Archive: The Portland General Conference: The Second Week

By the time delegates were seated and the General Conference began its business session Monday morning, 170 items had been cleared through the various legislative committees and were waiting final action. With thousands of items yet to come, the General Conference voted to consider together all items on which 90 percent of any legislative committee had voted negatively. On the last day these would be processed under one “blanket” vote of non-concurrence—with the understanding that any item could be removed for individual consideration if the General Conference wished.

A major action was taken to make permanent the Commission on Role and Status of Women, with an annual budget of $200,000. Created in 1972 to monitor and promote women’s rights within our denomination, CRSW has now become a permanent addition to the UM bureaucracy. This vote, vigorously contested, showed the full power of the feminist movement. Other expressions of its strength were a vote in favor of supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, and pressures to remove “sexist” language from printed materials of the UM Church.

Surprisingly, there was little debate on a resolution favoring return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panamanian control. It passed quickly, as did a resolution putting the UM Church on record in favor of removing felony penalties for possession of “small amounts” of marijuana.

Like an iceberg revealing the tip of a submerged ice field, the power struggle between national boards and the bishops showed itself in a debate over the bishops’ participation in setting churchwide “missional priorities” between General Conferences. The agencies wanted to severely restrict episcopal participation to only three, but a majority of General Conference delegates were reluctant to grant the bureaucracy such unrestricted power. Delegates voted to include bishops prominently in this process.

This helped tilt the denominational power balance back toward the annual conference and local church, of which the bishop is chief pastor. Ideally, bishops and the general boards ought to provide a system of checks and balances—as do the legislative and executive branches of federal government. But many observers feel that the power balance is now weighted heavily in favor of the general boards—with the result that opinions of churches are often undervalued.

The issue of “liberation” was raised prominently by Bishop Emilio de Carvalho of Angola. Denying that “communism took over Angola,” he told the General Conference that the “fundamental issue in Southern Africa is liberation.” The church in Angola, he said, is not divorced from this struggle, “which offers the church a great opportunity to become truly Christian.”

The much-publicized Rhodesian Bishop, Abel T. Muzorewa, was unable to leave Africa. He cabled his regrets and the General Conference voted “solidarity” with these two African bishops. The inference lying behind this vote was possible approval of armed ” revolution, which Bishop Muzorewa has indicated may become inevitable in Rhodesia.

The “code words” of “liberation” and “struggle” were often heard and seen at General Conference. Obviously, the idea of revolution in the political/social sphere has deeply penetrated the thinking of some significant UM leaders. This sentiment surfaced during heated debate to amend a proposed bicentennial resolution, making provision for injustices suffered by Indians and other minority groups during America’s 200 years.

The General Conference also elected members of the Judicial Council, our denomination’s “supreme court.”

A great variety of special meetings were held at noon, in the early morning, at dinner, and late at night. Delegations from most annual conferences had at least one dinner together. One unofficial meeting featured two former students wounded at Kent State; another included Iowa Bishop Thomas with Dennis Banks, leader of the American Indian Movement. (Banks had skipped bail after the Iowa annual conference of the UM Church had put up $5,000 bail money and another $5,000 had been furnished by the UM Board of Church and Society.)

Tuesday the General Conference continued until 10:30 p.m., an extra hour beyond scheduled adjournment time. The torrent of legislative items mounted and some of the more controversial measures were debated.

A new “Diaconal Ministry” was established for lay men and women working for the church full-time. Dean Langford of Duke Divinity School defined “diaconal” as “the ministry of servants or service.”

General Conference continued the Ministerial Education Fund, by which our 13 UM seminaries are primarily financed. Delegates suggested that the two UM seminaries in Ohio and the two in Atlanta move toward consolidation, to eventually reduce the total number of UM seminaries to 11.

Adopting a resolution on peace, the General Conference voted amnesty for “thousands of persons who have conscientiously refused to participate in war in a variety of ways.” Thus the principle of non-violence and pacifism was endorsed a day after General Conference had declared “solidarity” with two liberation leaders in Africa, where violence may not be rejected as an instrument of social change.

Beneath the surface, over the past several years, has been a growing concern about effects of the “quota system,” which was adopted in 1972 in an effort to overcome inequity in minority representation in UM funding and leadership posts. “Quotas” have since become the vehicle by which certain ethnic minority groups (Asians, blacks, native Americans, Hispanics) representing 4.3 percent of the church membership, now exercise great influence over church funds and executive positions.

Two UM bishops have publicly declared that quotas must be abandoned. Doubts are growing as the consequences of quota-system hiring have become more evident—for example, church extension in the National Division of the Board of Global Ministries.

Against this background of deepening churchwide concern, the editor of Good News submitted to General Conference a petition calling for an intensive study of “the effect of the quota system upon the proficiency and functioning” of UM boards and agencies “and upon the competence of those employed through the quota system.”

This petition was adopted by General Conference, which ordered the General Council on Ministries to investigate during the next four years. Some observers interpreted this vote as an expression of growing hesitancy concerning emphasis on minority empowerment, prominent since 1970, and reflected in allocations of money made by the 1976 General Conference. Two other anti-quota signs: General Conference refused to vote that 40% of UM agency executives be women; the EUB quota system, established at merger in 1968, has been set aside for 1980.

J. Robert Kemmerly, MD, member of the Good News Board and lay delegate from Louisiana, was instrumental in pressing for greater accountability of boards and agencies, as well as the debate on health care. Good News Board Member Tom McQuary was a Louisville delegate. Two former board members were also active as delegated: Robert G. Mayfield, Kentucky and Charles S. Kerr, Eastern Pennsylvania.

As delegates ploughed through mountains of legislation in the closing days of the second week, thoughts were turning toward 1980. Some 1,200 pens were given out, bearing the slogan “Indiana Area Welcomes You to the 1980 General Conference.”

“Born to Raise Hell” was the provocative title of the Wednesday afternoon sermon, preached by Dr. T. Cecil Myers, pastor of First UM Church, Athens, Georgia. Reading this news item early Wednesday morning in the “Daily Christian Advocate,” delegates received an umntent10nal, but perhaps prophetic, omen of the day’s legislative activity.

A long and vigorous debate was conducted over a proposal to change the present life tenure of bishops and elect them for eight years only, with no succession. This was a minority report issued by seven members of the Quadrennial Study on Episcopacy. It had been widely supported by a variety of people wanting to further restrict the authority of bishops. After much debate delegates voted against the eight-year limit 625 to 345.

“This action reaffirmed the office and power of episcopacy,” observed Rev. Dr. Paul A. Mickey, Associate Professor at Duke Divinity School, a process observer at General Conference for the General Council on Ministries, and first vice-chairman of the Good News Board. “But this also constitutes a mandate for bishops to take the reins of leadership, especially with regard to exercising restraining influence on the general boards and agencies.

A surprise was the vote to include evangelism along with world hunger and ethnic minority church strengthening, as a threefaceted quadrennial emphasis under the theme: “Committed to Christ—Called to Change.” The first proposal called for funding in the amount of $250,000 per year for evangelism, but later, in a final budget shuffling, the evangelism allocation from World Service was reduced to $ 125,000 yearly.

Delegates were unhesitating in their desire to vote money for hunger and ethnic minorities, but they were reluctant to fund evangelism. At the last minute, they voted the Joint Committee on Communications an additional $659,000 yearly for promotional activities. In the end, evangelism rated no better than the $125,000.

The pressure for evangelism to be included seemed to come from two sources: 1) awareness of deep lay desire for more emphasis on evangelism, 2) worry over the loss of some 1,000,000 members since merger in 1968. But whatever the motive, this General Conference decision was cheered by those United Methodists who have always regarded evangelism—the winning of the lost to Christ—as the number-one business of the Church.

Wednesday night brought one of the tensest moments: consideration of the Social Principles statement, which the Board of Church and Society wanted to change so as to condone both homosexual practice and fornication.

Long hours had been spent in the legislative committee. With 5,758 petitions urging no change in the denomination’s position on human sexuality, the subcommittee consistently voted down the changes proposed by Church and Society.

David A. Seamands, Good News third vice-chairman and delegate (1-18) from the Kentucky Conference, had been assigned to the legislative committee on Church and Society. Wanting to be part of the particular subcommittee dealing with human sexuality, he had mistakenly signed up for a different subcommittee. Then, mysteriously, the subcommittee assignment list was misplaced! So the chairman invited members to make their choices again. This time Delegate Seamands got onto the crucial subcommittee.

As the debate on human sexuality approached, he felt led to tabulate the huge pile of petitions opposing the proposed changes. Several hours were spent sifting and counting.

Then, at a critical moment in the debate, one delegate sneered that the petitions had come from ignorant fundamentalists of the Bible belt. Delegate Seamands then presented his breakdown of the petitions. They had come from 45 states, representing every jurisdiction across the church, he reported. Annual conferences had sent 50 petitions. There were 749 petitions from charge conferences, administrative boards, councils of ministry, local UM Women, or various local church commissions. These facts seemed to blunt the drive to write “new morality” into our Social Principles statement.

During the debate in subcommittee, homosexual caucus leader Keith Spare, a UM layman from Reserve, KS, was given permission to speak. He claimed that 1,000,000 United Methodists are homosexual—a highly debatable statistic!—and he urged that it would be wrong to exclude this many people from full participation in the UM church. Another homosexual, Gene Leggett from Texas, also spoke for the “gay” cause.

The subcommittee listened, but then voted down the proposed changes. Further, it strengthened the statement against homosexuality by amending the present sentence: “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex;” to, “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage.”

Wednesday evening, with the atmosphere electric, the actions of this subcommittee came before the General Conference. The delegates voted to permit a three-minute statement by homosexual caucus leader, Keith Spare.

June Goldman, lay delegate from Iowa then said, “… What we are facing here is to listen to the voice of the grassroots of the church … I think it would be a great breach in credibility for this General Conference to vote against the wish which has become a mandate from United Methodism. …”

Another high point in the debate came when the venerable Dr. Albert C. Outler rose to speak:

“This is the moment I have been dreading for eighteen months, because this puts this conference and the UM Church on one of the tightest, hottest, and most significant points of decision we have ever been. …The essence of the issue before us is not Christian or pastoral compassion for homosexuals. … Nor is it some imagined difference between welcoming homosexuals into membership and refusing them ordination. No, we are being asked here and now … to condone homosexuality and to welcome and avow homosexuals into our ministry. We are being asked to vote for or against antinomianism in an acid test case. We are being asked to vote for or against moral decadence in one of its characteristic forms. We are being asked to endorse sexual promiscuity in the case of homosexuals, since we stipulate against homosexual marriage, thereby logically entailing endorsement of promiscuity for heterosexual Methodists (which some of them might prefer!).

“Beside being contrary to Biblical interpretation of sexuality and the whole tradition of Christian ethics, homosexuality is at least doubtful proposition as a positively equal sexual option, in view of a great many, if not most, modern biologists, psychiatrists, and ethicists. Moreover, the evidence is very far from solid that homosexual liaisons are positively good and humanly fulfilling over all and in the long run.

“Nevertheless we are now being asked to ignore all this and to pass directly from homosexuality decriminalization which we favored in 1972 to its positive institutionalization in 1976. This is wrong. This is unwise. This is a foolproof recipe for a irreversible disaster in the UM Church and in the Christian community. … This is an issue of conscience, and for me I aim to vote against that . antinomianism as any heir of Wesley would, and to vote against moral decadence; and I appeal to this conference to do the same.”

Dr. Leigh Roberts, psychiatrist and Wisconsin lay delegate (who served as chairman of the legislative subcommittee which handled the matter of a study of human sexuality) compared the anti-homosexual sentiments of the church to the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.

The vote showed that General Conference strongly opposed relaxing our Social Principles statement’s clear position against homosexual practice. With that crucial vote, delegates protected the legal bulwark which both the bishops and the Division of Ordained Ministry considered the key reason why practicing homosexuals cannot legally be ordained.

The mood of General Conference was to listen carefully — as evidenced by permitting the top homosexual leader to address the delegates. Then the vote was cast decisively. It could not be said that this General Conference had been “closed” to the homosexuals. On the contrary, this General Conference has been far more “open” than the church itself. Yet the final show of hands vindicated both the Word of God and the overwhelming mandate of the church.

By Thursday, delegates were nervously eyeing the enormous pile of remaining business. Would adjournment be possible by Friday night? A poll showed that less than a quorum would be available on Saturday. So the 1976 General Conference would have to complete its business Friday evening. With an eye to this goal, the maximum (1-20) length of individual speeches was cut from six to three minutes. And as the clock ticked toward adjournment, an impatient General Conference often voted to shut off debate so business could proceed.

The closer to adjournment a matter was considered, the greater the pressure to vote with minimal deliberation. Herein lay a major problem: Some highly delicate, complex, and controversial matters were voted in this atmosphere of haste. In this manner, General Conferences have provided boards and agencies with wide mandates to involve the church in coalitions and to advocate positions which have proved highly divisive.

A long debate focused on two plans for the denominational youth representation. The present UM Council on Youth Ministries, which spearheaded efforts to gain acceptance for homosexual practice by the church, was abolished. A new youth organization, directly accountable to the UM Board of Discipleship, will begin in 1977. UMCYM’s strongest critics were youth and young adult delegates who spoke sharply of UMCYM’s inadequacy, and called for a new, more representative youth organization.

The most controversial portion of the Social Principles statement had been debated, and Church and Society proposals condoning homosexuality and fornication had been defeated. Consideration of the rest of the document brought ratification of the 1972 document, with some significant changes:

  • An attempt to insert a specific condemnation of homosexual practice was overwhelmingly defeated. Delegates apparently felt this issue had been dealt with adequately.
  • Ministry to divorced persons by the church is encouraged.
  • The position on abortion was changed to read, “We support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.” This replaced the 1972 statement reading, “We support removal of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under laws related to other procedures of medical practice.” Thus the UM Church continues its favorable stance toward abortion. However, a proposal to endorse the pro-abortion decision of the US Supreme Court was strongly rejected.
  • Added a statement favoring the licensing of all gun owners and registering all firearms.

Significantly, the delegates rejected a proposal by Church and Society for a publicly administered, universal health-care program.

The traditional church position recommending abstention from alcoholic beverages was affirmed, in what Newscope described as “a statement somewhat less permissive than the 1972 resolution.”

Delegates adopted a comprehensive communications program, replacing the defunct magazine, United Methodists Today, which died in June 1975. The new emphasis shifts away from the traditional church magazine, utilizing radio, television, church newsletters, and annual conference publications. No effort was made to launch a new all-church magazine, nor to compete in official news coverage with the flourishing Texas Methodist/ UM Reporter, now reaching 375,165 readers in 31 annual conferences.

“Ageism,” discrimination because of age, was added to “sexism” and “racism” as evils to be opposed by the church.

An interesting sidelight was a special presentation made by Bishop W. McFerrin Stowe, of the Dallas area, to Bishop and Mrs. Onema Fama of Zaire. The North Texas General Conference delegation purchased a quantity of snake antivenom, needed because people in the Mulungwishi mission station area of Zaire are dying from poisonous snake bites. Thus an unusual cry for help was heeded in between votes.

The last day of the 1976 General Conference tested the endurance of delegates, already groggy from activities of the past days. Business began at 9:00 a.m. Friday and did not adjourn until 2:00 a.m. Saturday.

From the mass of actions taken during the 13½ hours of this marathon closing session, perhaps the most significant concerned whether or not to authorize a churchwide study of human sexuality. Many United Methodists feared it would be, at best, a useless waste of resources, and at worst a “Trojan horse” through which pro-homosexual advocates could seek to “condition” the church during the next quadrennium.

John Grenfell, Superintendent of the Marquette District, Detroit Conference, and third vice-chairman of Good News, presented the minority report. The vote was 477 for, 446 against. The upraised hands translated the Good News-created minority report into church law. It meant that delegates had wished to avoid the hazards and extravagance of a churchwide study. Perhaps most important, it placed responsibility for study of human sexuality where it really belongs: with the local church. Resource materials will be collected by the General Council on Ministries, to assist local churches desiring a study. A wide variety of viewpoints will be included, but GCOM has indicated no pro-homosexual bias, and is the most representative of all UM boards and agencies. So we have confidence that the resources provided will be fair and balanced. Finally, results of local church studies are to be shared with the whole church through the Interpreter magazine.

A further protection was provided by a General Conference resolution ordering UM agencies not to give church funds to any “gay” caucus or group, “or otherwise use funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality,” reported UM Communications. The church’s chief fiscal agency was given the right to stop any such expenditures.

Another action of General Conference called on boards and agencies to spend church funds “only in accord with the denomination’s Social Principles statement.”

Bishop Kenneth Goodson, President of the Council of Bishops, spoke the final words. Compressing a closing address, due to the late hour, he declared that the 1976 General Conference “has been sensitive to grass-root concerns. The criticism that the local church 1 not heard is no longer valid.”

Emerging from Memorial Coliseum for the last time, delegates hurried through the early morning coolness to their rooms. Some packed hastily and snatched a few hours sleep before heading home.

By 9:00 a.m. Saturday the coliseum was being prepared for the next event. The thunder of ecclesiastical debate had been replaced by the sound of rock music, which entertained workmen disassembling the desks, the great stage, and the sound system.

The 1976 General Conference had passed into history.

“It was wonderful to be here,” commented one delegate as he checked out of his motel Saturday morning, “but it is time to be heading home. That’s where the wheel will touch the road on all we have done in Portland.”


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