Day One of General Conference opens with call for hope, hard work

By Jessica Brodie

CHARLOTTE—Calling for United Methodists worldwide to embrace a future of hope and possibility, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton brought a word of optimism and diligence as he preached the opening worship service Tuesday, April 23, at the postponed 2020 United Methodist General Conference.

General Conference officially opened a little after 2 p.m. Tuesday, kicking off what is expected to be 10 full days of prayer, debate, and legislative action that will ultimately guide The United Methodist Church for the next four years.

Sixteen lay and clergy delegates from South Carolina joined delegates from Africa, Europe, Asia and the U.S. for a service of worship and Holy Communion that called for a spirit of revival to wash over the church.

Bickerton, who is president of the UMC Council of Bishops, began his message by reading Psalm 46:1-11 before calling upon God for an indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit upon those gathered at the Charlotte Convention Center. Acknowledging the tough season the denomination has experienced, Bickerton urged God’s people to move beyond a divided, fractured and dismayed church to embrace the revival God is stirring in their midst.

“God is not through with this thing called The United Methodist Church,” Bickerton said to applause.

Instead of further fracture, he urged those gathered to set aside differences and negativity and instead embrace compassion and companionship.

“Do you want to be in this room?” he asked the crowd.

If not, if they’re not willing to move forward, Bickerton said, “Maybe you are in the wrong place.”

“We don’t have time for vendettas and last-gasp jabs,” he said. “Friends, we’ve got work to do. Are you ready to do it?”

He invited all to pray that God’s will be done—not our own.

“The stage is set for us to embark on the next chapter of our life together,” Bickerton preached to a chorus of amens.

Bickerton was one of many who took the stage April 23.

Opening worship for the 10-day event was slated to begin at 2 p.m. sharp, but an unexpected fire marshal inspection pushed things back a bit, opening instead at roughly 2:15 p.m.

Still, spirits appeared to be high as a processional of UMC bishops United Methodist bishops made their way to the altar to the tune of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

Next, attendees watched as a photography montage provided a glimpse of all that had transpired since the last time General Conference met, eight years ago, featuring images of everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to natural disasters to the wars in Ukraine, the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.

Special guest the Rev. Douglas Locklear, of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, offered a Native American blessing along with a welcoming prayer, and other prayers were offered by

the Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, the Rev. Larry Whitehead and the Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley  before an offering and time of Holy Communion.

After a short break, the first General Conference plenary session was held. Bickerton called the session to order at roughly 4:30 p.m., inviting Bishop Forrest Stith, the UMC’s oldest living bishop, to lead the body in prayer.

General Conference Secretary Gary Graves presented the official roll call and the setting of the bar of conference, followed by General Conference business manager Sara Hotchkiss, who reviewed emergency procedures.

Host bishops Kenneth Carter and Connie Shelton offered a greeting from Charlotte, with Carter acknowledging this session was taking place on the land of the Catawba people.

Next, the Rev. Giovanni Arroyo of the General Commission on Religion and Race and Dawn Wiggins Hare of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women reviewed the role of monitoring, inviting all speakers to note only state their name and conference but also their race, gender, pronouns and other information to help draw needed attention to diversity and representation.

After a video on the power of communication, the body received an orientation on speaker recognition and voting, including a test ballot.

Next came the report of the Commission on the General Conference.

Kim Simpson reported that out of 862 registered delegates, only 751 were present in person (87 percent of the total). For context, at General Conference 2016, 786 out of 864 were present (91 percent). She cited COVID, travel restrictions, deaths, failure to elect reserve delegates, and missing passports as stated reasons for the reduction in numbers.

Hearing this, a resolution was proposed by the Rev. David Livingston of the Great Plains Conference that affirmed concerns about the large discrepancy between the number of delegates allocated and the number in attendance. The resolution also asked the General Conference secretary to submit a report on what happened and instructed the General Conference commission to ensure proportional representation in the future. It also urged delegates to listen to and consider voices from underrepresented regions.

That resolution passed 669 to 40.

General Conference convened for the evening at 6:30.

Meeting every four years, General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the denomination. The United Methodist Book of Discipline, updated every four years, incorporates changes made by General Conference.

In all, the gathering is expected to draw as many as 7,500 people, including volunteers, media and general attendees.

Wednesday’s business is slated to begin at 8 a.m.

In other General Conference news:

• The UMC’s Judicial Council released five decisions April 23, the first day of General Conference, key among them that only General Conference can determine how to handle the elections of the court’s membership. Read more here:

• Regionalization is moving on to consideration by the full General Conference. Meeting just ahead of General Conference, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters advanced five petitions representing the bulk of proposed worldwide regionalization. That means the petitions have cleared the first hurdle faced by all legislation at General Conference, which is making it out of committee. Read more here:

• The United Methodist Global AIDS Committee facilitated a daylong Breaking Barriers Conference April 22 in Charlotte as part of the run-up to General Conference. Read more here:

• The United Methodist Creation Justice Movement—in partnership with United Women in Faith, Global Ministries and the Board of Church and Society—held a special Earth Day Vigil April 22 in Charlotte. See more here:

Some important info:

Who are the delegates representing South Carolina?

What are the 14 legislative committees (and who from S.C. is on them?)

Read the Advocate's overview article on GC

More General Conference information

Read the Advance Daily Christian Advocate

See for Yourself: Watch GC on Livestream

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