General Conference: Four Reflections

I’ve been decompressing since General Conference. It was emotionally exhausting, and I wasn’t even a delegate. To those of you who were delegates: I salute you for enduring this marathon of emotional, mental, and physical exertion. I hope you’re getting some time to wind down and relax. You certainly earned it.

I didn’t blog or post on Facebook at all during GC because, in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to say something you’ll regret later. In truth, my mind is still spinning from everything that happened. At this time I’ll offer four brief reflections. Perhaps more will come later.

First, I was reminded of how many really fine people there are in our denomination. Across the theological spectrum, there are people of character and honor who love God and love the church, and who are really trying to do all the good they can for God in this broken world. In the midst of our ecclesiastical feuding, it was good to be reminded of this.

Second, it is becoming ever more apparent that The United Methodist Church is following the patterns of Christianity in the Global South. (On this point, see a post from February 2015, “The Next Methodism.”) We tend to think of Christianity as a “Western” religion, though its roots are in Western Asia and North Africa. After a prolonged period of European dominance shared briefly with North America, the center of Christianity is returning to Africa and Asia, and it is becoming increasingly Protestant and charismatic in Latin America. Delegates from outside the United States will soon dominate the General Conference. As a result, our denomination is becoming more theologically conservative. Over time this trend is also going to have serious implications for distribution of funding, including funding for theological education.

Third, there is very little trust within our denomination. This was exemplified nowhere more clearly than when Bishop McAlilly was accused of giving hand signals (!) to indicate which way delegates should vote, and was shortly thereafter accused of somehow torpedoing a controversial motion on the floor. It was an embarrassing moment, surprising even amidst the rancor of the Conference. I felt quite badly for the bishop. He deserved more respectful treatment than he received.

Fourth, it is absolutely imperative that we hire a professional parliamentarian for future conferences. It was frustrating that we spent so much time debating the rules of the Conference, but once we settled the matter there was considerable variation in the parliamentary aptitude of the presiding bishops. Points of order were legion, clogging the legislative process and diverting attention from the proper business at hand. Given the exorbitant cost of the Conference (about $1,400 per minute), we should attempt to maximize our capacity to engage in legislative business.

Okay…. I’ll stop there. Do you have reflections of your own? Please feel free to post them below (and please be charitable in your comments).

14 thoughts on “General Conference: Four Reflections

  1. Hi David,
    Thanks for this. I too have spent the days since GC trying to process the experience (I was a first time clergy delegate from VA Conf.). I concur with your four points entirely. I would add two observations:
    1) The governance structure of the UMC is in many respects closer to the model of the US Federal Government than it is to the historic structure of the universal church. That is, we have a constitution that prescribes a judicial, legislative, and executive function, with this difference: our legislative and exeuctive functions are basically the same body, i.e., 850 elected delegates. The net result is we have a church with a powerful judicial arm, a energetic legislative arm, and a very weak executive arm. Under the circumstances, I interpret the appeal from GC for the college of bishops to exercise leadership to be a gesture that indicates the wisdom of historic episcopal church structures and the limitations of our idiosyncratic UM consititon. Whether our college can deliver something helpful under our circumstances is a different question of course.
    2) I agree that the treatment of Bishop McAlilly was disgraceful, a low point of the GC. Sadly, however, his skills as presider were pretty typical of the poor quality of presiding that the bishops provided all week. The number of unforced parliamentary error was simply staggering. This had the effect of increasing distrust on the floor in an unnecessary and regretable way.
    Kendall Soulen
    Prof of Systematic Theology
    Candler School of Theology

  2. A view from the pew:

    A response to the statement above re that it was good to refer the sexuality issue to the Bishops and ultimately a commission: From where I sit, the problem is not that the legislative process is not working, the problem is those that don’t respect the authority of General Conference which, whether we like it or not, is the only thing we have that is designated to speak for the church. And this disrespect starts with the very Bishops who refuse to hold themselves accountable to the General Conference they help oversee. Since 1972 General Conference has come up with the same answer re the same gender question; and in the earlier days, things were not so acrimonious. My guess is that the UMC was more liberal/progressive than orthodox when this issue first surfaced. Also, if I am hearing correctly, this commission will be the fourth since 1988 to quietly and sanely discuss this issue; the previous three all came back with the recommendation that the wording be changed and all three GC’s that heard these reports rejected their findings. I am concerned that I belong to an institution that does not trust its own processes because one group disagrees with the answer and is determined to push this until the “correct” answer as they see it is produced. Remember how the apostles chose who would replace Judas? They narrowed the choice down to two, rolled the dice, accepted that as the answer and moved on.

    If you are interested in how the wording in the Discipline re the wording about same gender relationships came into existence, here are two articles; the first is an explanation from the delegate to the 1972 GC who proposed the now infamous “not compatible with Christian teaching” phrase. It was not the result of some orthodox witch hunt as many seem to want to spin it:

    It was months ago, sometime in 2015, that I realized there was a substantial divisive momentum building towards GC2016. I wish it had not been deflected because to let this play out on the floor of General Conference would have been the most honest portrayal of who and where we are as a church.

    And one final thought, my beliefs that God intended marriage for one man and one woman does not make me a hater of anybody or means I am against them and desire them harm; it simply means I disagree with their understanding. Somewhere around 1964/65 my sixth grade teacher taught me a very valuable lesson that has served me very well when it comes to understanding personal freedom: My freedom ends where the next person’s begins and vice versa. There are some liberal/progressives who obviously disagree with that premise, so I guess I am somehow causing them harm with that belief too. I am so grateful I am not in the same local church as some of the liberal/progressives who keep stirring the pot on this issue and keep it at a boiling point.

  3. Hola, from Santo Domingo!
    I writing in Spanish only hope that my comments will be tolerated and reread with an alternative translation, excuse the trouble.
    I write from Santo Domingo in the Dominican, I develop a culture that does not have much common sense to this discussion on the redefinition of marriage. I can understand the pressures that the gay agenda has been implemented in the countries of northern Europe and North America, due largely to its economic and cultural influence even within the churches themselves, but what I can not understand is the impasse in which UMC and other churches of historic Protestantism have left corner. I think the catholicity that still exists in the UMC, can reestruccturar our ecclesiology and implement the ancient division of the structure of religious orders, where evangelical traditionalists may have their own structures, centrists really feel at home and progressives and liberals can develop their agendas within the church the way you understand it better. The point is that we can shore up the missionary work of the Church and at the same time keep our own conscience clean. If progressives want to abandon orthodoxy and reinterpret the ancient apostolic faith delivered to the saints, do so at your own risk.
    The Lord will judge them according to their works. I think that common sense and rationality have disappeared internally in these communities and it is time to fit in some kind of order of ecclesial invention. In due time God will judge his works. I think that this output will maintain the purity of the church internally in the ortodosas communities, and healthy liberal spirit of Methodism be preserved honoring the phrase: think and let think.
    Finally this nightmare came to an end. certainly knowing that those who wish to sanctify themselves be sanctified. So we can move forward with the faith once delivered us out, and fulfilling our call to make disciples to the image of Jesus.

    Hola desde Santo Domingo!
    escribo en español solo esperando que mis comentarios sean tolerados y releídos con una traduccion alternativa, perdonen la molestia.
    Escribo desde Santo Domingo, en Dominicana, me desenvuelvo en una cultura en la que no tiene mucho sentido común a esta discusión sobre la redefinición del matrimonio. Puedo entender las presiones que la agenda Gay ha podido implantar en los países del norte de Europa y en Norteamérica, debido en gran parte a su influencia económica y cultural aun dentro de las propias iglesias , pero lo que no puedo comprender es el callejón sin salida en el que la UMC y las demás iglesias del Protestantismo histórico se han dejado acorralar. Pienso que la catolicidad que aun existe en la UMC, puede reestruccturar nuestra eclesiologia e implementar la antiquísima división de la estructura de ordenes religiosas, en donde los tradicionalistas evangélicos, puedan tener sus propias estructuras, los centristas se sientan realmente en casa y los progresistas y liberales pueden desarrollar sus agendas dentro de la iglesia de la manera que mejor lo entiendan. El punto es que todos podamos apuntalar la obra misionera de la Iglesia y a la vez guardar limpia nuestra propia conciencia. Si los progresistas desean abandonar la ortodoxia y reinterpretar la fe apostólica y milenaria entregada a los santos, que lo hagan a su propia cuenta y riesgo.
    El Senor les juzgara de acuerdo a sus obras. Pienso que el sentido común y la racionalidad han desaparecido a lo interno de estas comunidades y es tiempo de acomodarles en algún tipo de orden de invento eclesial. Dios a su debido tiempo juzgara sus obras. Pienso que esta salida permitirá mantener la pureza de la iglesia a lo interno de las comunidades ortodoxas, y el sano espíritu liberal del metodismo será preservado haciendo honor a la frase de: pensamos y dejamos pensar.
    Finalmente esta pesadilla llegara a su fin. Sabiendo ciertamente que los que desean santificarse serán santificados. Asi podremos seguir adelante con la fe que una vez nos fuera entregada, y cumpliendo nuestro llamado de hacer discípulos a la imagen de Jesús.

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