Dear Media, General Conference is not Popular Opinion. It’s Congress.

There’s an unfortunate narrative being perpetuated in the days since the Frank Schaefer appeal in the secular news coverage, and it merits correction. Some examples:

MSNBC Hardball:

Host: We’re always talking about in the general public that attitudes are shifting so much, have you seen since this whole issue started until today, has there been a shift in the church that accounted for this ruling?…At the national level of polling, it’s gone over 50% in support, an outright majority support same-sex marriage in the United States: where is that split, that number, in the United Methodist Church?

MSNBC The Last Word:

O’Donnell: It seems like this is the period where the UMC is reconsidering whether there should be a penalty.

NYTimes:

The appeals panel’s decision comes as public opinion, the legal landscape and religious doctrines toward gay rights are rapidly changing, often with considerable conflict. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, and it is now legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C.

WBUR:

4:50 – Look at the times, the times are changing. People are changing their minds on this, look at the polls.

Here’s the problem: While reporters can look all they want at the majority opinion, the truth is that Doctrine created by General Conference does not reflect the majority opinion of the United Methodist Church.

General Conference is basically Congress

The Methodist Church came about alongside the American Revolution and thus the makeup of the church today resembles the three branches of the U.S. government:

  • Executive Branch = Bishops who are episcopal leaders for particular regions, and General Boards who put into action the legislative mandates.
  • Judicial Branch = The Judicial Council which interprets legislative action and executive action in light of our canon law (The Constitution, Restrictive Rules, etc).
  • Legislative Branch = The General Conference, made up of delegates chosen by representative proportionality, which meets every four years to consider changes to our book of doctrine.

General Conference is thus comparable to Congress in that the delegates are allocated based on church membership population and they write the church laws.

 Representative? Not Really.

The influence of caucus groups, political action committees, and special interest dark money means that Congress is not representative of the people. While money doesn’t mean success (ie. Eric Cantor, circa 2014), money and caucuses do heavily influence who sees the candidate’s message and thus elects them to Congress.

Delegate selection for General Conference is also a political event not unlike electing Congress. I know because I participated in two delegate elections in 2007 and 2011. In Oklahoma, the Mainstream United Methodists and the Wesley Fellowship caucus groups had their slates of who to vote for, and both times the only delegates elected were on those slates. In a Texas conference in 2007, the entire delegation was line-by-line the same as a Confessing Movement voter guide. I’m certain other annual conferences have similar experiences. The result is that the delegates elected represent the caucus groups interest, not the average Methodist in the pew.

Representative bodies are never truly representative, but controlled by politics, and the same can be said of General Conference in the United Methodist Church.

Proportional? Not Really.

General Conference is also similar to Congress in that Congress does not accurately reflect the majority of US citizens.

For example, Congress’s religious makeup offers significantly inflated numbers of Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians compared to the general population. Congress’s economic makeup of over 50% millionaires absolutely doesn’t reflect society. Even with a majority of US citizens affirming marriage equality, Congress could not possibly pass a law supporting it due to its makeup.

Likewise, General Conference does not reflect United Methodism very accurately.

For years since their proportional takeover in 2000, Traditionalists have claimed that General Conference is not representative of United Methodism. In Joe Whittemore’s analysis of the 2012 General Conference, he states:

[The] Philippines Central Conference, despite a reported decline of nearly 28 percent in membership since delegation sizes were calculated for the 2008 General Conference, will nonetheless see a 14.3 percent increase in the size of its 2012 delegation…Meanwhile the European Central Conferences, despite a overall membership loss of 8.5 percent, will see no impact on the size of their delegations…The 2nd/3rd-largest areas of the UMC, the United States’ Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions, respectively, will see their representation diluted…The SEJ, with 24 percent of total UMC membership, will have 22.3 percent of delegates. The SCJ, with 14.4 percent of members, will have 13 percent of delegates.

The noted lack of 100% proportionality is because General Conference includes a bit of the Senate makeup: mandatory minimum representation by an annual conference. Regardless of how small the conference is, regardless of how small that mission field is, they get a lay and clergy voice at the table. Why the South complains about losing a few delegates when they hold the 2nd/3rd highest voting blocs is beyond me.

Regardless my question is: why do we expect our church’s legislative branch to reflect majority opinion when we don’t expect our country’s legislative branch to do so?

American Popular Opinion? Not really.

Finally, to hold General Conference accountable for representing popular opinion in the United States is to forget that the United Methodist Church draws its delegates from across the world.

The journalists I’ve heard make the comments above are probably completely unaware that the United Methodist Church is a global church with over 40% of the voting delegates coming from outside the USA. Yes, the USA is moving quickly on marriage equality. Every new poll has equality creeping up. So it’s a logical question for these journalists to ask “Is the United Methodist Church that out of step with the rest of the nation?

Obviously the answer is No…but we’re not sending delegates to GC that only represent the United Methodists in the US, in contrast to the delegations of the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the ELCA Lutherans who have made progress on human sexuality. Our American UM family is growing in its support of LGBT equality at least as rapidly as the nation, which is now majority supportive. But given our different system, the delegates that are sent to GC do not accurately represent the polls regarding full inclusion.

A Proper Framework for GC

As you can see by the above, General Conference is neither proportional (due to valuing all voices at the table) nor representative (due to politics just like Congress and a voting delegation that is not just national). To compare General Conference action to popular opinion in the USA is to forget that legislative bodies, like Congress, are political and not proportional representations of the public.

In the secular world, this is why most places win civil rights victories via courts, from district to SCOTUS, and why it’s all the more amazing when legislative bodies pass something like marriage equality (ie. in Vermont). Hence why in recent years since the heavy politicking began of General Conference delegates, most of the progress towards LGBT inclusion has been made by courageous bishops, fair-minded judiciaries, and bold annual conferences who are all outside of the legislative process.

The sooner we get into our heads that the doctrine of the United Methodist Church is not written by–nor honestly representative of–the majority of American United Methodists, but rather is the product of a terrific-but-flawed international political process, the better off we’ll be.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe) says

    One other note that seems to be missed a lot…

    Delegates to GC are delegates, not representatives. Annual conferences send persons not to represent them but rather to participate in the process of deliberation and decision making for the whole global connection (except, of course, Central Conferences can alter a good bit of what is decided at GC).

    The talk about “proportional representation” that was rampant at GC2012 (and starting to bubble up big time at GC2008) misses this key polity point. I would imagine if some of the new “proportional representation” language were brought up for a Judicial Council challenge, JC would rule it unconstitutional or at least non-Disciplinary.

    • says

      I probably sound like I only know one song, but the more I think and pray about where the UMC is as a denomination, the more Taylor’s reminder that “of course, Central Conferences can alter a good bit of what is decided at GC” haunts me. It’s not that I don’t the church should allow for cultural context; it’s that we allow for cultural context everywhere but the USA. And it’s that one piece that seems (in my estimation) to confuse the conversation more than anything else.

      • Julie A. Arms Meeks says

        Dalton, speaking as your neighbor, I know you don’t only have one song. I know we are “privileged” to be from the #2 AC in terms of size (we still are #2, aren’t we?). We have a LOT of votes at GC because of our size – I will never be elected a delegate because of the Joes and their like – because I’m too progressive, unlike most of our laity who get elected. I DO think we need cultural context for the USA, not just for the rest of our global connection. If US funding assists the global church and allows them to make necessary distinctions for their “local” needs, then the US should have some autonomy in making distinctions appropriate to the US frame of mind, particularly when it comes to full inclusion of the LGBTQ among us.

  2. Laura says

    Speaking to your statements about slates and voting guides: My guess is that this is true of more than just Oklahoma and “a” Texas Conference, and certainly true if you open it up to the entire SCJ and SEJ where the Confessing Movement and Good News folks have such a stronghold. I personally witnessed a conversation years ago at the end of the election process in which one person interrupted a hallway conversation to ask movement leaders how a particular (progressive) person was elected. The response from the leader was, “It’s okay, we let that happen.” The power displayed in past years has been astounding, but with more and more citizens and United Methodists embracing full inclusion of LGBT persons in our churches, these caucus groups will be more and more limited when it comes to finding and supporting GC candidates who will vote to keep our current exclusionary laws. This is why we see the same delegates showing up at GC for long stretches of service. Perhaps we need limits on how many times any one person can serve as a GC delegate.

  3. says

    I’m really interested in knowing the median age of GC delegates, particularly among the laity. I have a feeling that most of them are retirees, who are going to have views that are a skewed representation of the UMC as a whole.

  4. Linda says

    When I was in active ministry in the West Ohio Conference, there was a heavy attendance factor in the calculations for apportionments. Consequently there was pressure on the congregations to keep their church rolls trimmed of inactive members, regardless of the objections of family members of those inactives. At the time, tho, I heard rumors that some of the southern US conferences were not so fastidious in maintaining their membership rolls. If this is true, it would affect the reported membership from the conference and thus the number of delegates elected. Does anyone have any understanding of how the calculation of apportionments or record-keeping may reflect in the size of delegations to GC? Or is all this thinking bogus?

  5. Linda says

    The delegates to any of these conferences would necessarily skew to the more well-off members as well as those who are retired. Attending GC is an expensive undertaking for some of the laity.

  6. Chuck Wolfram says

    My main concern with this blog is the statement beginning “Doctrine created by the General Conference…” The General Conference is not, or should not be, in the business of *creating* doctrine. Doctrine is, and doctrine should influence our decisions on what to do, but doctrine should not be up for a vote. There are the restrictive rules….
    I participated (so far) in two elections of laity to the General Conference and I have never seen any candidate lists or voting guides other than the list of all declared candidates.

    • John says

      Chuck, this may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s not. GC is continually revising our doctrine, which strictly speaking, constitutes the teachings of the church. What the Restrictive Rules protect are our doctrinal standards (Articles of Religion, Confession, Sermons & Notes, etc), which themselves set the bounds for GC action on doctrinal matters.

  7. says

    I don’t think progressives want to go down the road of talking about fair or proportional representation, because they are wayyy overrepresented at the General Church level – specifically from progressive jurisdictions and conferences – and especially at the Connectional Table.

    • says

      That’s a nice story, Drew. However, as I OPENLY TALKED ABOUT above, the reason for the discrepancy is the minimum votes per annual conference. WJ has several annual conferences who are at the minimum–I’m in one. If you want to make it 100% proportional, then that’s entire annual conferences without a vote. Or increasing the number of delegates to the 2000s where the minimum wouldn’t be hit.

      Again, the SEJ (your jurisdiction) has the 2nd largest voting delegation. That you are missing a few delegates because 1/5 of the land mass of America should have a few votes is the cost of being in missions. You all voted for it; we clearly didn’t have any persuasive power in the 2000 proportional vote.

        • says

          I don’t know the makeup. Point me to the numbers and how they are in discrepancy.

          Most of the General Boards reduced their board sizes in 2012, which would reduce the costs to the General Board but would increase the relative percentage of the vote that a lowly single WJ delegate would have. I know the entire WJ has only one vote at the GCFA board: a DS from Arizona.

          Again, the only way to give SEJ/SCJ their 100% proportional vote would be to increase the board’s size to beyond the minimum rep for the West–which is counter to the GC2012 votes. It’s math.

          • says

            I’m struck by how this conversation has turned from “progressives are over-represented at the Connectional Table” to “progressives are responsible for the makeup of the Connectional Table.”

            To your first assertion, I counted ONE Western Jurisdiction representative and ONE other representative who resides in the Western Jurisdiction (aside from the Bishops, who are assigned by the Council). That’s 1/21 of the jurisdictional delegation. The West is the bare minimum–if you have a problem with it, blame your voters from the SEJ in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.

            To your second assertion, which you imply to be the Progressive’s fault, the votes to redistrict the boards of many of the General Boards (including the Connectional Table) were passed at GC2012 after the PlanUMC was deemed unconstitutional. They passed en masse with 80% of the vote: I fail to see how that is the Progressive’s fault. If you have a problem with it, blame your SEJ voters in 2012, and write legislation for 2016.

            Drew, I appreciate your critical voice in church unity, but you’ve got to stop parroting false narratives that fall short of objective math and history. They may fly in SEJ, but they don’t fly when any dissonance is in the room.

          • John says

            Jeremy, I appreciate that the 1/21 representation by WJ is minimal, but to return to Drew’s point, non-USA membership is almost 40% of the UMC but has approx. 10% representation on the CT. Regardless of the reasons WHY that is the case, it nonetheless IS the case.

          • says

            Of course it is wrong. But why aren’t you writing to YOUR delegates to make that happen? I’ll tell you why: the only way to get fuller representation to the worldwide church is to take delegates from the north and south…the west would not be affected. Are your delegates willing to reduce their voice so the CT would be more equitable? I doubt it.

          • John says

            Jeremy, thanks for the suggestion to request my delegates to give more voice to the overseas portion of the church. I will do so. I’m afraid I agree with you, however, that they would strongly resist the idea of giving greater voice to those who may not share their worldview.

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