comments powered by Disqus
UM Theologian Billy Abraham Denounces “Open” Membership Idea during Virginia Annual ConferenceMark TooleyJune 23, 2009
Irish Methodist theologian Billy Abraham of United Methodist Perkins School of Theology in Dallas vigorously denounced a proposed “open” membership initiative before an audience of evangelical United Methodists in the Virginia Annual Conference at Norfolk, Virginia, on June 13.
Fifty-two percent of the Virginia Annual Conference evidently agreed with Abraham and voted against proposed constitutional Amendment I, which would have barred virtually any restrictions on membership in a United Methodist congregation. Two thirds of all voters in all the annual conferences is needed for passing a constitutional amendment. So far, most publicly recorded United Methodist voters in the U.S. annual conferences are opposed to amendment I.
Ironically, the “membership” controversy began in the Virginia Conference, when Bishop Charlene Kammerer removed the Rev. Ed Johnson from his pulpit in 2005 for refusing to grant immediate membership to an actively homosexual man who attended his church. The United Methodist Judicial Council restored Johnson to his church, ruling that local pastors have discretion over church membership. Amendment I’s expectation of automatic church membership was approved at last year’s General Conference.
Mandating that church membership be granted automatically to anyone “declaring faith in Jesus Christ and relationship in Jesus Christ” will mean that “all the other material on membership [in the United Methodist Book of Discipline] is going to have to be rethought or dumped,” Abraham warned his audience at a luncheon for Virginia Annual Conference evangelicals.
“I love the language of piety,” Abraham said. “But this is not appropriate language for our constitution. ‘Relationship in Jesus Christ’ is completely without any serious content. And unless we know the content of that we are again not clear on what we believe.”
Abraham noted that “the folk who were in favor of the change of the amendment saw this as simply an open door policy; that there will be no serious conditions for membership. That we will simply ‘open minds, open doors, open hearts,’ it will be wide open and then it will run through the whole of the units of the church, from the bottom, right through to the top. And what that would mean then, is effectively any standards of membership that we currently have would be eviscerated virtually immediately.”
Anticipating that the open membership amendment would introduce “incoherence” into the “heart of the Discipline,” Abraham cited a “deep dissonance” between the Amendment I language and a “whole other set of conditions for membership in the ordained ministry, for membership on the board of trustees, for membership all through the other units.” Ultimately, the Judicial Council would have to rule on these contradictions and probably overrule other parts of the Discipline, “creating enormous problems for us down the road.”
Abraham suggested that United Methodism’s current membership standards, as defined in the Discipline, are “perfectly adequate as it stands, and we shouldn’t tinker with this at this point.”
Besides the membership amendment, United Methodism is also considering proposals to facilitate creating a new U.S. only “regional conference” that would exclude overseas United Methodists, primarily Africans, from governing U.S. church affairs. Critics point out that liberals resent African opposition to liberalizing United Methodism’s stance on homosexuality.
The Virginia Annual Conference, like the rest of U.S. United Methodism so far, voted to reject the “regional” concept by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. In his speech, Abraham criticized the “regional conference” idea.
Abraham suggested that “the cost of adding a whole other layer of bureaucracy is going to be very, very serious. You cannot have a whole set of new regional conferences without shedding bureaucratic and financial tears. Somebody will have to pay, bishops are going to have extra work, and there is going to be a whole other tier of institutions that we’re going to have to attend to and pay for.” He also warned that creation of new U.S. only regional conference will only further “heat up the politics of the [international] General Conference,” whose delegate seats will be fewer and more coveted.
“It is to me astonishing that we would seek to change our constitution without being clear what we are voting for,” Abraham said. “Now I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I cannot vote for a pig in a poke. I cannot go and buy a car without knowing whether it is a stick shift or whether it is an automatic and what kind of engine it’s got. But this is exactly what we’re being asked to do on this amendment.”
Abraham noted that “regional conference” proponent Bishop Scott Jones of Kansas has promised that the plan would still leave to the General Conference “decisions on ordination, on discipline, on mission, on doctrine.” But Jones “is in no position whatsoever to give that assurance,” Abraham said. “It’s totally up for grabs what we’re voting for at this stage of the game.” He also warned that the plan, because of its impact on how the church deals with homosexuality, could “end up splitting the church,” as it has the Episcopal Church.
“Here’s the great virtue of our church,” Abraham surmised. “Our canon law has turned out to be extraordinarily healthy and good. And we have a universal canon law that works right across the face of the church. The Anglicans and the Episcopalians do not have that, and that has cost them dearly in dealing with the whole debate about homosexuality.” Abraham said he wants a “united church,” and a “regional church” will “simply create a platform for the future undoing of our church.”
During a question and answer exchange with the audience, Abraham said he’s “worried that the new group of bishops [who originated the ‘regional conference’ plan] are overreaching. I think it’s a matter not of command and control but of command and manipulate.” Abraham worried that the church’s Connectional Table is “very weak, it’s inexperienced, I think the bishops will call the shots, and the bishops want to fill up the vacuum that’s been left because of the lack of credibility developing in the agencies. We put those together in the 1970s, we sent our money to New York, we had our Vatican in Nashville, they did all the work for us. The whole thing is shifting, the credibility of that is shaking to the foundations, the bishops are stepping into this vacuum.”
Abraham concluded: “I think we’ve got to absolutely watch the power of the bishops. I think they are dangerous. I think the possibilities of self-deception - I think they are real.”
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136