A Tale of Two Bishops (Part 3)

Changes and adaptations

I’ve been indirectly critical of Part II in the current 2012 Discipline, which was added by 2012 General Conference Calendar Item 257. Perhaps this is the key sentence in ¶ 101: “Each central conference may make changes and adaptations to the Book of Discipline to more fruitfully accomplish our mission in various contexts.”

The phrase changes and adaptations copies language from the Constitution of The United Methodist Church:

31. Article IV.—The central conferences shall have the following powers and duties and such others as may be conferred by the General Conference: …

5. To make such rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries including such changes and adaptations of the General Discipline as the conditions in the respective areas may require, subject to the powers that have been or shall be vested in the General Conference.

Changes and adaptations are important to Central Conference work. One example is “to prepare and translate simplified or adapted forms of such part of the Ritual as it may deem necessary” (¶ 543.13). Another example is “to conform the detailed rules, rites, and ceremonies for the solemnization of marriage to the statute laws of the country or countries within its jurisdiction” (¶ 543.14).

Looking at changes and adaptations merely at the level of “translation” misses the point. Writing in Thirsty for God, Bradley P. Holt describes himself as “a Protestant, a Lutheran, … I am a North American male of Scandinavian heritage who has been changed by nearly a decade of life in Africa, teaching at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria” (page 17). His perspective might help us see another reason why there need to be changes and adaptations:

When we look for written descriptions of non-Western Christian spirituality, we find far fewer books and far fewer indigenous writers. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is the lack of wealth in the global south. Many people do not have money to buy books; therefore there are few publishers and few writers. The differences in currency valuations and the corruption in post offices may also mean that books published in the West are too expensive or are easily stolen from the mail. (Thirsty for God, page 183)

Part II in the current 2012 Discipline started as a petition from the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church. This Study Committee’s Report to the General Conference begins on page 1273 of the 2012 General Conference Advance Edition Daily Christian Advocate. (It appears in Volume 2, Section 2, “5. Independent Commissions” [link to PDF].) Here are a few examples from a section of the Report titled “What We Heard”, containing concerns raised by discussion participants.

I. 4. “US not sensitive enough about keeping cultural differences in mind (Kamina/Lubumbashi).”

I. 7. “Central conference decisions made at the level of central conferences should be presented to [General Conference] (Liberia).”

I. 8. “We need greater transparency in central conference election of delegates to [General Conference], and training should be made available to help delegates to fulfill their responsibilities (Zimbabwe).”

II. 6. “For the election of bishops, have a monitoring system with independent observers who supervise the process from nomination through election (Zimbabwe).”

II. 9. “College of African Bishops only has funding to meet once a year (Zimbabwe).”

III. 2. “Widespread unavailability of [Book of Discipline] leads to arbitrary decisions (Zimbabwe) and to use of 1988 [Book of Discipline] as determinative (Maputo).”

III. 6. “Current ability to adapt [Book of Discipline] to [Central Conferences] very important (Congo, Philippines, Europe).

III. 11. “Current [Book of Discipline] overwhelmed with too detailed regulations (Europe).”

III. 13. “A global [Book of Discipline] can only give general guidelines, not precise legal stipulations, because of the wide differences of cultural and legal settings (Europe).”

VII. 6. “Power and financial resources linked too strongly; hence non-monetary resources of African church not recognized as valuable (Zimbabwe).”

VIII. 11. “Only a minority have internet access; need for hard copy accessibility (Zimbabwe).”

X. 6. “Crucial for European churches to be and remain part of the worldwide UMC in order to be fully recognized as a church and not a sect. Ecumenical relations very important (Europe).”

X. 7. “Current UMC structures too complex and place unnecessary strain on small local congregations (Europe).”

The phrase changes and adaptations acknowledges that differing contexts — sometimes drastically differing contexts — require adaptions. Still, there is one thing that bothers me. Specifically, ¶ 543.12:

A central conference shall have authority to adopt rules of procedure governing the investigation and trial of its clergy, including bishops, and lay members of the Church and to provide the necessary means and methods of implementing the said rules; provided, however, that the ordained ministers shall not be deprived of the right of trial by a clergy committee, and lay members of the Church of the right of trial by a duly constituted committee of lay members; and provided also, that the rights of appeal shall be adequately safeguarded.

Does the above paragraph mean that Central Conferences have the authority to adopt their own rules of procedure with regards to bishops? In other words, are Central Conferences free to ignore ¶ 413 and ¶¶ 2701–2719?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. For the rest of this series, I will go ahead and assume that ¶ 543.12 does not give Central Conferences such authority.

In the next post, I will examine ¶ 413. Once that background is established, then I can discuss the first of the two bishops.


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