5:00 P.M. EST March 26, 2010
Supporters of universal health care rally at Centennial Park in
Tenn., in August 2009. A UMNS file photo by Jan Snider.
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The debate over health care reform has touched off deep emotions in
the U.S. public, but it has also sparked a separate—and equally
passionate—set of reactions among United Methodists.
As Congress grappled with the legislation during the weekend of March
20-21, many United Methodists were surprised to hear U.S. House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi cite the church as a supporter of reform. On her Web site,
she more specifically listed a church agency, the Board of Church and
Society, in a long roll of organizations supporting reform.
In the days that followed, United Methodist leaders fielded calls and
e-mails from church members who were either elated or angry about the
church’s role. Many were confused. Who decided The United Methodist
Church supports health care reform? Why is my church involved in a
political issue? What authority does the Board of Church and Society
have to speak for the church?
The controversy over health care reform creates a timely opportunity
for answering those questions.
General Conference speaks
The United Methodist Church speaks through its General Conference, a
legislative assembly that meets every four years. About 1,000 delegates
from around the world gather to set policy and act on other business on
behalf of the 11 million-member denomination.
The delegates are elected by their regional conferences, and they
represent the cultural, political and theological diversity of the
church. The U.S. delegates, for example, include Republicans, Democrats
The United Methodist Church has a long tradition of speaking on
current issues and world problems, dating back to the earliest days of
the Methodist movement and its founder, John Wesley.
Every General Conference since 1972 has adopted and updated a set of
Social Principles that addresses contemporary issues from a biblical and
theological foundation. The principles are not considered church law.
They are “intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the
prophetic spirit.” The principles are a “call to all members of The
United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and
There is no requirement for church members to agree with the Social
Principles, and they have every right to disagree with legislative
action based on those principles.
Since situations change, each General Conference also adopts
resolutions that address specific problems and opportunities. These
resolutions, based on the Social Principles, are included in a Book of
Resolutions. The 2008 volume contains over 1,000 pages; 20 pages address
Statements on health care
The Book of Resolutions contains United Methodist General
social issues, such as health care.
A UMNS photo
by Kathleen Barry.
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General Conference has spoken many times on health care-related
concerns over the years. The Social Principles—also addressed to nations
in Africa, Asia and Europe—declare, “We believe it is a governmental
responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.”
The 2008 General Conference reaffirmed concerns expressed by previous
sessions about the number of uninsured Americans and the cost of
insurance that keeps minorities in the poverty cycle. During its meeting
in Fort Worth, Texas, the legislative body advocated for “a
comprehensive health care delivery system that includes access for all,
quality care and effective management of costs.”
Noting that the nation is divided on the philosophical bases for
addressing America’s health care delivery problems, the assembly
supported “state-level initiatives that become laboratories for trying
out varying approaches to providing health care for all.”
Finally, the gathering charged the United Methodist Board of Church
and Society “with primary responsibility for advocating health care for
all in the United States Congress and for communicating this policy to
United Methodists in the USA.”
Board of Church and Society
Operating from a building across the street from the U.S. Capitol and
the Supreme Court building, the Board of Church and Society’s primary
responsibility is to “seek the implementation of the Social Principles
and other policy statements of the General Conference on Christian
Responding to that mandate, the agency continued to advocate for what
it considered the best plan to provide health care for all Americans.
Jim Winkler, top staff executive for the agency, led efforts to pass
legislation that would provide insurance that would provide such care.
In addition, several other United Methodist leaders—including Bishop
Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops—individually urged
President Obama to pass health care reform legislation months before the
complex bill was made into law. At least five official and unofficial
United Methodist organizations also advocated for reform.
No need for agreement
In Congress, the debate divided United Methodist representatives,
with some supporting the bill and more opposing it.
Every United Methodist has a right to petition General Conference to
amend the Social Principles and, if a majority of delegates agree, the
statements will be changed by the 2012 assembly. Pastors or district
superintendents can supply information about the petition process.
Very little United Methodist money is involved in advocacy efforts.
Only 3.1 cents of every dollar goes to support all the ministries of the
denomination, and only a portion of that amount supports the entire
program of the Board of Church and Society—and work on health care
represents a small portion of the agenda of that agency. Withholding
funds from a local church cripples ministries around the world.
Church members have many options for expressing viewpoints and
concerns in the church. They can directly contact their pastor, bishop,
the appropriate general agency or one of the many church-affiliated
organizations and unofficial groups that represent specific causes in
*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference
and a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.