Well, I’ve wimped out and gone to my hotel room, but the General Conference is still meeting in plenary session. (You can watch the proceedings video stream at umc.org.) It’s nearly 11:00 pm central time as I write this blog.
I subbed again today for someone else, so I was in the session all day until dinner time. Since the General Conference time frame has been shortened by 2 days this time, some legislative committees have had to work overtime, during lunch time, any time they could find time to meet in order to finish their work. They must finish it in order to present it to the General Conference plenary session.
I think we saw/see today the nervousness created by the sub-conscious sense that we don’t have as much time as usual, yet there are some big changes coming. Today’s highlights, in my mind, are two.
First, the Judicial Council elections suggest an assertion of episcopal power. Two people, one lay and one clergy, were “voted off the island” of Judicial Council and I suspect that, in part, they were because of the controversy over Judicial Council ruling #1032. That decision supported the authority of a pastor to refuse a person admittance into membership of a local church, if that person does not seem to the pastor to be ready to say yes to all the vows. The case that got this controversy going was that of an openly sexually active gay man who was refused membership by the pastor because he would not agree to the church’s stance on homosexual practice, although he was very active in the church. This decision prompted the bishop of that area to remove the pastor from the pulpit. The case went to Judicial Council, who determined – with a good deal of disagreement on the Council reminiscent of split votes on the Supreme Court – that the pastor in fact did have the right to refuse membership. This meant that the bishop had to reinstate the pastor to his charge. I’m thinking of an old TV ad about fooling with Mother Nature. It’s not nice to fool with episcopal authority.
The people elected today replaced the Council members who had taken the leada on Decision #32, which, to be blunt, upset the bishops (they clearly felt they had the authority to do what that bishop had done). The new people elected were all Council of Bishops nominees. It would be easy to interpret this change as the church’s lurching toward a reversal of its stance toward homosexual practice. I think the change has to do more with episcopal authority.
The other noticeable event of the day is related to potential structural changes in order to help the church more adequately reflect its global nature. The UM Church is growing dramatically in Africa, with now nearly 4 million United Methodists on that continent. A petition to appoint a commission to develop and propose a new structure, thus changing the United States to a regional conference, one of a number of regional conferences around the world, suffered all afternoon under the close scrutiny of people making amendments. I didn’t count, but I think maybe close to ten amendments were moved on this one piece of legislation. There was also a “majority report” and a “minority report” (a minority report is done when a sufficient number of people on a legislative committee don’t agree with the committee’s decision and go through a process of writing a minority report, which then is read before the plenary session and has the chance of replacing the majority report). Needless to say, it was a complicated afternoon.
The majority report finally passed this evening, which means that a commission will be formed to prepare (for the 2012 General Conference) a proposed structure that more faithfully reflects the worldwide nature of the church. It seems like a simple deal, right, so why all the fuss? For one reason, the American church still foots a huge share of the bill for the church around the world. (The four-year budget, if everything passes that everyone is asking for, would be over $500 million.) It’s hard to give up control, when you’re paying the freight. It’s the old adage, “The one who pays the piper gets to call the tune.” But of course, we’re a portion of the Body of Christ, so we don’t use the values of the world. Or do we?
One last thing: it has been so interesting to watch delegates from Central Conferences (outside the United States) exercise their influence in the conference. They are speaking freely at the microphone (we’re listening to French, Portugese, other languages); they are advocating and voting. Move over Americans!
I’m watching streaming video. The folk are tired. They just stopped for the night. It’s 11:20 pm.