Understanding the Christmas Covenant
By Thomas Lambrecht -
The Connectional Table, our denominational equivalent of a church council for the whole church, recently endorsed the Christmas Covenant, a proposal submitted to the 2020 (now 2021) General Conference by an annual conference in the Philippines. It was written by a diverse group of international delegates and mirrors a similar proposal submitted by the Connectional Table itself. The Christmas Covenant is one of the top legislative priorities for centrists and progressives at the upcoming General Conference. It is important to understand what this proposal involves and how it would dramatically change our denomination.
The Christmas Covenant proposes the decentralization of our global church governance. The United States and each of the seven non-U.S. central conferences would become a regional conference. The key reason for doing this is to make each regional conference self-governing. The regional conference would be empowered to change any provision in the Book of Discipline for its particular region. The General Conference would have to vote by a two-thirds majority to disallow a change enacted by a regional conference or to lock in any provision of the Discipline as unchangeable.
In the U.S., the five jurisdictions would continue as they are currently. Over them would be a regional conference for the whole country that would set the policies and requirements for the church in the U.S. And those policies and requirements could be different from those governing the church in parts of Africa, Europe, or the Philippines. Each region would have broad autonomy.
The General Conference would decide how many bishops each region would have, but the regional conferences would elect and decide where to assign each bishop. In the U.S., the regional conference would decide how many bishops each jurisdiction would have, but the jurisdictions would elect their bishops and assign them. Bishops would be accountable only to their jurisdiction or to their region, not to the general church.
These dramatic changes to our church’s structure and governance would require the wholesale rewriting of the church’s constitution. One of the submitted petitions makes substantive amendments to 11 different articles of the constitution, along with other name changes. These amendments would require a two-thirds vote to pass General Conference and an affirmative vote by two-thirds of all the annual conference members to ratify the changes.
In the interim, while annual conferences are voting on the amendments, the Christmas Covenant proposes that the 2024 General Conference have a U.S. Regional Committee, composed of all the General Conference delegates from the U.S., along with two representatives from each of the seven central conferences outside the U.S. This committee would serve as a U.S. legislative committee (similar to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters for non-U.S. issues) that would meet in the days prior to General Conference. The U.S. Regional Committee would vote on all petitions and resolutions that affect only the United States. The whole General Conference would then need to vote on legislation that passes the U.S. Regional Committee.
Implications of the Christmas Covenant
The Christmas Covenant would essentially balkanize The United Methodist Church into national or regional churches tied together in areas where they agree, but able to operate quite differently in areas where they disagree. Each region would have wide latitude to change any part of the Book of Discipline it did not like, and a two-thirds vote of the General Conference would be required to override any such change. The result of such an approach would be that the different geographical regions of our global church would grow apart. Each would operate increasingly under its own rules and standards. The denomination would become more of a weak confederation of national churches than a strong and united global church.
Of course, the primary impetus for making this dramatic shift is the desire by centrists and progressives to change the church’s policies regarding marriage and human sexuality. Many U.S. centrists and progressives resent the fact that delegates from Africa and other parts of the world, who pay only one percent of the general church’s apportionments, can have a major voice in setting the policies and standards for the U.S. part of the church, which pays 99 percent of the general church’s apportionments. These centrists and progressives want the freedom for U.S. delegates to set their own standards that apply to the U.S. church. They believe that the church in different cultural contexts can and should operate with different rules and standards.
The expected outcome would be that United Methodists in the U.S. could ordain and marry self-avowed practicing homosexuals, since the majority of U.S. delegates favor such policies. In Africa, Eastern Europe, and perhaps the Philippines, such ordination and marriage would probably not be allowed. The church would be operating with different definitions of marriage and different ordination standards regarding human sexuality in different parts of the world.
A look at the specific areas where regional conferences can set their own rules illustrates the broad and sweeping effect of making this change.
• Regional conferences can define the conditions of Church membership. That means they could change membership requirements, establish a minimum age for members, or require persons to be admitted to membership regardless of whether the pastor believes they are ready to sincerely assume the vows of membership.
• Regional conferences can define the qualifications and powers of clergy. That means they could establish lower or higher educational requirements for clergy, allow or even require that they perform same-sex weddings, or allow persons engaging in sexual relationships outside monogamous heterosexual marriage to be ordained. The unintended consequence here is that clergy who meet the qualifications in one regional conference might not meet the qualifications in another. This would potentially inhibit the ability of clergy to transfer from one region to another. No longer would clergy be clergy of the whole church. They would be clergy only of their region, leading to further growing apart of the various regions of our global denomination.
• Regional conferences can define the powers of annual conferences and local churches. That means they could require annual conferences to ordain same-sex clergy. Hypothetically, they could require local churches to accept clergy who do not have a compatible theological perspective with that of the local church. They could require local churches to allow same-sex marriages to take place in their sanctuaries.
• Regional conferences can make changes in the chargeable offenses and/or their mandatory penalties. Once again, hypothetically, that means the regional conference could say that it is no longer a chargeable offense in that region to be an ordained clergy who is a practicing homosexual or to perform a same-sex wedding. They could add or eliminate mandatory penalties or limit possible penalties for other offenses. The result here would be unequal justice for United Methodist clergy. Clergy would be subject to different church law restrictions and different penalties, depending upon where they serve.
• Finally, regional conferences would be empowered “to enact such other legislation as may be necessary.” That means the regional conference could change any aspect of the Book of Discipline it did not agree with or add provisions to the Discipline. It would take a two-thirds supermajority vote by the General Conference to override any provision enacted under this broad authority. Such an override would be especially unlikely when dealing with the U.S. regional conference, which would consist of a majority of the general church’s delegates. The U.S. delegates would have a built-in numerical advantage that would prevent any of their provisions from being nullified by General Conference.
It is highly ironic that, now that delegates from outside the U.S. are moving toward becoming a majority of our worldwide denomination, there is a move to weaken or even eliminate their voices from determining policies and standards for the church in the U.S. This is easily interpreted as the priority of LGBT affirmation over the inclusion of voices from outside the U.S. in the church’s policy decisions. The inclusion of some would come at the expense of excluding others.
If these changes were enacted, the U.S. part of the church would likely soon become an inhospitable place for many evangelicals and traditionalists. If the Protocol for Separation is not also enacted, this change would be a recipe for chaos and an ugly, litigious tearing apart of the church.
The Christmas Covenant is similar to, but even broader than, the proposals enacted by the 2008 General Conference to create a U.S. central conference. While those proposals received the needed two-thirds vote at General Conference, they were defeated by the votes of annual conference members, where the proposals garnered a less than 40 percent vote of support when two-thirds was needed.
A similar outcome is likely if the Christmas Covenant is voted on by the 2021 General Conference. The presence of U.S. evangelicals, along with African, Filipino, and Eastern European delegates, ensures that the proposal will not get the required two-thirds vote in order to change the constitution. Even if it did pass General Conference, it would be unlikely to receive the necessary two-thirds ratification from annual conference members. African members alone make up over 40 percent of the church, and they voted overwhelmingly against the similar proposal in 2009.
Instead, it appears that a vote on the Christmas Covenant would be primed for the agenda of the first post-separation UM Church General Conference. If General Conference passes the Protocol for Separation, traditionalists will be allowed to align with a new Methodist denomination in keeping with their convictions. In the absence of delegates and parts of the church that will align with that new traditionalist Methodist denomination, the Christmas Covenant would pass easily and be ratified by the remaining annual conferences.
Observers may note that the Christmas Covenant could point out the direction that a post-separation UM Church would go. Its vision for the church provides wide latitude for individuals and conferences to set their own understandings of United Methodism. One wonders what will constitute the common identity shared by United Methodists in different regions, apart from the name.
Those looking for a strongly united global denomination held together by common doctrine and uniform standards, while allowing for organizational flexibility, might be wise to align with a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. The contrast in envisioning what a global church can look like could not be starker.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
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