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Does the United Methodist Church Really Support Saturday's 'One Nation' March?

Faith

The e-mails hit my inbox today almost as soon as Glenn started talking about the 10/2 rally this weekend and my story detailing who had joined on as supporters. The organization most were concerned about was the United Methodist Church (UMC). How could the UMC fall into the same category as the Democratic Socialists and support this Saturday's “One Nation Working Together” march? Could this be true?

Heeding Glenn's advice ("question with boldness"), some of you even contacted your local Methodist Bishop and denomination headquarters to see if the UMC had in fact officially endorsed Saturday's rally. The answers you received, and forwarded to me, were mixed: some said "no," while others were unsure. We take such claims seriously, so I began a little investigation.

Let me take you on a journey.

I first read the following statement last night while checking the New York Times for any news that might be important to you. The statement was couched in an article on this weekend's progressive 10/2 march:

“the march is co-sponsored by the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the National Baptist Convention and several Jewish organizations.”

In the article, author Steve Greenberg makes the statement after speaking with a representative from the UMC (and after quoting a Methodist Reverend later in the story). I decided to check with the author about his story, and he was gracious enough to exchange multiple e-mails and several phone calls with me. Here is how he explains his story:

I was originally told by a p.r. person for the Oct. 2 march that the United Church of Christ, National Baptist Convention and United Methodist Church were backing the march. And I thought it would be interesting to speak with an official from the UMC about why they were backing the march because it seemed somewhat surprising that the Methodists would because they are not perceived to be as liberal as the United Church of Christ or the National Baptist Convention.

I had a good interview with someone from the United Methodist Church who told me that the church's General Board of Church and Society "had signed on as a partner." Because I wasn't very familiar with the inner workings of the Methodist church, I called back the next day just to double-check whether the endorsement by that general board meant that I could write that the overall United Methodist Church had endorsed the Oct. 2 march. And this official said, yes, it would be accurate for me to write that.

Evidently I was misinformed. Today Diane Degnan, a spokeswoman for the UMC, told me that one can only say that the UMC endorses something once the UMC's general conference has endorsed it. And here evidently the General Conference hasn't taken a position on the march, just the General Board of Church and Society has, with its endorsement.

That's interesting. And technical. So I called the church's headquarters and left a message with Rev. Stapleton, who was quoted in the Times piece as being a spokesperson and who had been quoted saying some things that could be considered supporting the march. I never received a response.

I then called the public relations person listed on the UMC's website, Diane Degnan, whom Greenberg references in his message to me. After an initial conversation promising she would do some digging, she called back and explained that, after speaking with several people, the UMC as a whole does not support the rally. Rather, "the General Board of Church and Society -- which is the special advocacy agency of the United Methodist Church -- endorses the principles of the event, but they are not a co-sponsor of the event." She added that as an agency and arm of the Church, the General Board of Church and Society does not speak for the entire denomination: "they only speak for their own agency."

I was still confused. I will admit I am not a Methodist, so the distinction to me seemed elementary. I called back and was passed along to Wayne Rhodes, director of communications for the General Board of Church and Society. Admittedly, Rhodes had to give me a lesson in the Methodist denomination -- and he was patient and thorough in his explanation.

He explained that the Methodist Church does not have one single leader, but rather four general agencies and "12 or 13" general commissions spread out across the country. A single agency or commission cannot speak for the entire denomination -- only a once-every-four-year General Conference can do that. "And certainly [the General Conference] didn't adopt any resolution related to the 'One Nation World March' [sic]," Rhodes said. So, he added, it would be "impossible" for Rev. Stapleton to speak on behalf of the entire Methodist Church.

Fair enough. But even if the Church as a whole isn't endorsing the march, why does the General Board of Church and Society think it's okay to do so? According to Rhodes, the General Conference has ordered the Board "to support activities and to promote things that are consistent with" the denomination's principles. And since the march's core principles "are very consistent" with the denomination's positions on issues such as jobs, education, and work, the Board endorsed the march and has no problem doing so.

In fact, Rhodes said, the General Board of Church and Society went as far as telling fellow United Methodists to attend the rally in its e-newsletter, "Faith in Action." "We encouraged [United Methodists] to come to the march," Rhodes said, "because [it] is consistent with our principles." Rhodes directed me to the website where I could find this newsletter. The endorsement can be seen here, and the exact language states:

The United Methodist General Board of Church & Society endorses a march on Saturday, Oct. 2, to demonstrate re-commitment to change in the United States. ... While GBCS has not been involved in planning the march or supporting it financially, GBCS encourages United Methodists to participate in the One Nation march because of its four core principles. [Emphasis added.]

That is slightly different than what I was told today by Diane Degnan. The above statement, in its entirety, says the Board is endorsing the event because of its principles, not just the principles themselves. In an email to me, Degnan highlighted the distinction:

The United Methodist Church is not sponsoring the rally in Washington, D.C. The General Board of Church and Society endorses the principles of this event; however, they are not a co-sponsor. They had no planning role and provided no financial support. While the General Board of Church and Society is an agency of the church, they do not speak for the denomination as a whole. [Emphasis added.]

An e-mail to Degnan seeking comment regarding the discrepancy was not returned in time for publication.

Interesting. But I digress.

So was the Board worried about being lumped in with some of the others that are endorsing the event, such as the Democratic Socialists? No. According to Rhodes, the gentleman who made the decision to encourage attendance did so "because many of the people we work in coalition with, who are involved in poverty ministries, are involved with this march." What are those organizations? Among those Rhodes mentioned are Jubilee USA, Pax Christi (a Roman Catholic organization), and Sojourners (Jim Wallis's organization). "These are very legitimate organizations," he said, and "if they're comfortable with it, I think we're fairly comfortable with it."

I then asked one final question: if the Board is easily confused with the entire Methodist Church, and since Rhodes cannot explain the inner workings of the denomination to everyone, why endorse such an event at all? Those inside the church will understand the distinction, he said. And even though "people outside of the church are going to be confused, there's no ifs, ands, or buts, about that," he's not too worried about people making the wrong assumption at the rally because "we're not even one of the major sponsors."

The entire issue, he explained, stems from Greenberg's confusion: "Amy Stapleton is not a spokesperson for the United Methodist Church. No one is a spokesperson for the United Methodist Church." Rather, Rev. Stapleton was making a personal statement when she was talking about the event, and he added that Stapleton doesn't even work for the Board, but rather for one of the "12 or 13" commissions mentioned above -- specifically the General Commission on Religion and Race, which reports directly to the General Council. That, however, does not mean that the Board does not still support the march. It does.

And now the story has come full circle. This evening, Greenberg and the Times have issued a clarification (attached to the bottom of the original article):

An article on Monday about a coalition of liberal groups planning a rally in  Washington on Saturday, using information provided by a high-level minister for the United Methodist Church, referred incorrectly to the church's role in the event. A board within the United Methodist Church has endorsed the principles of the rally, but the overall church has not endorsed the rally. Also, after the article was published, the church's director of communications said that the minister, the Rev. Amy Stapleton, was not speaking on behalf of the church.

In all, that's a lot to digest. So let's recap:

  1. Amy Stapleton is not a spokesperson for the United Methodist Church -- no one is.
  2. The General Board of Church and Society has endorsed the march and its principles, not the United Methodist Church as a whole.
  3. Diane Degnan went out of her way to point out that the Board only supports the march's principles -- yet the endorsement given in the Board's e-newsletter says that the Board "endorses" the march and encourages participation "because" of the march's principles; it doesn't only support the principles themselves.
  4. The Times issued a clarification, and the author was either misinformed, misunderstood the church's way of governance, or made an unfair conclusion.
  5. The rally's core principles and the core principles of the UMC are aligned.
  6. The General Board of Church and Society is not concerned about the others who are supporting the rally.
  7. I am not a Methodist and needed this explained to me several times.

Clear? I hope so. Keep questioning with boldness.

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