General Conference 2004, Part 3: Our Social Creed's Centennial
By: Ray Waddle
Editor's Note: This is the third in a seven-part series of Interpreter articles about the people, plans and issues related to the 2004 General Conference. The top legislative assembly of the United Methodist Church, which convenes every four years, meets April 27-May 7, 2004. For more information, visit www.umc.org/gc2004.
The United Methodist Social Creed ... Can you recite it?
No? You're not alone. The Social Creed is a distinctive contribution to U.S. religious life, and it's been around for nearly a century, but most United Methodists seldom hear it, speak it or know its contents.
That should change soon.
The church is gearing up for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Social Creed, as well as the denomination's larger body of Social Principles, in order to raise the profile of the denomination's social witness in the world and within the church's own borders.
The 2004 General Conference will assess proposals by the General Board of Church and Society to galvanize interest in the Social Principles, which are found in The Book of Discipline (pgs. 95-120) and The Book of Resolutions (pgs. 37-64).
The principles, adopted every four years by the denomination's international legislative assembly, summarize United Methodist convictions about social action in the life of faith. The Board of Church and Society is assigned to advocate for the Social Principles in as broad a public forum as possible.
"John Wesley put it well: There's only one holiness, and that's social holiness," says Jaydee Hanson, an assistant general secretary at the board, based in Washington, D.C.
"The gospel is not one part piety and one part social action. A key to United Methodist identity is our social witness," he adds.
Creed was groundbreaking
The church's Social Creed was first produced in 1908; it was an unusually strident denominational statement for its time. It decried child labor and supported the economic rights of workers, better workplace conditions, better wages and worker safety.
It was later expanded and renamed the Social Principles, now including sections on political values, human rights, economic life, the environment and other dimensions of social ministry. The final part of the Social Principles is "Our Social Creed," a phrase echoing the original Social Creed, and including passages such as:
"We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities."
The Social Creed, last revised in 1972, was designed to be read in regular worship services, but the practice is not broad-based. The Board of Church and Society will encourage churches and annual conferences to study, celebrate and reinterpret the Social Creed through music, art and other means during the next quadrennium leading up to a 2008 churchwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of our Social Creed.
Proponents hope to make the creed more user-friendly and readable—even adaptable for music—so that United Methodist worshipers may use it in communion and other settings.
Meanwhile, the Social Principles face another round of possible amendments in 2004. This is customary at each General Conference—and often controversial.
The Social Principles speak to various shifting urgent issues of social injustice and other ills. General Conference—made up of 1,000 delegates representing every United Methodist annual conference in the world—is the legislative body with the power to write and revise the principles.
The Social Principles have no legal binding power, but they are commended to individuals and congregations for study, dialogue and practice.
Changes proposed in 2004
Any United Methodist individual or congregation can propose amendments to the Social Principles (or to church law in The Book of Discipline). The Board of Church and Society is proposing the following amendments that would:
• Change the "Military Service" passage to say the church acknowledges that "many Christians believe that when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide."
• Declare that international trade and investment should be based on rules that support human dignity, a clean environment and our common humanity.
• Call on legislators and health care providers to make available appropriate mental illness treatment and rehabilitation for people addicted to drugs.
• Assert that people with brain diseases, neurological conditions or physical disabilities must be afforded the same access to health care as all others in our communities.
• Include people with mental conditions or brain disorders among those against whom we do not discriminate.
• Add language on the separation of church and state that reads in part, "Separation of church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction. The state should not use its authority to promote particular religious beliefs (including atheism), nor should it require prayer or worship in the public schools, but it should leave students free to practice their own religious convictions. We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state."
Ray Waddle author of A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time [Upper Room Books , (800) 972-0433], is a writer based in Nashville, Tenn.