Therefore, go: GC2016

South Carolina returns from 11-day global General Conference

By Jessica Brodie

(Read full coverage of General Conference—click here)

PORTLAND, Ore.—They came together in worship and prayer to decide the business of The United Methodist Church. And at the end of it all, they remained a united United Methodist Church with a new way forward that delegates hope reflects God’s will.

Sixteen South Carolina delegates were among the 864 United Methodists from around the world who headed to Portland May 10-20 for General Conference, the UMC’s quadrennial legislative gathering. Delegates are tasked with approving the church budget and revising the UMC Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the full UMC.

“It’s been a long 10 days,” said Dr. Tim McClendon, South Carolina delegation chair and episcopal nominee the day before the conference ended, citing emotional highs and lows as he and the other delegates worked to examine roughly 1,000 pieces of legislation as they revised church law and doctrine.

Amid heated protests and demonstrations over the church’s stance on sexuality that interrupted business and prompted international headlines, the UMC managed to hit pause on the contentious debate—for now. On May 18, General Conference voted 428-405 to shift sexuality discussion and all 56 legislative items to a study commission, plus possibly call a special General Conference in 2018 or 2019 to handle any proposals. The plan put forth by the Council of Bishops, “An Offering for a Way Forward,” means the UMC maintains its current language on sexuality—that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching—while the commission takes a deeper look at the issues.

South Carolinians reacted with both gratitude and frustration over the vote, with some seeing it as a sideways move that does nothing more than delay needed action, and others seeing it as a good way to take a step back and breathe before deciding something so complicated. (See full article here.)

The body was able to address a number of other key pieces of legislation, from passage of a $604 million budget to creation of a new hymnal to a mandatory withdrawal from a reproductive rights group.

Here are highlights:

Rule 44 rejected

Before committee work began, the body spent three days debating and ultimately rejecting Rule 44, an alternative method for discussing legislation. Delegates voted 477-355 not to engage in the group discernment process that had been recommended by the Commission on General Conference after 2012 General Conference requested they develop an alternative process to Robert’s Rules of Order for certain hot-button topics such as human sexuality.

Rule 44 would have used small groups to give all delegates a chance to weigh in on selected petitions. Currently, legislation is divided into committee, where it is first explored, discussed, debated and finally approved or rejected before moving on to the full body. But because sexuality and certain other petitions—like whether or not to ordain gay clergy—are so divisive and take up so much time on the floor between debate and demonstrations, the commission came up with a plan where the entire body would discuss some of these divisive topics in small groups of no more than 15 people each. This would give all delegates a chance to weigh in on selected petitions.

However, much distrust and disagreement about the group discernment process ensued at the start of General Conference, with one delegate noting it was untested and didn’t offer enough space for expressing disagreement.

$604M budget passes

With overwhelming support (751 to 33), delegates passed a $604 million budget for the next quadrennium (2017-2020), higher than the $599 million budget proposed and slightly higher than the current $603.1 million budget.

Much of the increase came from a decision to double the UMC’s support (approving $5 million) for the Central Conference Theological Education Fund for pastors-to-be in Africa, Asia and Europe.

The body also passed a set formula for central conferences to financially support the denomination’s global ministries through apportionments. Through apportionments, each annual conference or church pays a certain amount to support the UMC’s missions, both locally and globally. The new formula enables central conferences to do the same.

The budget includes $310.7 million for the World Service Fund (most of the UMC’s 13 agencies), $104.9 million for the Ministerial Education Fund, $92 million for the Episcopal Fund, $41.9 million for the Black College Fund, $36.9 million for the General Administration Fund, nearly $9.4 million for Africa University and $8.2 million for the Interdenominational Cooperation Fund (UMC’s ecumenical work).

Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre

May 18 featured a detailed presentation on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre from a historian and descendants of the survivors of the attack. That year, a Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, Col. John Chivington, led a surprise attack on a Cheyenne and Arapaho camp. The slaughter took the lives of hundreds of Native Americans, including women and children.

General Conference 1996 apologized for the Methodist involvement in the massacre, but erred in some historical details. General Conference 2012 held an “Act of Repentance” worship to help establish healing relationships. This year’s presentation took the atonement effort a step further with a full-scale lamentation.

Historian Gary L. Roberts spoke about his lengthy report, “Remembering The Sand Creek Massacre: A Historical Review of Methodist Involvement, Influence, and Response,” now available as a book by Abingdon Press.

Judicial Council rulings

Prior to and during General Conference, the Judicial Council met to decide several key matters.

They ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory clergy penalties during the “just resolution” process for a clergyperson admitting to committing a chargeable offense. The rationale was that the mandatory penalty would deny a clergyperson the right to trial and appeal. Penalty setting lies with the bishop, not the trial court.

They also ruled unconstitutional Plan UMC Revised, which would have realigned the UMC’s structure. Among other things, the plan would have given new authority and power to the UMC’s Connectional Table, which serves as the denomination’s visioning body and steward of resources to carry out that vision worldwide.

They ruled that two paragraphs (Para. 16 and 33) on General and Annual conferences related to standards of ministry and ordination are not in conflict with the UMC constitution. (Para. 16.2 authorizes General Conference to “define and fix the powers and duties” of clergy, while Para. 33 gives annual conferences the ability to vote on “character and conference relations of its clergy members and on the ordination of clergy.”

The Judicial Council also ruled unconstitutional the creation of a new Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth that would have been funded by $20 million taken from the UMC’s World Service Fund, which funds most UMC agencies.

Other matters

Also at General Conference:

  • Delegates approved a new Internet-based-cloud United Methodist hymnal that will be available both digitally and in print (see article here);
  • A massive Imagine No Malaria celebration featured “American Idol” contestant Jeremy Rosado and announced a new global health initiative (see article here);
  • The United Methodist Development Fund became a freestanding entity (see article here);
  • The General Board of Church and Society and the United Methodist Women were told to withdraw immediately from membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (see article here);
  • Delegates voted down a proposal to make the United States UMC a central conference;
  • Delegates did not pass legislation on term limits for bishops;
  • There will be no change in the ordination process;
  • Africa will get five more bishops after General Conference 2020;
  • Delegates voted not to add a fossil fuels investment screen for the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits;
  • Delegates voted not to divest from companies doing business in Israel;
  • One Great Hour of Sharing will now be known as UMCOR Sunday, and the body approved two other special non-offering Sundays (Women’s Ministry Sunday and Volunteer in Mission Awareness Sunday); and
  • Several key anniversaries were celebrated: 60 years of clergywomen, 200 years since the death of Bishop Francis Asbury, the 250th anniversary of the oldest UMC (John Street Church in New York City), the 30th anniversary of the Disciple Bible study, the upcoming 25th anniversary of Africa University and the coming 150th anniversary of the United Methodist Women, the latter with a daylong celebration May 16 that also included a clean water rally (see article on the rally here).

More on General Conference

Some information courtesy of UMNS.

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