Debate raises questions about church’s voice


A UMNS Commentary
By Rich Peck*

The debate over health care reform has touched off deep emotions in the U.S. public, but it has also sparked a separate—and equally passionate—set of reactions among United Methodists.

As Congress grappled with the legislation during the weekend of March 20-21, many United Methodists were surprised to hear U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cite the church as a supporter of reform. On her Web site, she more specifically listed a church agency, the Board of Church and Society, in a long roll of organizations supporting reform.

In the days that followed, United Methodist leaders fielded calls and e-mails from church members who were either elated or angry about the church’s role. Many were confused. Who decided The United Methodist Church supports health care reform? Why is my church involved in a political issue? What authority does the Board of Church and Society have to speak for the church?

The controversy over health care reform creates a timely opportunity for answering those questions.

General Conference speaks

The United Methodist Church speaks through its General Conference, a legislative assembly that meets every four years. About 1,000 delegates from around the world gather to set policy and act on other business on behalf of the 11 million-member denomination.

The delegates are elected by their regional conferences, and they represent the cultural, political and theological diversity of the church. The U.S. delegates, for example, include Republicans, Democrats and independents.

The United Methodist Church has a long tradition of speaking on current issues and world problems, dating back to the earliest days of the Methodist movement and its founder, John Wesley.

Every General Conference since 1972 has adopted and updated a set of Social Principles that addresses contemporary issues from a biblical and theological foundation. The principles are not considered church law. They are “intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit.” The principles are a “call to all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.”

There is no requirement for church members to agree with the Social Principles, and they have every right to disagree with legislative action based on those principles.

Since situations change, each General Conference also adopts resolutions that address specific problems and opportunities. These resolutions, based on the Social Principles, are included in a Book of Resolutions. The 2008 volume contains over 1,000 pages; 20 pages address health-care issues.

Statements on health care

General Conference has spoken many times on health care-related concerns over the years. The Social Principles—also addressed to nations in Africa, Asia and Europe—declare, “We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.”

The 2008 General Conference reaffirmed concerns expressed by previous sessions about the number of uninsured Americans and the cost of insurance that keeps minorities in the poverty cycle. During its meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, the legislative body advocated for “a comprehensive health care delivery system that includes access for all, quality care and effective management of costs.”

Noting that the nation is divided on the philosophical bases for addressing America’s health care delivery problems, the assembly supported “state-level initiatives that become laboratories for trying out varying approaches to providing health care for all.”

Finally, the gathering charged the United Methodist Board of Church and Society “with primary responsibility for advocating health care for all in the United States Congress and for communicating this policy to United Methodists in the USA.”

Board of Church and Society

Operating from a building across the street from the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court building, the Board of Church and Society’s primary responsibility is to “seek the implementation of the Social Principles and other policy statements of the General Conference on Christian social concerns.”

Responding to that mandate, the agency continued to advocate for what it considered the best plan to provide health care for all Americans. Jim Winkler, top staff executive for the agency, led efforts to pass legislation that would provide insurance that would provide such care.

In addition, several other United Methodist leaders—including Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops—individually urged President Obama to pass health care reform legislation months before the complex bill was made into law. At least five official and unofficial United Methodist organizations also advocated for reform.

No need for agreement

In Congress, the debate divided United Methodist representatives, with some supporting the bill and more opposing it.

Every United Methodist has a right to petition General Conference to amend the Social Principles and, if a majority of delegates agree, the statements will be changed by the 2012 assembly. Pastors or district superintendents can supply information about the petition process.

Very little United Methodist money is involved in advocacy efforts. Only 3.1 cents of every dollar goes to support all the general level ministries of the denomination, and only a portion of that amount supports the entire program of the Board of Church and Society—and work on health care represents a small portion of the agenda of that agency. Withholding funds from a local church cripples ministries around the world.

Church members have many options for expressing viewpoints and concerns in the church. They can directly contact their pastor, bishop, the appropriate general agency or one of the many church-affiliated organizations and unofficial groups that represent specific causes in the church.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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