed changes would have for the central conferences.
This raises an open question: Does this proposal mark the end of the road for the coalition between US Traditionalists and United Methodists from the central conferences, especially Africa?
That coalition has been founded on mutual opposition to homosexuality. But we've seen with the African bishops' statement opposing a split and opposing plans written without central conference input, that the interests of US Traditionalists and Africans are sometimes opposed to one another.
US Traditionalists may find that joint opposition to homosexuality is not enough to incentivize most Africans and Filipinos to follow them into a new denomination that would make radical changes to the church in their lands, changes that they had, at most, a minor role in determining.
The African bishops' statement said, "We cannot allow a split to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. As Africans, we have the right of self-determination and we have the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be." Whatever the future of the UMC in the US, Africa, and elsewhere, we should take Africans at their word when they speak of self-determination.