The IRD's Tactics Are Even Repugnant To Themselves
Steven D. Martin printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 06:17:33 AM EST

In this quarter's edition of the IRD's magazine, "Faith and Freedom," Rebekah Sharpe reported on various moves that took place at United Methodist annual conferences across the country. In a splendid display of hypocrisy, Ms. Sharpe wrote:

The Desert Southwest Annual Conference referred its anti-IRD resolution back to a "Covenant Council." The council is slated to address the legislation, which calls on United Methodists to view the anti-IRD video Renewal or Ruin? (link added) this autumn. It seems unusual that annual conferences are being used as a venue to propagate accusations intended to marginalize groups of fellow United Methodists, without any opportunity being given for those groups to speak for themselves.

 Is she saying that the Institute on Religion and Democracy has had no opportunity to promote their agenda in the annual conferences this year?

On the contrary, the IRD has had a powerful voice in the politics of the UMC not only this past summer, but also in the past couple of decades. Their practice of placing model resolutions before the annual conferences has been one powerful component of their influence on the future of the church.

According to UMC polity, individual persons or organizations can submit resolutions or petitions either to their annual conference or to General Conference. General Conference takes place once every four years and is the central governing structure of the church. Unlike other denominations, which have centralized structures with presiding bishops or superintendents, the United Methodist Church has historically used this decentralized approach. Resolutions, if passed, become part of the church's order, published in the "Book of Resolutions" after General Conference each four years. Petitions, somewhat different from resolutions, often can be used to affect church law, and have the power to change language in the Book of Discipline.

For example: if an individual believes that the UMC should not have representatives participate in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), then that individual can construct a document that addresses that concern. He or she can then submit that document to his or her annual conference, or directly to General Conference. If first submitted to the annual conference, it can be voted on and adopted there. This has no binding power upon the whole church at this point. But it does have more political clout if sent up to General Conference.

Once that document arrives at General Conference in the form of a petition, it will be grouped together with similar petitions and sent before a legislative committee, whose task it will be to choose the final language that will be put to General Conference for a vote. That committee will often be faced with choosing among dozens of similarly worded petitions. It is representative democracy at its finest.

Then, once the General Conference has received the final proposal from the legislative committee, the whole conference votes on the petition. If it passes, it becomes part of the Discipline of the church. Therefore, if the General Conference approves a petition requiring the church to withdraw its representatives from the RCRC, it must do so.

(In the case of the RCRC, concern has been expressed about the church's participation in a coalition that some believe is, at its essence, at odds with the spirit of the Discipline. This criticism has been answered by stating that it is better for the UMC to be "at the table" than not in the discussion at all, and that the UMC should keep its place with the RCRC.)

As stated in a previous post, the IRD has influenced this process by bringing its formidable resources together to create sample resolutions and petitions and placing them on their web site. Individuals and organizations are then free to copy these resolutions and propose them all the way up to General Conference, and they do.

Ms. Sharpe is then reporting not only on dissassociated actions by various annual conferences, but on how they have dealt with those sample resolutions created by the IRD. The IRD often uses the word "lobbyist" in a derogatory fashion when referring to persons like General Board of Church and Society General Secretary Jim Winkler, or former National Council of Churches General Secretary Bob Edgar. If attempting to affect policy, whether that of the church or the nation, is to be considered a vile activity, then the IRD should reassess it's own activities. People who live in glass houses should never throw stones.

What is interesting to me is her report in "Faith and Freedom" on the Desert Southwest Conference's resolution (also see here) condemning the IRD's divisive activities. In it she states that 1) the resolution calls on UM's to view "Renewal or Ruin?", 2) that annual conferences are being used as a venue to propagate accusations intended to marginalize groups of fellow United Methodists, and 3) that "those groups" are not given a chance to speak for themselves.

The Desert Southwest Conference's resolution does much more than suggest that church members watch a video (in fact, the resolution itself doesn't call for that at all). It cuts to the core of the conversation: that the IRD has expressly stated that its goals include the destruction of key structures within the United Methodist Church. The IRD has made it clear that it wants the General Board of Church and Society, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and other key structures and relationships to be abolished. They advocate that the church's Social Principles, a beautifully crafted set of non-binding guidelines for United Methodists that have provided the framework for the church's social witness, be "entirely rewritten." Desert Southwest's resolution shines light on the IRD, brings its intentions out in the open, and calls upon United Methodists to "prayerfully consider" withdrawing support for the IRD.

The New York conference passed a similar resolution this past summer also. There will be more said on this in a future post.

Ms. Sharpe's complaint that annual conferences are being used as a platform for marginalizing "fellow United Methodists" is quite disingenuous. Andrew Weaver and others have clearly pointed out that the IRD is not made up of "fellow United Methodists." This odd mix of board and advisory board members includes, yes, a few United Methodists, but has hosted a number of conservative Roman Catholics and Jews. The IRD's president, James Tonkowich, is a member of the schismatic Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). One must ask: why are so many non-United Methodists so interested in "reforming" a Christian denomination outside their own tradition?

And finally, regarding Ms. Sharpe's complaint that "those groups" (I'm assuming she means groups like the IRD) are not given a chance to speak for themselves: through their practice of placing sample resolutions before annual conferences, the IRD has had more than a chance to speak. As the Holston Annual Conference came within seven votes of approving the IRD's resolution to withdraw from the National Council of Churches (yes, I was there, and I saw the whole thing unfold), the IRD has a very powerful voice. It must be named and exposed. The future of the church is at stake.

If the IRD finds the practice of "marginalizing" other voices repugnant, perhaps it should take a long look at it's own methods of doing just that.

Display: poised to be a turning point for groups like the IRD.  On one hand, efforts to shine light on the intentions of these so-called "renewal groups" are having some effect.  On the other, the momentum gained by years and years of activity is at a high water mark.  Which way will the pendulum swing?

It is crucial, therefore, that we find ways of shining light on the IRD and keeping up the pressure through at least May, when General Conference takes place.  If the IRD's influence in the United Methodist Church can be diminished, then it can be diminished across all churches who advocate for peace and justice.

by Steven D. Martin on Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 06:22:43 AM EST


The sample resolutions--where are they on the site?

Also if you have time, would you look at, click on praxis and just give me your opinion about whether this looks like the same sort of thing?  (Though we have no discernable influence in the UCC)


by Don Niederfrank on Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 08:10:18 AM EST

Never mind. Found them through your link. (duh me)

Having trouble getting to the "Store" to find out about getting "Renewal or Ruin."

Thanks again.

by Don Niederfrank on Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 08:15:49 AM EST

...with the web store.  If you continue to have trouble, the video's available at also.

by Steven D. Martin on Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 05:20:42 PM EST

It still seems to me that it ought to be possible for either the UMC as a denomination, or a group of individual Methodists as members of UMC, to sue IRD for attempting to undermine and subvert the church's legitimate functions as a nonprofit organization. Also, it's difficult to believe that the IRS would honestly consider the frustration of another nonprofit organization's lawful operations to be a legitimate "charitable purpose" of IRD. I just cannot comprehend why the Methodists aren't fighting back. My late uncle and aunt were United Methodists, and they're not a denomination of wimps!

by unworthy on Sat Dec 15, 2007 at 07:16:07 PM EST

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