Tempest in a Texas Teapot: The Bush Library and the Methodists

Some United Methodists challenge partisan think tank as part of Bush library at SMU.

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Corrected on 2/8/08: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Kansas area jurisdictional bishop. He is Bishop Scott Jones.

The plan to include a partisan think tank in the proposed George W. Bush presidential library at Southern Methodist University has provoked an outcry from many SMU faculty and alumni as well as concerned United Methodist clergy and laypeople from around the country. In a press release circulated last week, some of those critics charged that the proposal of the George W. Bush Foundation was approved without being put through procedures required by United Methodist church law. Here, in part, is what the release says:

"In a conference call held on January 9, 2008, the eleven active United Methodist bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction were asked to issue an interpretation of United Methodist church law that would circumvent a vote by lay and clergy delegates and permit the immediate establishment of a partisan Bush institute at Southern Methodist University (SMU) along with the planned Bush presidential library. The request to the bishops came from the George W. Bush Foundation.

"The controversial institute, dedicated to promoting the domestic and international views of George W. Bush, would not be under the supervision of SMU and would hire without regard to university policy. No other university with a presidential library has permitted such an institute on its campus.....

"The South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church owns SMU and has the final say about the use of university property. In addition to the Bush presidential library, the Bush Foundation is seeking to establish at the university a controversial partisan institute devoted to 'promoting the views of George W. Bush on international and domestic matters,' as stated by Marvin Bush, the president's brother. The Foundation acknowledges that the institute would not be under the supervision of the university and that hiring would be without regard to university policy.

"In the conference call, the eleven active bishops were asked to interpret church law to declare that the decision of the Mission Council, a 21-member interim body which approved the use of SMU land for the institute after heavy lobbying by a 10-4 vote in March, 2007, is final. This would permit the Bush Foundation to avoid submitting the matter to the 290 Jurisdictional Conference delegates meeting in Dallas in July, 2008, where the outcome of such a vote is in doubt.....

"However, Reverend David Severe, Director of Mission and Administration for the South Central Jurisdiction, wrote to an SMU professor on October 6, 2007, that 'All actions taken by the Mission Council interim the Jurisdictional Conference must be ratified by the next Jurisdictional Conference session.'

"He cited church law from the 2004 Jurisdictional Journal: "The Council shall be subject to the following and specific limitations of authority: All actions taken by The Council shall be valid and in full effect within the South Central Jurisdiction until the next regular session of the (Jurisdictional) Conference.... The chairperson of the Council shall submit to each regular quadrennial meeting of the Conference a written report of all actions taken by the Council during the quadrennium."

"To not protect their right to vote on the use of land by the George W. Bush Foundation is a violation of the democratic and open processes of our church," said Bishop Kenneth W. Hicks [a retired bishop living in Little Rock, Ark.]. "I am worried that the disenfranchisement of Jurisdictional Conference delegates will undermine our ministry together as a church."

It is a strong bill of particulars that would seem to suggest a clear violation of established church law. But one of the 11 active jurisdiction bishops who voted on the issue, the Rt. Rev. Scott Jones, of the Kansas Episcopal Area, said in a phone interview that the charges are based on outright misunderstanding of those laws. He explains that in every part of the approval process, he and the other 10 active bishops were acting fully within the bounds of their authority as the executive body of the jurisdiction.

First, Bishop Jones says, jurisdiction bishops have the right to decide on procedures of governance within the jurisdiction. When urgent matters are at hand, they are entitled either to call a special meeting of the jurisdictional conference or to hand the vote over to Mission Council. In this case, they decided on the latter, and the council approved the Bush Foundation proposal. Bishop Jones adds that this determination will be in effect until ratified in the July meeting of the conference.

But—and here is the nub of the difference—the critics say that the conference's power to ratify will be rendered meaningless if construction begins before the conference convenes. By affirming on January 9 (by a vote of 10 in favor, one abstaining) their decision to allow the council to rule on the proposal, the jurisdiction bishops were, according to Andrew Weaver, a United Methodist pastor and graduate of SMU, exercising interpretive powers that are reserved to the Judicial Court of the United Methodist Church.

Not so, says Bishop Jones. That court rules only on laws governing the entire church. But each jurisdiction has its own laws (of which the law in this instance is one), and interpretation of those laws is left to jurisdiction bishops. The bishops, in other words, were fully within their rights to affirm their earlier decision to allow the Mission Council to vote on the Bush Foundation proposal. And responding to the charge that the university will have no oversight over the academic operation of the institute, Bishop Jones claims that firewalls between the university and the institute are securely in place.

It is a dense procedural tangle, to be sure. But even if the procedural correctness of the bishops is ever acknowledged, it is unlikely that the discontent of the critics will subside. "Would we be having this controversy," Bishop Jones asks, "if George W. Bush weren't such a controversial president?"