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Global nature task force proposes a U.S. central conference

The choir of Betania United Methodist Church, Maputo, Mozambique, sings a greeting. A UMNS photo by Linda Green. 









A UMNS Report by Linda Green*
Nov. 13, 2006 | MAPUTO, Mozambique

A group of United Methodists examining the global nature of the denomination is proposing that the United States become a Central Conference.

The proposal introduced to the United Methodist Council of Bishops on Nov. 3 would end the current system that splits the United States from the central conferences that govern the church outside the United States and would revise the United Methodist Book of Discipline into a "truly general book of doctrine, mission and discipline, deleting all portions that apply only to the United States." The existing U.S. jurisdictional conferences would exist within a U.S. Central Conference.

The proposal would group all five U.S. jurisdictions into one central conference, putting it on par with the central conferences already in existence. If approved, the changes would take effect in 2012.


Bishops Scott Jones and Ann Sherer are members of the task force proposing a change to the jurisdictional conference system. A UMNS photo by Linda Green. 

Nebraska Bishop Ann Sherer, a member of the task force studying the church's global nature, said that as conversations delved into the worldwide connection of the church and how the church was expanding outside the United States, "we found that the U.S. church needs to get our act together," adding that the proposal is an attempt to clarify the church's desire to be a more worldwide denomination.

Each central conference would have a Book of Discipline outlining rules applicable to its life and ministry. Other publications such as hymnals could be tailored for each central conference.

The proposal which suggests the changes to the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, comes from a joint task force of bishops and members of the Connectional Table, the key coordinating arm of the denomination. Since 1964, the church has had numerous studies, task groups and legislative attempts to clarify the worldwide nature of the denomination.

These changes would require approval by the General Conference. "These changes would strengthen our missional effectiveness for the 21st century in a globalized world," said Kansas Bishop Scott Jones, during a Nov. 4 press conference. "There is the need for a
better structure for the future. This is a mission-driven proposal."

While adding flexibility and support for regional units of the church, "the changes … do not solve all the problems facing the church. … They do address the fundamental structures and processes," the task force concluded.

The power of the General Conference will essentially remain the same, Jones said. Churchwide agencies will remain as agencies for the whole church. The Judicial Council would remain as a general church body elected by the General Conference. The Council of Bishops remains as the council for the entire church.

"The proposal does not change the way the church talks about homosexuality, abortion or other hot-button issues," he added.


Bishops João Samone Machado (from left), Janice Huie and Ben Chamness respond to questions from Mozambican media. 
A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

Since the Social Principles already subscribe to the church's global nature, they will not be changed but the Book of Resolutions, the task force said, would be divided into categories that are general and applicable to the whole world and those of U.S. concern.

What the proposal does, Jones said, is strengthen the United Methodist identity as a global church by clarifying the parts of the Discipline that are global and which are parts that can and should be determined regionally."

Central conferences, including the United States, would consider resolutions pertinent to their regions. They could create and fund their own agencies, establish their own educational requirements for clergy and establish mission initiatives appropriate for their context.

Jones added that the principle portion of the residential percentage (75-80 percent) of General Conference votes would be retained by the United States. "What we are doing is freeing up each section to deal with its own issues while strengthening the church," he explained.

Sherer and Jones said the proposal reflects the United Methodist tradition of "conferencing," since each region will discuss issues relevant to their circumstances.

"The church has long understood that our cultural context shapes how we do church," Jones said. The proposal, he said, "flattens the church" and creates more "parity," making the church more level and "shows our commitment to being real partners."

The task force is inviting feedback from annual conferences, districts and local churches. It has asked the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to engage its partners in conversations on the ecumenical implications of a U.S. central conference.

Bishops urged to cross borders


 Bishop Sally Dyck

In other business, a task force on unity urged the bishops to take a "cross every line" approach when dealing with controversial theological and social issues before denominational caucuses. The bishops are being urged to cross borders and boundaries.

In explaining the task force's intent, Minnesota Bishop Sally Dyck said bishops are to "signal hope to the church" which is tied to the church's mission. She urged bishops to invite colleagues "from a different corner" to join them when asked to speak on issues before the special-interest groups.

In its report, the task force said the council needs to take responsibility to cross theological, jurisdictional and racial ethnic lines at such events. This is another move to focus the church on the need and benefit of holy conferencing.

"If we don't model crossing boundary lines, how can we expect the rest of the church to do the same?" Dyck asked.

Reflecting widespread concern over the tone of debate at General Conference, the group is developing a "Covenant for Conversation" it hopes will be a model, or "rules of engagement," for the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

In an attempt to model unity, the task force - in partnership with the denomination's Large Church Initiative - will conduct "10 Million Lights As One" on Feb. 10, 2008. The event will host a single worship service in 25 locations across the country that will be satellite linked.


Bishops Peter Weaver (left) and Warner Brown confer during a break in the Council
of Bishops' meeting. A UMNS photo by
Linda Green.

At each of the 25 sites, the local bishop and a bishop from another jurisdiction will be present to lead the worship service, modeling crossing of boundaries "in a way that embodies our unity and sets the tone for General Conference," Jones said.

Study of Episcopacy

A task force studying the episcopacy is seeking to align changes in the episcopacy to a strong theology on the bishop's relationship to making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The task force is seeking input from the bishops on a variety of issues, including limiting terms to eight to 12 years with an option for re-election, ending a bishop's term at retirement, returning the bishop's membership to the annual conference from which he or she was elected and reducing the number of bishops in the United States.

In other actions, the bishops received an update from the group that is rewriting "In Defense of Creation," a document first issued by the Council of Bishops in 1980 calling for eliminating nuclear weapons.

It is proposed that the new document will address three interrelated items: the spread of nuclear weapons, global poverty and degradation of the environment, including global warming. In order to receive input from the public and inform the wider church community of what is happening, a public hearing is being planned for next October at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Washington.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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