GC 2012: First Step to Set-aside Bishop, Re-structure Hits Speed Bump

April 29, 2012

By Rich Peck*

7:00 P.M. ET April 27, 2012 | TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS)
Delegates spent most of Friday, April 27 in 13 legislative committees, and in the evening they gathered for An Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.
The Superintendency Legislative Committee agreed to a proposal from the Council of Bishops, seeking a constitutional amendment that would permit them to assign a bishop without a residential assignment to serve as council president. If approved by a two-thirds majority of the assembly, the proposal still must be ratified by two-thirds of all Annual Conference members voting on the amendment.
The General Administration Legislative Committee was assigned the massive task of reviewing all structure proposals. In a straw poll, 48 committee members expressed a preference for multiple agencies, and 35 favored the proposal from the Connectional Table that would place nine of the 13 agencies under a single governing body.
Committee members began their work with Plan B, an organizational plan submitted by an ad hoc group of delegates that would retain four program agencies, continue the General Council on Finance and Administration, and discontinue five general agencies and the expenses of 372 board members. Plan B architects changed their original proposal to allow United Methodist Communications to remain a separate agency.
On the first day, the committee agreed to work to perfect a revised Plan B, which included elements from the Call to Action, the original Plan B, and the proposal from the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), as well as elements from the General Agencies' petitions.
Some delegates expected a minority report supporting the Connectional Table plan to be submitted alongside the majority report, even if the legislative committee ended its work by proposing the revised Plan B.
An unexpected outcome
But the committee failed to adopt a recommendation before adjourning Saturday night. After the 18-member restructure subcommittee finished its work at 7:15 p.m., as the Rev. Dale Weatherspoon blogged on the California-Nevada delegation's site (http://calnevgc2012.shutterfly.com/), the full committee voted on the revised Plan B, and to the surprise of some, it was defeated.
Just minutes before the 9:30 adjournment, Weatherspoon reported, the Call to Action/Interim Operations Team brought a proposal called "Uniting Our Church for Vital Congregations" and was allowed to make a 10-minute presentation. That proposal also was voted down.
With seven minutes to adjournment, he blogged, the Call to Action team asked for consideration of the original Plan B, but since it had been substituted on the first day of committee work, the request was ruled out of order.
Finally, "in a last ditch effort to bring something before the plenary on Monday," Weatherspoon wrote, the committee voted for the first time on the MFSA proposal but it, too, was defeated.
"After three days of work we came up empty with nothing to show for [it]," Weatherspoon wrote wearily. "I am sad and distraught."
Still, that does not mean that the discussion over restructure has ended, as Jay Vorhees, pastor of Old Hickory United Methodist Church in Nashville and a co-founder of MethoBlog.com, wrote in "Commentary: The Winds of Change … or not," on gc2012.umc.org (found under "Join the conversation").
Although the outcome of the committee work was unexpected – as Vorhees wrote, "I went to dinner not expecting to receive a tweet reporting that all the plans had been rejected and that the committee would be offering no recommendation on Church restructuring" – he reminded, "according to the new rules, there are provisions for bringing up the proposals on the floor of conference, and I expect there to be a lengthy floor debate."
He added, "The dream of restructure may be less likely, but we still have a long way to go before any final decision is made."
Plenary sessions begin on Monday (April 30).    
Space and language difficulties
While some committees met in large ballrooms that provide adequate space for subcommittee meetings and visitors, other committees were assigned smaller quarters that limited the number of visitors and made dividing into subcommittees difficult.
The Rev. Mark Holland, a pastor from Kansas City, Missouri, said the room assigned to the Judicial Administration Legislative Committee was so small that sounds from the two subcommittees made it difficult to hear.
One of the subcommittees moved outside.
Once outside, Tampa Bay traffic still made hearing difficult, and a helicopter landing on the top floor of a nearby hospital stopped conversations entirely.
The subcommittee attempting to rewrite procedures for handling clergy trials always is accompanied by three translators.
"This is impossible in one language – now four," said Holland in a blog. "It can be done, but the time frame and sheer volume have to be addressed."
An increased number of non-English-speaking delegates has resulted in frequent calls for speakers to slow down to enable translators to keep pace.
The issue of homosexuality
The issue of homosexuality continues to surface in a variety of ways.
Following nominations for Judicial Council and University Senate during the evening plenary on Thursday (April 26), Mark Miller, an openly gay delegate from the Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference, asked for a point of personal privilege.
"I am offering my voice to say that the attempt at holy conversation about human sexuality yesterday was incomplete," said Miller. "We were bullied emotionally, spiritually, and physically and it didn't seem like anyone did anything."
After he asked people to stand in support, and several delegates rose to stand at their tables or put their hands on his shoulders during his impassioned plea for greater openness, Bishop Robert Hayes Jr., the presiding officer, ruled him out of order.
"Will you pray for us?" asked Miller. "I will certainly do that," said Hayes.
"We pray for all those who have been injured and bruised and hurt and bullied," Hayes said. "And we pray this General Conference that we'll continue to make sincere attempts to bridge the divide that separates us theologically, psychologically and socially."
An extended debate on the rules had cut short the allotted time for holy conversations on Wednesday.
In an interview later, Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck said it was "very, very unfortunate" that there wasn't enough time for the holy conversations. "It is an issue that just truly seems to fracture the Church, and that's why we wanted to have some time of holy conferencing," said the bishop, who led plans for the conversation on human sexuality.
Miller later met privately with a number of General Conference officials.
"We hope for a community of love," said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald "Gere" Reist, secretary of the General Conference and one of the people who met with Miller. "Sometimes our understanding of God's law gets in our way of our understanding of God's love."
A silent witness
Delegates leaving the April 26 evening worship filed through lines of some 300 people with colorful "rainbow" stoles marking their support for efforts to change current laws forbidding the ordination of homosexuals and the conducting of same-gender services of union.
As the delegates left the assembly hall, a few stopped to hug participants or join the demonstrators.
After most of the delegates had left, the demonstrators began singing softly, "We are gentle, angry people, and we are singing – singing for our lives."
No unusual problems
UMNS asked the Rev. Alan Morrison, manager of General Conference, if any particular problems had emerged to date. "Nothing out of the ordinary," said Morrison. "No one has suffered a heart attack."
A few problems with keypads with low batteries emerged early in the first plenary session, and the level of microphones had to be adjusted. Despite some hi-tech visual effects, technical problems have been at a minimum.
An underappreciated computer system, called the Conference and Legislation Management System (CALMS), enables recorders in each legislative committee to enter the approved or revised petitions (now called calendar items) into the Daily Christian Advocate.
"This is the third General Conference we have used the system," said Mike Cunningham, CALMS administrator. "We have honed it to a fine operating application that legislative recorders find easy to use."
* Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference attending his 12th General Conference, four times as editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and three times as a member of the UMNS news team.
Cate Monaghan, communications director for the California-Nevada Annual Conference, edited this version of the story and contributed the inset text.