General Conference 2008: Sabbath Business

April 27, 2008

By Bruce Pettit

California-Nevada News Service


FORT WORTH, April 27, 2008 – A plea came from the floor of this United Methodist Church General Conference of 2008: Next time, "Can we not have business on the Sabbath?"


There was a promise to look at that for 2012, but this time it was too late. For reasons of economy, General Conference organizers cut one day out of the Holy Conferencing time of previous years – from 11 days to 10 days. So all time here is compressed. Full plenary and individual legislative committees continued to meet on this Sunday in a mad scramble to have all the legislation out of committee no later than Monday for full conference consideration. This conference must end on Friday.


On this Sabbath, the legislative committee Church and Society 2 recommended to the full General Conference that it strike from the denomination's Book of Discipline the phrase "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Instead, it would have the Discipline acknowledge a difference of opinion. The vote to recommend, done by secret ballot, was 39 to 27.


A similar proposal to delete the "incompatible" phrase came out of the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh, only to be reversed on the full conference (plenary) floor. The phrase has been official United Methodist policy since 1972.


Despite the committee scrambles, delegates here had managed to forward some legislation for plenary votes Sunday morning.


The issue of proportional representation has simmered for the last several years. How "equally" should various areas of the church have appointees on the larger bodies that do work for the general (worldwide) church? For years, places such as the Western United States have lost United Methodists in their local churches while other areas have surged. Thus the trend of the last several years has been to give the West fewer seats, and other areas – both within and outside the U.S. – more.


The specific issue Sunday was representation on the Committee on Central Conference Affairs. Should it be weighted equally among the three Central Conference regions of Africa, Europe, and the Philippines? Or should it be weighted more toward Africa, with its overwhelming membership (3.2 million members compared to Europe's 69,000 and the Philippines' 201,000)? The Committee on Central Conference Affairs itself wanted equal representation for the three foreign areas (seven conferences). A plenary floor amendment sought greater representation for Africa, but it was defeated in a plenary vote of 68 to 32 percent. 


Prior to political contentiousness surrounding that action, however, the 992 delegates here celebrated the demise of the Central Jurisdiction 40 years ago for their morning Sabbath.


U.S. Methodists were able to heal their Civil War division in 1939 (74 years after the end of the North/South struggle) only by putting all African-Americans into a Central Jurisdiction, while five other jurisdictions were set by geography. Retired Bishop Forrest C. Smith said it was, at the time, "perceived unity and progress." On this Sabbath the conference heard from W. Astor Kirk, a member of the 1960s Committee of Five, which paved the way for dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction. "I had a deep conviction that we should make contributions solely on ability," he said.


In 2008 black congregations are struggling, due to economic deprivation, according to a report from an initiative called "Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century." It was started by the 1996 General Conference in Denver. Since then the initiative claims to have assisted 220 local churches in a turnaround by training 670 lay and clergy persons in church transformation. The initiative is promoting what it calls Partner Congregations to enhance revitalization. This General Conference, on this Sabbath, voted 98 to 2 percent to give the initiative $2,045,728 (as part for the 2009-2012 Quadrennium overall budget of $642 million) to continue its progress.