By Walter Fenton-
Every legislative body, especially one as large and diverse as the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, needs a set of rules to govern its proceedings. Charged with the task of presiding over the conference’s plenary sessions, UM bishops can attest that it is hard enough with rules. Without them the sessions would descend into a cacophony of competing voices.
Typically the approval of the rules is more or less a formality. And for 43 of the 44 that were proposed, that was the case. By the end of the first plenary session the first 43 were adopted, but not Rule 44. An epic battle ensued over this newly proposed rule that started late Tuesday afternoon, May 10, and was not resolved until Thursday, May 12. The outcome of that drawn out battle defined strategies and gave a clear indication to delegates and observers where the body stood on the most contentious issues facing the church.
Rule 44 was put forward by the UM Church’s Commission on the General Conference (COGC). If approved, it would have granted to the COGC the power to “identify a particular subject to be addressed through a group discernment process leading to a plenary decision.” Not surprisingly, the “particular subject” the COGC had in mind was the church’s long debated sexual ethics.
The rule would have allowed the COGC to collect petitions having to do with issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy so they could be dealt with through a “discernment process,” a process substantially different than the way hundreds of other petitions are handled.
Under Rule 44, the 864 delegates would have been divided into approximately 58 small groups in order to have “conversation[s] addressing” specified petitions regarding the church’s sexual ethics. Each group would have been assigned a “monitor” from either the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the General Commission on Religion and Race, or JustPeace. The monitors would have been “empowered to observe the process and signal the group leader if they observed harmful behavior as determined according to the Guidelines for Conversation.”
The COGC’s executive committee would have selected “leaders” and each discussion group would have elected “scribes” to direct its conversations and record its “recommendations” on a “Small Group Reporting Sheet.” The 58 reporting sheets would have been forwarded to a “Facilitation Group” of six GC delegates. Based on its discernment of the 58 reporting sheets, this elite group would have been empowered to “craft a comprehensive petition or group of petitions” for consideration by all the delegates.
These six supra-delegates would have been chosen as follows: The Leadership Discernment Committee of the Council of Bishops would have nominated one female and one male GC delegate from each of the seven central conferences and the five U.S. jurisdictions, for a total of 24. From this pool of 24 delegates, the COGC’s executive committee would have chosen a slate of six to put their names before the GC delegates. Delegates would have been allowed to nominate others from the original pool of 24 before they voted for the six members of the Facilitation Group.
Once chosen, the six members would have been joined by the Secretary of the General Conference who would have served as an ex-officio member of the group. The secretary would have led the group in the election of the Facilitation Group Leader from among the six elected. He or she would then lead the group in preparing a comprehensive petition or petitions based on the 58 reporting sheets received from the small groups.
Even before General Conference convened it was apparent the rule was in trouble, and that it was also dividing United Methodists along the familiar lines of conservatives and progressives.
Conservatives argued that the “discernment process” the rule would have created was too complicated and convoluted to work effectively in such a large body. They believed it put too much power in the hands of the COGC and the Facilitation Group, while others worried that if the untested process were applied to the most contentious debate confronting the church it would cast doubt on the final outcome. And still others believed the presence of “monitors” would have chilled conversation rather than fostering the open dialogue the rule intended to generate.
Progressives, on the other hand, supported its adoption. They claimed the process was no more complex than the typical way petitions work their way through the conference, first being vetted and refined in legislative sections before coming to a plenary session. They also pointed out that it was the GC 2012 delegates who requested the COGC devise a new way of debating petitions having to do with the church’s sexual ethics. Many progressives and some centrists have often argued that roundtable discussions would lead to a compromise that would allow the church to more or less put the decades long debate behind it.
On the first day, after some debate about all the rules, the delegates, by a 67 percent to 33 percent vote, adopted every other rule, but 44. This now put the latter in the precarious position of having to be adopted as an amendment to the other rules, which meant it would need two-thirds of the delegates to support it, rather than just a simple majority.
Efforts to amend it, table it, and simply vote it up or down all failed on the second day of the conference as frustrations mounted. During the debate it became increasingly clear that progressives wanted to approve it and conservatives wanted to defeat it.
“I urge concurrence with Rule 44,” said Rev. Mary Huycke, a delegate from the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, “that we might have access to ways to speak with one another and not just about how to do church, but to be the church.”
Simon Mafunda, a lay delegate from the East Zimbabwe Annual Conference, argued in opposition, “The fairest thing to me is for all issues to be dealt with by this room in this plenary.”
It was not until the third day that the delegates finally decided to reject Rule 44, and they did so overwhelmingly. Needing two-thirds for approval, the ill-fated rule gained the support of only 43 percent of the delegates. It was clear conservatives were in the majority and progressives in the minority.
Judi Kenaston, a lay delegate from the West Virginia Annual Conference and also chairwoman of the Commission on General Conference, later appealed to the delegates to allow the COGC to refine the rule so it could be reconsidered for use at GC 2020, but the delegates soundly rejected her motion.
The End Result
Rule 44’s failure essentially indicated that any attempt to change the UM Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy would fail. Progressives, who wanted an outright repeal of such prohibitions everywhere in the church, and some centrists, who called for a compromise that would allow the practices where progressives are in the majority, were both put in an awkward position. They no longer wanted their petitions to come to the floor for votes because it was evident they would be defeated. They ended up supporting efforts to postpone all petitions related to the church’s sexual ethics until either a special called General Conference in 2018 or 2019 or the scheduled 2020 conference.
In the end, that is what happened to their petitions. It was a victory of sorts for them, but it was a hollow one. The petitions they prepared and hoped GC 2016 would pass, never came to the floor for action. And the reason they did not was because the sound rejection of Rule 44 made it clear their proposed legislation would fail.
The church’s teachings on marriage and ordination all remain in place, and are fully enforceable. In short, the issues are now back in the hands of the church’s bishops and its boards of ordained ministry. Many United Methodists are eager to see how they will respond.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.