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Bishop Bruce Ough

(Photo credit: Mike Dubose/ United Methodist News Service)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

At its first meeting of the 2013-2016 quadrennium in Nashville, Tennessee, the United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table revisited liberal-driven efforts to limit African influence on the U.S. church and addressed the need for dramatic change to reverse our denomination’s U.S. decline.

Global Segregation Plan Revisited

A chunk of time in the January 15-17 meeting was devoted to the complexities of our denomination’s increasingly global nature.

Zimbabwe Annual Conference lay leader Betty Katiyo celebrated the increased participation of African United Methodists in the 2012 General Conference, but lamented that even now, for the most part, “the cream of African professionals is not given the opportunity to serve in”  denominational leadership positions. Reporting that “[t]he church in Africa is not as poor as it is portrayed,” she urged all portions of the denomination to start contributing to global church’s apportionment funds. Katiyo suggested that African United Methodists could “take you [Americans] back to doing class meetings the Wesleyan way,” and rather than resting on the laurels of their much-celebrated growth, “should be proactive now and learn from you where you went wrong,” for the sake of avoiding the same mistakes. She also noted how the denomination’s structure and official policies can all seem very distant and U.S.-centered to many African United Methodists.

Much of the discussion revolved around the Global Segregation Plan, the name critics give to a failed proposal to create a new U.S. regional conference to address certain issues without non-American input. The 2008 General Conference endorsed the Global Segregation Plan amidst much confusion, including the simultaneous French translation for many African delegates cutting off at one point in the debate. But after people had more of a chance to consider the plan’s implications, it was overwhelmingly defeated in the annual conferences. It was opposed by 95 percent of African United Methodists, who saw through supporters’ misleading propaganda to understand that its primary practical effect would have been to drastically curtail African influence in the life of our denomination. The Global Segregation Plan was energetically pushed by liberal caucuses, who touted it as a vehicle for eventually theologically and sexually liberalizing the U.S. church. At last spring’s General one such caucus attempted to resurrect a version of the Global Segregation Plan, but it died in committee with only token support. Since then, the rhetoric of theologically revisionist activists has clung to reviving a Global Segregation Plan as their last hope for dragging our denomination into sexual liberalism.

So Connectional Table members were treated to a rehashing of some of the same old talking points for the Global Segregation Plan in a presentation by the Rev. Bruce Robbins, an outspoken proponent of globally segregating the denomination and a pioneer in recent efforts of radical UMC clergythreatening mass disobedience to our denomination’s prohibition of same-sex blessings. He lamented that the Council of Bishops had not done more to promote the Global Segregation Plan. Robbins also used his platform to suggest that American United Methodists should change their theology related to sexual morality for the sake of conforming to recent trends in American public policy, and to attack the Book of Discipline’s sex-is-for-heterosexual-marriage standards as preventing United Methodist clergy from “responding to pastoral needs.” Robbins also proposed reducing the size of General Conference, which would skew the balance of representation in favor of small, theologically liberal regions of the church.

Ironically, the business sessions of the three-day meeting opened with a staffer’s exhortation to the assembled  “bigwigs of United Methodism” to remember Christ’s contrast of Christian leadership to the heavy-handed lords of the Gentiles, and ended with German Bishop Rosemary Wenner’s commending bridge-building, which “begins with listening.” Yet if the leadership of the Connectional Table was seriously committed to such values, then why was the structured discussion of the Global Segregation Plan so completely one-sided, with only caricatures rather than any direct representation of those who opposed the Global Segregation Plan, which happens the expressed position of the vast majority of both our denomination’s grassroots leadership worldwide and the relevant committee of the most recent General Conference?

Both Robbins and the Connectional Table’s chairperson, Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas/Minnesota Episcopal Area, noted that unspecified individuals from the radicalized Western Jurisdiction (which is dramatically over-represented on the Connectional Table) have recently petitioned the Connectional Table to take some action related to global segregation, given “the urgency” of sexual morality concerns. This will be addressed by a “Worldwide Nature of the Church” group to be formed by Bishop Ough.

U.S. Church Still on Unsustainable Path

Church consultant Gil Rendle led members in an “intentionally messy conversation” on vital congregations, echoing much of the earlier work done by the Call to Action Steering Team in the last quadrennium. Warning once again that the UMC faces a future of either “deep change or slow death,” the Rev. Rendle noted that the U.S. portion of the denomination is on an unsustainable course of rising costs meeting shrinking participation, and remains stuck in a ministry model designed for a very different point in American culture. He also cited a recent study that found that only 15 percent of the denomination’s U.S. congregations are “highly vital” while another 35 percent are on track to close by 2030.

He lamented that the denomination is asking congregations “to make disciples without practicing discipleship,” even at the clergy level. He admitted that he himself had become a United Methodist, a minister, and a Christian in that order. Rendle urged recovery of “the old model from the church fathers who understood that  making disciples is messing with people’s lives, giving them encouragement, or challenge, where needed.”

But Rendle also unhelpfully dismissed the idea that the theology adopted by a congregation was directly related to its level of “vitality.” Rather, he argued for a sort of theological relativism, asserting that both theologically conservative and theologically liberal congregations would thrive as long as they were clear about their identity. Furthermore, in noting American culture’s growing skepticism towards absolute religious belief and openness to interfaith syncretism, Rendle was unclear on whether he was advocating for the American church to pander to such trends in secular culture or to simply be more aware of its mission field.

Several Connectional Table members offered their own ideas. Gil Hanke, national head of United Methodist Men, promoted us moving to a high-expectation church culture. Jane Finley of North Georgia similarly noted the need for laity to partner with pastors in ministry rather than just pay to be entertained. Bishop Mike Coyner of Indiana noted that before evangelizing “those people [who] need help,” “we first need discipleship for ourselves, then we have something to offer.”

Other Business

Another major part of the agenda was dividing members up into four “missional administration” committees for the next four years. The one charged with efforts to influence General Conference is notably stacked, including half of the Connectional Table’s Western Jurisdiction members, as well as Fred Brewington (as chair) and Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, both of whom have notorious track records of advancing divisive liberal causes at recent General Conferences through heavy-handed abuse of power and blatant dishonesty.

It was noted that the last General Conference referred to the General Council on Strategy and Oversight (GCSO) a proposal for a systematic rewriting of the Social Principles to become “more succinct, theologically founded and globally relevant.” The GSCO would have been created to replace the Connectional Table if Plan UMC had not been ruled unconstitutional. Bishop Ough noted that such a rewrite of the Social Principles would be a huge process that the Connectional Table would need to begin this April, “if we decided to embrace it.” Given its skewed balance of drastically under-representing Africans and dramatically over-represent the most radical wing of the U.S. church, the Connectional Table is hardly the ideal body for such a task.


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