A primer on The United Methodist Church

Back on March 28 I thought I ought to write an introduction to The United Methodist Church. If anything, I aimed to write an introduction that I wish I could have read a couple of years when first learning about church polity and politics.

Today I finally got around to finishing it. I hope it might help others. (Link to PDF)

Primer on The United Methodist Church


On hiatus

I’m making official what has been obvious: this blog is on hiatus.

I appreciate the responses from Bishop Dorff and Secretary Reist to the e-mail posted here. I also appreciate the responses from The United Methodist Publishing House and the General Commission on Archives and History to the letter posted here. I’d like to say that responding to difficult questions is important throughout The United Methodist Church. However, I cannot.

I am not currently at liberty to discuss publicly all of my complaints concerning the leadership of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago. I would like to discuss some of them: not in the interest of “sour grapes” but rather in the interest of growing. These complaints aren’t dramatic — some might even say boring — but they’re basic to the life of any community. One alluded to here concerns the lack of open meetings. Another complaint concerns keeping track of a small cardboard box. (Concerning the small cardboard box: the leadership from the District Superintendent and the Annual Conference Chancellor are also in question.)

I’m personally tired of religious leaders who think and act as if they’re beyond criticism. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference is not immune to such criticism.

Rio Texas General Conference delegates?

What follows is the text of an e-mail I am sending momentarily to the Secretary of the General Conference and the resident bishop of the San Antonio episcopal area.

Secretary Reist and Bishop Dorff,

There are two problems concerning General Conference delegates from the Rio Texas Annual Conference that I am not aware of having been addressed.

I. How many General Conference delegates will Rio Texas be allocated?
II. When will these delegates be elected?


According to ¶¶ 511.5 and 2012 General Conference Calendar Item 238, the Commission on the General Conference determines the General Conference delegate allotment for each annual conference. The most recent allotment I’ve seen does not contain an allotment for the new Rio Texas Annual Conference.

This blog post on the website of the South Central Jurisdiction states, “When ACs unite the aggregate of the conferences will be the number of the new Annual Conference in 2016.” On the surface this statement sounds plausible. However, the South Central Jurisdiction does not have the disciplinary authority to make this determination. Unless this determination comes from the Commission on the General Conference pursuant to ¶¶ 15 and 511.5, such a determination is contrary to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Based on 2012 lay membership statistics (on the linked webpage there’s an Excel spreadsheet under “Department Resources”), the Southwest Texas Annual Conference has 114,884 lay members; the Rio Grande Annual Conference, 13,087 lay members. If Rio Texas has 10 General Conference delegates for its total of 127,971 lay members, by lay membership it would be the smallest U. S. Annual Conference with 10 delegates. It will have two more General Conference delegates than Arkansas (134,864 lay members), North Alabama (135,458 lay members), and Central Texas (166,859 lay members).

If this allotment question were up to me, I would reallocate Rio Grande’s two delegates to the new Great Plains Annual Conference. Based only on 2012 lay membership statistics the lay membership for Great Plains would be 223,009 lay members. Great Plains will be much larger than Mississippi and its 179,320 lay members, the largest current U. S. Annual Conference lay membership with 12 General Conference delegates.

Of course, this allotment question is not up to me. It is supposed to be answered by the Commission on the General Conference.


It’s fundamental to the polity of The United Methodist Church that annual conferences, the basic bodies of the church (¶¶ 11, 33), elect General Conference delegates (¶¶ 13.1, 13.2, 15, 33, 34, 35, 36, 502.1a, 502.2, 502.3, 502.4, 502.5, 511.5). It follows logically that General Conference delegates from the Rio Texas Annual Conference will have to be elected by the properly constituted Rio Texas Annual Conference.

In the U. S., jurisdictional conferences set annual conferences (¶¶ 9, 27.4, 40). I would argue that once an annual conference no longer exists pursuant to constitutional procedure, the General Conference lacks the authority to recognize delegates from the nonexistent annual conference.

As far as I can tell, there are currently no plans for the Rio Texas Annual Conference to elect 2016 General Conference delegates. I conclude this because the preliminary agenda for the upcoming meetings of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Annual Conferences has set aside June 13th (3:15 and 4:00 respectively) for General Conference elections. I don’t question that each annual conference has the authority to do so. I just don’t see the point of holding these elections when the conferences currently plan to cease to exist by the time of the opening session of the next General Conference. Under this current plan, the next General Conference will arguably have no basis in law for seating these delegates.

Just now I first noticed the pastoral letter dated May 20, 2014. This pastoral letter provides further confirmation of the conferences’ plans to hold elections that might not be recognized by the General Conference.


I might be accused of wallowing in schadenfreude. As far as I’m concerned, it would be worse for me to point out this potential problem after questionable elections.

There’s been talk of the importance of the Church setting boundaries. I don’t know what could be more fundamental in The United Methodist Church than the setting of annual conference boundaries. These boundaries are part of what define the context of “fair and open” elections. The guarantee at ¶ 13.2 of a fair and open process in selecting those who set global policy for the Church has been a cherished part of the Constitution since January 2006.

In my opinion, it is in the best interests of the Church that this situation go under judicial review. If for whatever reason judicial review does not occur, I would hope that at least one delegate would challenge the credentials of all delegates elected by annual conferences that no longer exist. Such a failure would establish dangerous precedent.

I speak for myself in this e-mail. (I’m also posting it online.) If anyone else has doubts about this situation, by speaking out maybe I can also help them speak up. Any further comments on my part will be determined by what the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Annual Conferences do next month in Corpus Christi concerning these dubious elections.

Steven B. Wiegner

Decision 1264: Commentary

In my opinion, Decision 1264 (April 2014) is commendable as a statement of current law. I’m pleased that it contains no dissenting opinions that won’t stand the test of time. For examples of dissenting opinions that haven’t, see Memorandum 930 (April 2002) and Decision 985 (May 2004). I’m surprised to find that I am agreement with both concurring opinions. I’ll first comment on each concurring opinion, then address the controlling opinion and wander off into legislative history. I conclude that the General Conference doesn’t have a clear idea what it means by “promoting the acceptance of homosexuality.”

Content note: I cite disciplinary language.

Continue reading

Immediate Measured Reaction to Decision 1264

Bishop, I respectfully request that, if this continues, that the chair would call the body to make a decision regarding our going into executive session. This is not a circus; we are not a debating society. We are working for the well-being of this church, and, if necessary, I would submit that we would have a closed session of this General Conference to consider this issue prayerfully and in much prayer and supplication.

A General Conference delegate on May 2, 1988 (1988 DCA, page 447)

Recently I’ve been reading American Methodist history. Specifically, I’ve been reading about the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. One summary I’ve read is in this early work of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. From what I’ve read of the debate in the 1844 General Conference, I don’t like either side of the debate.

Continue reading

Letter to Neil Alexander


This post was promised last week. I will be commenting on Decision 1264 in two posts later today.

Below is the text of two letters sent to Neil Alexander. Despite first appearances, the links for Google Books are correct.

Obviously, “Editonal” should have been “Editorial”.


April 24, 2014

Mr. Neil Alexander
The United Methodist Publishing House
P. O. Box 801
Nashville, TN 37202-0801

Mr. Alexander,

I have one simple question: where is the General Conference’s authorization for the Discipline’s current Historical Statement? I am aware that, compared with the 1992 Discipline, the 1996 Discipline contained a major revision of the Historical Statement. Yet I have failed to locate an authorization from the General Conference for this revision.

This discussion divides itself into three parts:

I.  The evidence that the 1996 Discipline contains a major revision of the Historical Statement.

II. My search for General Conference authorization.

III. Regardless of its current legal status, the Discipline’s Historical Statement needs a major revision.


One day I was looking through a previous edition of the Discipline – this was probably the 1984 Discipline – and I came across this section title in the Historical Statement:

Black People and Their United Methodist Heritage

This section title was still in the 1992 Discipline. The title of this section is confirmed on page 20 (note 14) of the Quarterly Review, Winter 1989-Winter 1990. This endnote further confirmed that this section was added in 1976. (The Quarterly Review archive is available at http://www.quarterlyreview.org/.)

The 1996 Discipline appeared to contain a major revision of the entire Historical Statement. As further evidence, a web page from the General Board of Discipleship (http://www.gbod.org/live-the-um-way/umc-history) contains this declaration:

The Historical Statement from
The Book of Discipline
Approved by the 1996 General Conference

It was logical for me to search for the General Conference authorizations for each of these two revisions.


The official authorization for the 1976 addition was surprisingly easy to locate. This appears on pages 1829–1830 of the Journal of the 1976 General Conference Volume II (https://archive.org/details/journalportland02unit). (A text search in Volume II on “historical statement” quickly yielded this result.) Here is the “Resolved” language of the approved report:

Therefore Be It Resolved that the General Conference of The United Methodist Church set the historical record involving Black Methodists in proper order and see that it is placed in its proper place in the historical section of the Discipline.

Page 325 of the Journal of the 1976 General Conference Volume I (https://archive.org/details/journalportland01unit) records a summary of the plenary session discussion and approval.

I understand how the desire might have arisen in 1996 to revise the Historical Statement. Imagine my surprise when I failed to find any authorization from the 1996 General Conference for such a revision. Regarding the 1996 Daily Christian Advocate Advance Edition (https://archive.org/details/journaldenver01unit), a search on “historical statement” yields only one result: Petition 21355 on page 811. Regarding what appears to be the complete 1996 Daily Christian Advocate (https://archive.org/details/journaldenver02unit), a search on “historical statement” yields no results. Furthermore, throughout pages 828–940 of the Advance Edition (the material before the Independent Commissions Legislative Committee) I cannot find any petition regarding the Historical Statement.

Now I cannot rule out the possibility that buried somewhere in the 1996 DCA is an authorization for the current Historical Statement. (There could have been a problem with the OCR conversion in the digital copies.) However, if there was an editorial decision to revise the Historical Statement without General Conference approval, such a decision would have violated the 1996 General Conference Plan of Organization. Rule XI.A (from the 1996 DCA Vol. 3, No. 2 page 35): “No non-legislative material shall be ordered printed in the Discipline without first referring it to the committee on Correlation and Editonal Revision for consideration and report to the General Conference for further consideration and final action.” The above assumes that the Historical Statement is “non-legislative” when in fact the Historical Statement was part of the Plan of Union. See page 3050 of the Journal of the 1966 Adjourned Session of the 1964 General Conference of The Methodist Church, Volume III (https://archive.org/details/journalofgeneral03meth).


Aside from its legal status, I believe that the current Historical Statement is seriously wanting. Even allowing for its space limitations, I find the current Historical Statement is at best misleading and incomplete.

Just one example of misleading comes from pages 19–20:

A more important union, at least by statistical measurement, took place among three Methodist bodies—The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Protestant Church, and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Representatives of these churches began meeting in 1916 to forge a plan of union. By the 1930s their proposal included partitioning the united church into six administrative units called jurisdictions. Five of these were geographical; the sixth, the Central Jurisdiction, was racial. It included African American churches and annual conferences wherever they were geographically located in the United States. African American Methodists and some others were troubled by this prospect and opposed the plan of a racially segregated jurisdiction.

The meeting in 1916 has to refer to “A Working Conference on the Union of American Methodism” in Evanston, IL. Its report is available online at https://archive.org/details/cu31924029469206. (This is not an easy report to read since parts are racist.) Page 481 contains the “Proposed Basis of Union” which suggested that “the colored membership of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and such organizations of colored Methodists as may enter into agreement with them may be constituted and recognized as one of the Quadrennial or Jurisdictional Conferences of the proposed reorganization.” A racially segregated Jurisdictional Conference was proposed as early as that first meeting in 1916. It did not somehow drift into the proposal by the 1930s.

I also consider the quoted sentences from pages 19–20 misleading because they suggest that racial segregation within the Church began in the 1930s. In 1916 the Methodist Episcopal Church had racially segregated annual conferences. This is immediately obvious from Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1916 (http://google.com/books?id=xQQRAAAAIAAJ), ¶ 498 on page 345. This wasn’t a recent change either; see Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1888 (http://google.com/books?id=-E8NAAAAYAAJ), starting at ¶ 439 on page 231. The quoted sentences from pages 19–20 suggest that the northern branch of Methodism had no complicity in segregation.

The Discipline’s current Historical Statement is also incomplete. After the death of John Wesley, it concentrates almost exclusively on North America. I say “almost” because Africa and Asia do get a mention after 1968. To give one example from Africa: many discussions of African evangelism mention the incredibly successful work of William Wadé Harris. His work in the Côte d’Ivoire deserves recognition in the General Discipline.

Revising the current Historical Statement raises the question of the legal process of revision. It also brings us back to the question that opened this letter: where is the General Conference’s authorization for the Discipline’s current Historical Statement?

Please note that I will be posting this letter online at my blog: attendingcircuses.wordpress.com. I don’t have the exact URL as of yet; I’ll wait until either copy of this letter is likely to be delivered (presumably by Monday, April 28). I will be happy to link to any public response.


Steven B. Wiegner

UPDATE 2014-05-17:

I’ve been remiss in updating, but I suppose it’s appropriate that I update the day before Heritage Sunday (¶¶ 262, 264.1).

Mr. Alexander responded in a letter dated April 30th that I received on May 8th. He has indicated in his remarks that he is aware of my difficulties in locating any authorization from the 1992 General Conference as well as the 1996 General Conference. Mr. Alexander has stated that he is researching this issue.

I appreciate Mr. Alexander’s prompt reply. While I wait for the results of this research, I will also be engaging in research and discussions.

The Church’s official position

I hope to catch up with e-mail shortly — I’ve been busy with a project that I’ll be free to post about Monday.

[content note: justification of the Church’s official position]

2004 General Conference Calendar Item 1040 introduced a restriction to annual conference funding. This restriction does not preclude funding “for dialogs or educational events where the Church’s official position is fairly and equally represented.” (This language currently resides at ¶ 613.19. Much of it was deliberately modeled after ¶ 806.9, the first version of which was adopted in 1976. See Journal of the 1976 General Conference of The United Methodist Church Volume II, page 1752.)

How does one represent “the Church’s official position”? According to the Discipline, one is generally limited to reading statements approved by the General Conference (see ¶ 509). I would argue that it might be more helpful to quote from plenary session transcripts. In doing so, it is important to quote from the side of the question that prevailed.

This particular quote — it came up during a discussion of requirements for ordained ministry — seems especially appropriate this week. This took place May 2, 1988:

I have my fingers to a place in the Scriptures. I’m not going to read it. You know the Scriptures, I think, as well or better than I do. Rolla [sic] May, I believe it is, who says that our instinctual drives are like wild horses; they need to be put into the harness with the bridle. He also says that it’s like flood waters. Flood waters are very damaging and destructive if not under the control of dams and conduits and irrigation ditches, which make more productive use of that water.

My training in psychiatry would indicate that homosexuality is an arrested development. I’m also told by doctor friends that under psychiatric training and counseling, it can be changed in the vast majority of cases. One gay person in the North Central Jurisdiction over a period of time contributed AIDS to 276 people. I am not talking about the individual; I’m talking about the lifestyle. Now with tongue in cheek, finally, I would say, if it has to be, then please let us make an ordinance of our church that two individuals make a covenant for their lifestyle and stay together forever. (1988 Daily Christian Advocate, page 383.)