Regionalization: the New Colonialism?

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By Thomas Lambrecht

The top agenda item for the 2024 General Conference in April for most progressives is to adopt “regionalization” as the new mode of United Methodist governance. This proposal would be a dramatic shift in how the UM Church functions. It would move from being a connectional church to a regional church, or even an association of national churches.

The regionalization proposal is similar to the U.S. central conference proposal that passed General Conference in 2008 but was overwhelmingly defeated by annual conferences in 2009. It would set up the U.S. as its own regional conference, along with three regional conferences in Europe, three in Africa, and one in the Philippines.

The key is that each regional conference would have the authority to create its own policies and standards in a number of key areas. These include:

  • Qualifications and educational requirements for clergy – so there could be different qualifications to be ordained as a clergyperson in each regional conference.
  • Standards and qualifications for lay membership – so the standards for being a lay member of a local church could be different from region to region.
  • Rules of procedure governing investigations and trials of clergy and lay members – how clergy and lay members are held accountable could differ from region to region.
  • Changes in chargeable offenses and their penalties – what is a chargeable offense in one region could be perfectly allowed in another.
  • Each region could have its own hymnal and worship rituals. It is unclear from the proposals whether each region could have different baptismal and membership vows or ordination vows.

Why Regionalization?

This type of regionalization is a relatively recent development. In 2012, the General Conference began to move toward allowing central conferences outside the U.S. greater flexibility in adapting the Book of Discipline to their particular context. However, this was not finalized in 2016, but only in process until 2020 (which was of course postponed by the pandemic).

The original concept of adaptability for the Discipline was meant to allow for different laws and property procedures in different countries outside the U.S. But the expansion to other areas of adaptability was (I believe) a precursor to justifying greater adaptability for the U.S. church. If the central conferences outside the U.S. had the ability to adapt the Discipline in the ways listed above, one could hardly deny the U.S. church the same ability to adapt the Discipline. Never mind that the majority of General Conference delegates has always been from the U.S. and the Discipline has always been written primarily from a U.S. context, meaning that such adaptation was hardly necessary.

The real reason for regionalization and adaptability is to allow the U.S. church to liberalize its standards regarding marriage and LGBT persons. Each of the bullet points above has a direct relationship to LGBT persons. Adapting the qualifications for ordination would allow the U.S. church to ordain non-celibate LGBT persons. Adapting the qualifications for lay membership would allow the U.S. church to forbid pastors from preventing non-celibate LGBT persons to become local church members and serve in leadership in the local church, district, and annual conference. Adapting the rules of procedure for holding clergy and lay members accountable would allow the U.S. church to prevent trials for LGBT clergy or for clergy performing same-sex weddings. Adapting the chargeable offenses would allow the U.S. church to remove from the list of chargeable offenses anything related to same-sex marriage and non-celibate LGBT persons serving as clergy. Adapting the hymnal and the rituals would allow the U.S. church to create liturgies for same-sex weddings and potentially alter the ordination vows to mandate support for LGBT persons.

In the wake of the 2019 General Conference’s affirmation of a traditional perspective on marriage and human sexuality, progressives have rebelled. They decided to move ahead with same-sex weddings and the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons regardless of what the Discipline said. Regionalization would give them the legal ability to do so within the Discipline by codifying different standards and policies for the U.S. church than those adopted in Africa and other regions.

This is the goal of regionalization, as articulated in a recent Mainstream UMC fundraising letter. “Homosexuality is the flashpoint in this conversation.  A US-only vote likely would have permitted LGBTQ ordination and marriage as many as 12 years ago, just like the US Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Disciples have done. … The mean-spirited Traditional Plan of 2019 – which doubles down on the harm – has proven to be the tipping point in the United States. Either this policy is completely repealed at General Conference 2024, along with the other anti-LGBTQ language, or the exodus continues, and likely accelerates, in the United States.” (The letter is referring to an exodus of progressives and LGBT persons, which Mainstream UMC blames for the decline in UM membership over the past 40 years. Never mind that, while LGBT-affirming mainline denominations have all declined precipitously, non-denominational evangelical churches and Pentecostal denominations with a traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality have grown.)

What about colonialism?

It is unquestionably true that UM governance has always had a U.S.-centric approach. Particularly in the realm of social issues and resolutions on particular justice issues, the focus was predominantly on the U.S., although that had begun to change by 2016 with greater attention and sensitivity to global issues and how resolutions could be worded to be more inclusive of global concerns.

The question is whether to solve the problem of U.S. centrism by decoupling the connection through allowing wholesale adaptability of the Discipline, or by allowing greater input from non-U.S. delegates to the forming of a global Discipline. Most progressives and the church’s “establishment” chose the route of adaptability, first through the defeated U.S. central conference plan and then through initiating changes in the Discipline in 2012. Traditionalists have consistently favored the second approach of moving toward a more globally inclusive Discipline. That was the stark contrast between the One Church Plan in 2019 that would have allowed maximum adaptability, and the Traditional Plan that maintained a global standard.

But in its quest to rid the denomination of its U.S. centrism and colonial undertones, does the new regionalization proposal codify a new form of colonialism? Some African leaders have said yes. A closer analysis of the proposal shows they are right.

Curious Timing

It is interesting that the big push for regionalization comes just as the U.S. church membership has moved into a minority status. Even before disaffiliations began, membership outside the U.S. had pulled even with U.S. membership. This was not reflected in the percentage of delegates at General Conference, particularly for Africa, as the formula for delegates favors the U.S. with its very large number of retired clergy and clergy serving in extension ministry.

Even as African membership was increasing by 10 to 20 percent per quadrennium, their delegate percentage would only increase by less than five percentage points. It was going to be at least a decade or more before African delegate percentage more accurately reflected their percentage of membership. That, of course, changed with disaffiliation, which has drastically cut U.S. lay and clergy membership.

But Mainstream UMC is panicking over the fact that U.S. delegates will soon be in the minority. “In 2012, … international delegates totaled nearly 1/3 of the votes. For General Conference 2024, the delegates from outside the US will be close to 45 percent. In four years, it will be almost 55 percent.”

In other words, just when non-U.S. delegates are poised to have a significant voice in denominational governance, progressives want to marginalize them through regionalization. No matter what the non-U.S. delegates believe, the U.S. delegates that are a majority progressive can do what they want. Non-U.S. delegates will no longer be able to “interfere” with what the U.S. delegates want. In another fundraising letter, Mainstream UMC says, “There is a growing sentiment in the US that we will not fund a church that constrains our outreach to our local mission field.  Period.”

No Override Option

The current regionalization proposal has no provision for the General Conference to override the decision of a regional conference. If a regional conference enacts something that is contrary to UM governance, the only recourse is to file an objection with the Judicial Council, which is difficult to do and made more difficult by the regionalization plan itself. Another region may not have standing to bring an action before the Judicial Council under the new regime of regionalization.

A previous version of the regionalization proposal allowed a regional action to be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the General Conference. Of course, the U.S. would have more than one-third of the votes, so its actions would not be overturned. But Europe, the Philippines, and the three African regions would each have less than one-third of the votes, so their actions could be overridden, while the U.S. would not.

Other Favorable U.S. Treatment

There are other ways in which the U.S. gets favorable treatment under the current proposal. Other regions could set the tenure of their bishops, but the U.S. bishops would be guaranteed life tenure by the Constitution.

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters would continue with its current 30 to 40 percent U.S. representation. But the U.S. regional conference would have only 14 non-U.S. delegates, making up only 3 percent of the conference. Thus, the U.S. would have a bigger say in non-U.S. matters than non-U.S. delegates would have for U.S. matters.

The General Conference could change the boundaries of non-U.S. regional conferences without the consent of its annual conferences but changing the boundaries of jurisdictions in the U.S. would still require annual conference consent. Again, U.S. conferences would have more say in their affairs than non-U.S. conferences in theirs.

It is no wonder that some African leaders and delegates are opposing the regionalization proposal. In an effort to ostensibly remove colonialism from UM governance, regionalization as currently proposed installs new, discriminatory provisions that reinforce U.S. autonomy and superiority. One must ask whether the UM Church is exchanging one form of colonialism for another. It is enough to cause second thoughts on whether this is the direction the UM Church should take going forward. Time will tell how the General Conference delegates and annual conference members evaluate this proposal.

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