S.C. to join United Methodists across globe for quadrennial legislative gathering
By Jessica Brodie
PORTLAND, Ore.—This May, South Carolina delegates will join with hundreds of United Methodists around the world for the denomination’s quadrennial legislative gathering, General Conference.
Set for May 10-20 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon, General Conference is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church and meets once every four years. The conference can revise church law, as well as adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs.
General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the full church.
South Carolina is sending 16 delegates—eight clergy and eight laity—to the conference. All delegates will revise The Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which the church is organized; revise The Book of Resolutions, which declares the church’s stance on social justice issues; approve plans and budgets for church programs; and elect members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate.
“The sheer enormity of a gathering like this where United Methodist from across the globe come together just amazes me,” said Barbara Ware, conference lay leader and vice chairperson of the South Carolina Delegation; this is her second time as a delegate. “Even though there are many different languages spoken during General Conference, we are all connected through our love and commitment for Jesus Christ as members of the UMC. I look forward to meeting people from different cultures and countries. My prayer for GC2016 is that Jesus Christ will be glorified in all we say and do.”
Six-time delegate Dr. Tim McClendon, chair of the South Carolina delegation and the delegation’s episcopal nominee, said he hopes “the entire conference will pray we will have a productive, peaceful, fruitful General Conference so we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Now, the delegation is busy holding monthly meetings and spending time in prayer and discernment in preparation for their time in Portland. Among other things, this General Conference will address how the UMC ministers with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, which has been one of the more divisive issues facing the denomination of late (see two South Carolina clergy do a point/counterpoint here). But hundreds of other pieces of legislation will be considered, from restructuring to passage of the UMC budget to a possible United States central conference to more than 70 social justice petitions on bullying, human trafficking, gun control and more.
McClendon, along with delegates Dr. David Braddon and the Rev. Mel Arant Jr., were able to attend a jurisdictional legislative gathering Feb. 9 to better understand some of the issues they will vote on at General Conference. Three others from South Carolina also attended a pre-General Conference briefing in Portland in January to learn much the same: the Rev. Kathy James, director of Connectional Ministries and a Jurisdictional Conference delegate, as well as Communications Director Matt Brodie and Advocate Editor Jessica Brodie.
Legislation and handbook information about General Conference is included in the advance edition of the Daily Christian Advocate, available at www.umc.org/who-we-are/gc2016-advance-edition-daily-christian-advocate. The edition is available in English, French, Kiswahili and Portuguese.
During their time at General Conference, South Carolina delegates will join their counterparts from the United States and the seven Central Conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central and Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and the Philippines. According to the ADCA, the UMC connection includes approximately 12.8 million members: 58 percent of the delegates are from the United States, 30 percent are from Africa, 4.6 percent from Europe and 5.8 percent from the Philippines.
The following is an overview courtesy of the United Methodist News Service of some of the issues the body will consider at GC2016.
The General Council on Finance and Administration's board and the Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $611.4 million for general church funds in 2017-2020. That’s about a 1.4 percent increase above the $603.1 million general church budget approved at the 2012 General Conference. With projected inflation, that budget actually represents a 7.2 percent spending decrease in real dollars, said Moses Kumar, the top executive of GCFA.
The finance agency’s board also is proposing that, for the first time, UMCs in Africa, Asia and Europe would have a set formula to support the denomination’s global ministries. Under the proposal, central conference apportionments would contribute to two of the seven general church funds—the Episcopal and General Administration funds.
Human sexuality and the alternative process
Much time at General Conference is expected to focus on human sexuality. In a UMNS article by Heather Hahn and Kathy L. Gilbert, “Preview to General Conference Debate on Homosexuality,” the Discipline since 1972 has proclaimed that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The denomination bans the performance of same-sex unions and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
The debate has intensified in recent years as more jurisdictions and nations, including the United States, legally recognize same-sex marriage. More United Methodist clergy, including a retired bishop, have officiated openly at same-sex weddings and some United Methodists have raised the possibility of a denominational split.
At the same time, African bishops have explicitly called on The United Methodist Church to hold the line on its teachings regarding sexuality, especially the one that only affirms sexual relations in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Bishops do not vote at General Conference but their guidance can shape discussion.
An alternative group discernment process could help General Conference with challenging conversations on human sexuality and other matters. The proposal, nicknamed Rule 44 because it follows General Conference's Rule 43, could be used with legislation on human sexuality if the rule is adopted.
For more on the alternative process, see the UMNS story here.
Changes for bishops, clergy
Bishops would no longer be elected for life, ordination of United Methodist elders and deacons would be faster and the first step would be taken to allow doing away with guaranteed appointment under legislation being proposed to the 2016 General Conference.
However, since term limits and guaranteed appointment would require changes to the denomination’s constitution, those reforms would come slowly, even if approved.
Bishop Grant Hagiya, Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, a member of the 2013-2016 Ministry Study Commission, said the commission wanted to give conferences “maximum flexibility.”
Hagiya said the commission proposed ordination when a candidate is approved for provisional membership, although conference membership would come only after the provisional period was completed. Other proposed changes would allow a bachelor’s degree to fulfill requirements for Course of Study for local pastors and eliminate commissioning.
The Association of Annual Conference Lay leaders proposed seven points of reform for bishops, including term limits. Under the term-limit proposal, a bishop would be elected for eight years and could run again for another eight-year term. The terms would be the same worldwide.
The legislation on guaranteed appointment, or security of appointment, would remove the constitutional barrier identified by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference approved legislation that would have allowed bishops to give elders less than full-time appointment and added steps for discontinuing elders and associate members from receiving an appointment.
U.S. central conference?
One of the frequent complaints about General Conference is that delegates spend much of the 10-day global meeting on issues that strictly focus on the United States. Two plans to address this concern by creating a central conference or similar body to encompass the entire United States.
Currently, the denomination has seven central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Each has the authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require. Members of the Central Texas and North Texas conferences are bringing legislation to create a United States Central Conference that would meet in conjunction with General Conference.
A task force appointed by the Northeastern Jurisdiction is bringing “A Global Connection Plan” that would rename General Conference as the Global Connectional Conference, restrict its work to church matters that are global in nature and add continent-wide bodies called connections, including a North American connection. The plan also would replace United States jurisdictions and central conferences with bodies called regions.
Under both the plans, the denomination’s global legislative meeting would be shorter but would remain the only body that can speak for the whole denomination. Both plans also would require amendments to the denomination’s constitution.
A number of formal and informal proposals regarding the denomination’s structure and connection will come before the General Conference. One of those proposals is “Plan UMC Revised.” The plan removes provisions ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference adopted “Plan UMC,” a compromise proposal. Under Plan UMC Revised, the current Commission on Religion and Race and Commission on the Status and Role of Women would be merged into a committee on inclusiveness. The plans also folds the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History into the denomination’s finance agency.
Looking ahead to 2020
A draft of a new general, or global, Book of Discipline will be presented to General Conference for affirmation, said Bishop Patrick Streiff, chairperson of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, “so that we know we can work on to finalize it for the 2020 General Conference.” The goal is to have feedback on the draft from every annual conference by the end of 2017.
Benedita Penicela Nhambiu, a member of the denomination’s Connectional Table, said there will be an effort to realign that body to make it more representative, both in terms of geography and age groups.
A petition for a comprehensive collaborative plan for Africa would increase the episcopal areas in that region from 13 to 18 if the final report is approved by the 2020 General Conference, she said.
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society has been holding listening sessions on the denomination’s Social Principles around the world. The agency is seeking guidance, clarity and diverse voices as the agency prepares to revise the document for the 2020 General Conference.
The 2016 General Conference will be asked to continue and fund those conversations for four more years, said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the social justice agency.
A proposal for a digitized, customizable United Methodist Hymnal would include a core section of required music and Wesleyan liturgical resources and a cloud-based library allowing congregations to create what they need for their own ministry setting. If passed, work would begin Jan. 1, 2017, on a finalized proposal to be approved by the 2020 General Conference.
For more detailed information on GC2016 and legislation, visit gc2016.umc.org. The Advocate will follow General Conference through the event, with post-conference coverage available in the June edition.
United Methodist News Service contributed to this report. Read their article here.