By Heather Hahn and Sam Hodges-
General Conference delegates hit the pause button on the denomination’s quadrennial debates related to homosexuality. Late afternoon May 18 – two days before the event’s conclusion – the delegates voted by 428 to 405 to accept the recommendation of the Council of Bishops to delay a debate on homosexuality at this gathering and let a proposed commission study church regulations.
The bishops asked for the body’s permission to name a special commission that would completely examine and possibly recommend revisions of every paragraph in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality. The commission would represent the different regions of a denomination on four continents as well as the varied perspectives of the church.
“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.
“We share with you a deep commitment to the unity of the church in Christ our Lord,” Ough told the multinational assembly. “Within the church, we are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other rather than separation from one another. This is the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21-23.”
Ough said the bishops continue to hear from many people “that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional, and global contexts.”
Confusion and accusations
After a time of discussion and prayer, delegates returned to the parliamentary ups and downs that have typified this General Conference.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a delegate from the Great Plains Conference, moved that General Conference support the bishop’s creation of a commission and a special General Conference to deal with sexuality issues. Hamilton called the bishops’ ideas “our best chance of finding a long-term solution.”
A substitute motion by the Rev. Chappell Temple, Texas Conference, supported the creation of the commission but called for General Conference to go forward with voting on sexuality petitions. To postpone, he said, would cause “more confusion.”
The delegates voted against the substitute. Delegates also voted down Hamilton’s motion by 438-393.
Two delegates also accused the afternoon’s presiding officer, Nashville (Tennessee) Area Bishop William McAlilly, of bias and incompetence in how he was overseeing the afternoon debate.
The Rev. Gregory Gross, a delegate from the Northern Illinois Conference, accused McAlilly of trying to telegraph votes by shaking one finger or two as he addressed the delegates. After Hamilton’s motion failed, Jen Ihlo — a delegate from the Baltimore-Washington Conference — asked that McAlilly step down. [Gross had signed a public letter before General Conference identifying himself as a LGBTQ religious leader. Ihlo self-identified herself as a lesbian during the plenary session of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa.]
McAlilly called for a 10-minute recess to confer with colleagues after Ihlo’s plea.
Ihlo told United Methodist News Service that the bishop “totally confused the body on the votes,” and she shared Gross’s concerns. However, McAlilly called the accusations “the craziest thing I ever heard.”
“I was holding a pen part of the time and trying to write notes,” he told UMNS. “That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, frankly.”
After the recess, the committee that chooses presiding officers announced it was standing by McAlilly.
George Howard, a delegate from the West Ohio Conference, made a motion that delegates accept the bishops’ recommendations. It was Howard’s motion the delegates affirmed.
Creating a commission
United Methodist bishops say they worry more about getting the new human sexuality commission right than getting the group appointed fast. That means the bishops have yet to set a timetable for when they expect to have the commission up and running. They also have not decided how many commission members there will be. However, they already are talking about the kind of qualities they would like commission members to have.
The Council of Bishops met May 21 for the first time to discuss the commission. Many United Methodists see the commission as a last-ditch effort to prevent the multinational denomination from splitting. The bishops’ meeting, already scheduled months before General Conference, was closed to the press shortly before it got under way.
“We spent most of our time trying to evaluate the relative merits of doing it quickly or making sure we do it well,” Bishop Ough told United Methodist News Service.
“The sense was we need to do this very well. And if it takes a little longer than many people would like, it’s better to make sure we have a commission that represents all the voices of the church and will bring the wisdom to the table to find our way through a very difficult situation.”
Ough said that he is hoping commission members will bring more than various perspectives to their task but also “wisdom.” By that, he means, he wants commission members who are open to the “in-filling of the Holy Spirit.”
The bishops also are considering calling a special General Conference in 2018 or 2019 to take up the commission’s work. For now, the Council of Bishops executive committee has the task of devising the process and other details of the commission, he said. The group plans to meet before its regularly scheduled meeting in July.
Heather Hahn and Sam Hodges are news reporters for United Methodist News Service. Kathy L. Gilbert contributed to this story.