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Musicians lead singing on May 12 during morning worship at the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore.. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

GC2016 wrap-up: Farewell, Portland. Thanks for the doughnuts.

By Joey Butler

Believe it or not, General Conference 2016 spent more than twice as much time debating a Rule of Order than the hot topic of human sexuality. After almost three days of considering an alternative method for discussing legislation, The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body referred its most difficult subject – sexuality — to a study commission and moved on to other matters.

A move to adjourn at 6:30 every night meant no late-night sessions and hopefully healthier, less stressed attendees. During 10 days in Portland, delegates passed an increased budget, celebrated a number of church milestones and voted to create a new version of the hymnal.

Delegates vote ‘no’ on 44

The first three days of General Conference offered a live demonstration of just how difficult following its rules of order can be as delegates wavered back and forth on using Rule 44, a proposed group-discernment process to deal with particularly complicated and contentious legislation such as sexuality. Ultimately, they voted against it.

The Commission on General Conference recommended Rule 44 at the request of the 2012 General Conference, which sought an alternative process to Robert’s Rules of Order for certain topics.

Cold shower for sexuality debate

Late afternoon May 18, delegates voted to accept the recommendation of the Council of Bishops to delay a debate on homosexuality at this gathering of the denomination’s top legislative assembly and let a proposed commission study church regulations.

“We accept our role as spiritual leaders to lead The United Methodist Church in a ‘pause for prayer’ — to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God's will for the future,” said Council of Bishops president Bishop Bruce Ough in announcing the recommendation.

The announcement came after news on social media that bishops had been meeting with large-church pastors and representatives of special-interest groups to discuss possible resolutions to the debate.

Delegates on both sides have mixed emotions to the decision to refer. The bishops’ proposal defused some of the tension, though advocates for change held a handful of demonstrations that were largely not disruptive.

The bishops suggested they might call a special General Conference in 2018 or 2019 to deal with such proposals, Ough said. Questions about that cost caused a blip during the May 19 afternoon plenary session.

However, the denomination’s top finance executive offers assurance that the church can pay for the bishops’ plan without altering the 2017-20 general church budget.

The finance agency estimates a special General Conference session would cost $3.39 million for two days and $4.12 million for three days. To offset the cost, Moses Kumar recommends shortening the 2020 General Conference by the number of days used for any special General Conference session.

Budget passes with slight increase

General Conference delegates on May 20 approved a general church budget of $604 million for 2017-2020, a slight increase over the $603.1 million approved at the 2012 General Conference. It’s also an increase over the $599 million budget proposed to the 2016 General Conference delegates, which would have been The United Methodist Church’s lowest in 16 years.

Oppose mascots that demean Native Americans

Delegates overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on United Methodist agencies to raise awareness about the harm caused by sports teams that use mascots or symbols that disrespect Native Americans. The Discipleship Committee amended the petition, deleting language that would have called on United Methodist groups not to have meetings in cities that have sports teams with such mascots or symbols, which previous church resolutions contained.

Sand Creek Massacre recalled, lamented

Concerns about legislation were set aside as delegates focused instead on a historic tragedy with deep Methodist involvement. The 1864 Sand Creek Massacre was the subject, and speakers included a historian and descendants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian survivors of the attack.

Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky had joined the descendants in planning the event, the latest effort yet by The United Methodist Church to atone for the Sand Creek Massacre. “We’re here to listen and to tell the truth,” Stanovsky told delegates.

 “We now extend our hand in friendship to the Methodist Church,” said William Walks Along, a Northern Cheyenne descendent of massacre survivors. “We have developed a measure of trust, respect and honor for each other.”

Judicial Council decisions

Imposing a mandatory penalty during the “just resolution” process for a clergyperson admitting to committing a chargeable offense is unconstitutional, The United Methodist Church’s top court has ruled. A just resolution “can be an alternative way of handling chargeable offenses,” but the call “for a specific penalty in creating a just resolution is also unconstitutional as it denies the clergyperson the specific right to trial and appeal,” the council’s decision stated.

The United Methodist Judicial Council May 19 ruled a proposed establishment of a United Methodist “Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth” funded by $20 million taken from denominational coffers was unconstitutional. The court’s decision noted that the amended petition did not include how the committee’s membership “is to be determined nor how the $20 million is to be spent,” adding that such a committee also “cannot dictate the duties, functions or responsibilities of the general agencies.”

In a May 9 ruling, the Judicial Council declared that Plan UMC Revised, one of the proposed plans to realign the structure of The United Methodist Church, “contains components that fail the test of constitutionality and components that are, as stated, entirely constitutional.” Some of the constitutionality concerns were over issues of authority. Plan UMC Revised would have given new authority and power to the Connectional Table, a church coordinating body; realigned the general agencies and eliminated three commissions. Another potential problem was how Plan UMC Revised would have assigned “monitoring and reviewing” responsibility to the Connectional Table, since the constitution gives “general oversight” to the Council of Bishops.

Stirring worship

As the only time the entire global church is together every quadrennium, General Conference always features festive and moving worship services. The opening worship service began with a drum welcome from indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and a cacophony of “alleluias” in many languages.

Every worship service featured sermons by United Methodist bishops, and a running theme for the event was to stay humble, serve others and be the church that Christ wants us to be. Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck urged United Methodists to do as Pope Francis said, Go; learn mercy. Sierra Leone Area Bishop John K. Yambasu issued a challenge “to dismantle the demons of all sorts of inequalities in our world.” Bishop Ivan M. Abrahams, top executive of the World Methodist Council, reminded delegates that Methodism was founded on a commitment to those on the margins. “Conference,” he asked, “is this still true for us today?” On the last day, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky reminded those attending that “we will not leave divided because God is not finished with us yet!”

Presentations, celebrations

General Conference 2016 celebrated a few notable milestones. They included the 60th anniversary of the Methodist Church granting full clergy rights to women, the 200th anniversary of Francis Asbury’s death, the 250th anniversary of John Street Church in New York City, the 30th anniversary of DISCIPLE Bible Study, the upcoming 25th anniversary of Africa University and a whole day dedicated to United Methodist Women, which will soon turn 150.

The May 18 morning session celebrated the Imagine No Malaria initiative launched in 2008. The 12-minute celebration debuted “Able,”  a song commissioned by Imagine No Malaria as a gift to United Methodists across the globe. Jeremy Rosado, a Top 12 contestant on “American Idol,” performed the song for more than 1,000 people attending the event.

General Conference turned May 19 to a presentation and video on the Korean War and on efforts, including by United Methodists, to bring about peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. Bishop Minerva Carcaño, presiding over the afternoon session, highlighted the small wooden Korean “peace crosses” that have been part of this General Conference, noting that they were made in the part of Korea where Wisconsin Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung is from.

United Methodists forged new relationships with the Moravian Church and the Uniting Church in Sweden as they marked Ecumenical Day on May 17. The United Methodist Church has approved a “full communion” agreement with the northern and southern provinces of the Moravian Church in North America that recognizes each other’s ministries and encourages witness and mission work together.

The 2016 General Conference marks the 40th anniversary of members of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference being granted voting rights in the top legislative assembly of The United Methodist Church. Although recognized as a conference by the 1972 General Conference, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference had voice but no vote until the 1976 General Conference, which also met in Portland.

New hymnal project gets green light

The United Methodist Church is on track to get its first new hymnal since 1989, and this one will be Internet-cloud based and print-on-demand — the first high-tech hymnal for a mainline denomination. General Conference 2016 approved on a consent calendar May 17 a petition authorizing the creation of a 15-member Hymnal Revision Committee.

Central Conference issues

Africa will get five more United Methodist bishops, but not before 2020. On May 16, delegates narrowly defeated an effort to add two bishops immediately, in Nigeria and in Zimbabwe. Instead, they favored the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to add five bishops after General Conference 2020.

Delegates approved a petition to create new provisional central conferences in Rwanda and Southeast Asia/Mongolia.

During budget deliberations, delegates voted to add $5 million to double to $10 million the denomination’s Central Conference Theological Education Fund, which supports United Methodist schools, pastors and pastors-in-training in Africa, Asia and Europe.

For the first time, a member from outside the United States has been elected president of the Judicial Council. N. Oswald Tweh Sr., a lay member from Liberia, will lead the denomination’s top court for 2016-20.

As Africa University approaches its 25th anniversary, delegates took a few moments May 16 to celebrate one of the denomination's high points. “The university matters because a relevant and holistic education generates a living legacy that changes everything,” said Munashe Furusa, vice chancellor. “You and The United Methodist Church have answered a call to witness through this transforming ministry.”

A small group of Lumads — indigenous people of Southern Philippines who have been the target of cruelty for decades — attended General Conference and were featured in a video about their plight.

Quick hits

  • There were a few initial bugs to work through with the new electronic queuing system, and delegates had to go “old school” a few times by waving old-fashioned placards to get the presiding bishop’s attention, but the system was overall a success.
  • When you are a bishop, you’re a bishop all the way – at least in the U.S. Term limits for United Methodist bishops got strong support in a May 17 vote at General Conference 2016, but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the church constitution, 482 in favor of term limits to 332 opposed. Some bishops outside the United States are already subject to term limits.
  • Several petitions of interest to Hispanic-Latino United Methodists were passed. They included a resolution against the U.S. embargo of Cuba; requests for government support for people in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques who suffer from chemical pollution and a high rate of cancer that has been attributed to the U.S. Navy’s former use of the island as a bombing range; approval of a new strategy to work with Latin American autonomous churches; and a request for the liberation of Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist and the longest-serving political prisoner in the Western Hemisphere, convicted in the United States in 1981 for  “seditious conspiracy.”
  • A petition to withdraw denominational general agency membership from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was passed, as was a second petition to remove language supporting the coalition from the Book of Resolutions. The United Methodist Church was a founding member of the organization in 1973, and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Women are currently members.
  • An amendment offered on May 20 during a General Conference debate on socially responsible investing that sought to divest from illegal settlements on occupied lands failed 559-167. But delegates adopted a petition on behalf of a Palestinian village, Wadi Foquin. Delegates chose not to add a fossil fuels investment screen for the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
  • One Great Hour of Sharing will now be known as UMCOR Sunday. Offerings for the special Sunday, observed annually on the fourth Sunday of Lent, cover the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s overhead. Two other special Sundays, Women’s Ministry Sunday and Volunteer in Mission Awareness Sunday — both without offering — were approved as well.
  • On May 19, The United Methodist Church sent new missionaries from 11 countries to serve in16 lands. The liturgy of commissioning was believed to be the first at a United Methodist General Conference.
  • During the May 17 afternoon plenary, delegates approved calendar items related to the Asian American Language Ministry Plan, the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan, the National Plan for Hispanic Ministry and the Korean Ministry Plan as well as Accessibility Grants for Churches and the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.
  • Deacons now have fewer hoops to jump through to request permission to administer sacraments. A petition passed that allows deacons to contact their resident bishop directly to ask for permission. Previously, the pastor-in-charge or the district superintendent had to make the request on the deacon’s behalf.
  • In a May 12 ceremony, before episcopal leaders from around the globe, Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough was formally installed as president of the Council of Bishops. Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., outgoing president of the Council of Bishops, “passed the gavel” to Ough.
  • A petition calling for a mandatory vote of proposed legislation sent to General Conference was approved by a vote of 406 to 361. All petitions submitted to General  Conference “shall receive the vote of a legislative committee” and all petitions approved by legislative committees “shall receive a vote by the plenary session at that year’s General Conference.” Considering how many petitions weren’t voted on before this General Conference ended, one wonders if GC2020 will need to last a month.

Butler is a multimedia editor/producer for United Methodist Communications. Contact him at newsdesk@umcom.org or 615-742-5470.


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