The Way to Get Things Done (Or Not Get Done) at General Conference

Bill T. Arnold

The editors of Catalyst asked me to reflect in these pages on The United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference, held in Tampa, FL, from April 24 to May 4. This was my second General Conference, which means, I suppose, I am beginning to have some perspective on how things work. These brief comments will provide an overview of the big picture of GC2012, and proceed with a narrative of my own experience as a delegate in the rank and file.

According to the denomination’s constitution, the General Conference meets every four years in order to exercise “full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional,” and as such, the GC is the only entity that speaks officially for the UMC (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church [The United Methodist Publishing House, 2008], 25). Ironically, the four-year cycle matches precisely the quadrennial cycle of presidential campaigns and elections in the US, which seems somehow appropriate. The deeply divided and increasingly vitriolic nature of American politics is paralleled almost exactly in the polarized UMC.

The highlights — or perhaps “lowlights” is better — of this year’s General Conference are painfully well-known to most interested UMs. The central events have been summarized and analyzed in many venues, some decrying our church’s inability to make substantive change without self-immolation, others relieved that we escaped Tampa without really changing much. The leadership of the church worked for months leading up to the meeting on a plan to restructure the entire denomination, in a proposal known as “The Call to Action.” The plan had the support of the episcopal leadership and the Connectional Table, as well as widespread support among other denominational leaders. It would have reduced the number of boards and agencies dramatically, downsizing the bureaucracy and saving considerable resources without diminishing the church’s ministries.

Or at least, this is what its supporters believed. Unfortunately for those supporters, many in the church at the grassroots level and in the bureaucracy itself felt betrayed and left out of the process. Others were suspicious that The Call to Action was a power play on the part of our bishops. One group offered an alternate plan, called rather banally, “Plan B,” which was widely circulated prior to the conference. By the time delegates reached Tampa, the battle lines were drawn. The General Administration Legislative Committee was responsible for agreeing on a plan for adaptive change in the church. They were immediately locked in debate and were incapable of compromising on a proposal for the conference floor. The only thing everyone could agree on was that change was necessary. Yet at the end of the first week of General Conference, when the work of individual legislative committees was complete, the General Administration Legislative Committee had nothing to offer. They could not agree on any version of either The Call to Action or Plan B.

Over the weekend, a group of committee members from both sides of the debate met privately to write a third alternative, the so-called Plan UMC. This was perceived by supporters as something of a compromise, but one that would nevertheless enact real change, reducing the number of boards and agencies from thirteen to four and giving considerable authority to a new General Council for Strategy and Oversight. A large number of delegates resented the way the process worked because it appeared to them as though this was backdoor politics. (One might imagine smoke-filled rooms of policy wonks cutting secret deals until a plan could be agreed on, except in this case, there was no smoke in the room, as far as I know.) Nevertheless, Plan UMC was passed by the General Conference on Wednesday, May 2, with 567 delegates in favor, and 384 opposed. Real change was coming.

What the authors of the plan apparently did not take into consideration is the extent to which the denomination’s constitution restricts all oversight of the church’s ministries to the General Conference, and only to the General Conference. No such Oversight Council would be constitutional. After GC2012, there was a rumor that the original authors of The Call to Action asked for a declaratory ruling of the Judicial Council (the UMC’s equivalent of the Supreme Court) to determine the constitutionality of the plan, and that the Judicial Council declined to give such a ruling. The implication is that the supporters of all such restructuring plans were being set up. I have been assured by Dr. Susan T. Henry-Crowe, President of the Judicial Council at the time, that no such request came to them. They were never asked to give such a declaratory ruling. The allegation itself merely serves to illustrate the extent of suspicion rampant throughout the church. I myself believed a setup was in the works Wednesday when a delegate moved from the floor that the Judicial Council rule on the constitutionality of Plan UMC before the week was over, while we were still in Tampa. Famously, at the eleventh hour, the ruling of the Judicial Council was read by the conference secretary to a stunned conference: “Plan UMC is unconstitutional.”

With only a few hours left, and lots of work still to do, the central reason we had gathered in Tampa — to agree on a new structure for the entire church – was effectively a dead issue. We failed. Most of us went home wondering what we had actually accomplished with those two weeks of our lives, not to mention the countless hours of preparation leading up to the conference. In the shock of that announcement late Friday, when the routine closing hours of the conference were suddenly turned into a stunning cacophony of last-minute attempts to salvage the restructuring plans, I turned to a delegate next to me and said that at some point in the future, students would write dissertations about that moment in Tampa. It was historic, no doubt, if for no other reason but to show the profound dysfunctionality of the church.

Other issues that invariably get attention at General Conference are the social issues addressed by the church, most notably the UMC’s positions on abortion and homosexuality. As the church has done since the 1970s, it retained its position on same-sex practices, stating that the UMC “considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (Discipline, 103). This is, of course, the presenting social issue of our day, and there was much anticipation this year that the church would change its position. After intense debate at the committee level and on the plenary floor, the General Conference voted Thursday, May 3, by a 61% majority to retain the Discipline’s language on same-sex practices as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

This came after the defeat of a substitute motion by two UM pastors, A. Hamilton and M. Slaughter, to that effect that we say simply that we agree to disagree. As noble and reasonable as their motion sounded, it would have left the church essentially without any position at all, and on one of the most important social challenges of our generation. Moreover, we already acknowledge in the preamble of our Social Principles that we are not of one mind on many issues: “We pledge to continue to be in respectful conversation with those with whom we differ, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things” (Discipline, 98).

Similarly on abortion, one of the two Church and Society Legislative Committees passed a petition (42 in favor, 32 opposed) requiring the church’s General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries to withdraw their membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which is perceived as aggressively supporting abortion rights in all circumstances against the UMC’s Social Principles. Similar attempts have been made at all recent General Conferences, but none has succeeded at requiring our boards and agencies to live into our position on abortion, which is largely a moderate prolife statement (Discipline, 105). I believe this year’s petition to withdraw membership from the RCRC would have passed, especially judging from the strength of the vote in the committee. But we never had an opportunity to debate it and take a vote. Why? Because of the way things get done at General Conference — or do not get done.

As a way of illustrating just how things work at General Conference, let me share my own experiences as a member of the Faith and Order Legislative Committee. I served on the Doctrine Subcommittee, which was tasked with taking up a number of petitions related to the portion of The Book of Discipline entitled “Our Theological Task” (Discipline, 74-86). We examined other petitions as well, of course, but I was especially involved in rewriting and presenting a petition that proposed reframing portions of our understanding of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the commitment to base our theology and theologizing on four foundations: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.

One particular petition before us called for rewriting the statement on experience in order to make explicit that we mean distinctively Christian experience, and not a wider understanding of human experience in general. The petition as it was presented to us was not particularly well written and had virtually no chance of passing our Faith and Order Legislative Committee, much less the plenary session. I undertook to rewrite the original petition, calling for substantive changes in our current Book of Discipline’s discussion of the Quadrilateral generally. The new petition emphasized and repeated the phraseology of the opening paragraphs of the Discipline’s assertion that Scripture is “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Discipline, 78). That much is clear.

But as the Discipline’s discussion continues, the experience component of the Quadrilateral can be read in a way that leads to disagreement because at times it is imprecise. Our petition attempted to tighten the language, clarifying that we UMs mean to speak specifically of “Christian experience” as something distinct from the life experiences of the unregenerate or unbeliever. We are referring to the unique experience of the believer, and to experiences shared in the church universal informed by the Holy Spirit as Christians reflect on Scripture and the realities of Christian living. Such experience gives believers new eyes to see the truth of Scripture. Our petition went further by saying such experience confirms the biblical message for our present, being informed by the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture. Therefore, experience does not contravene Scripture as “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.”

Essentially, our petition clarified that the experience to which we refer as a criterion for Christian doctrine is specifically that experience of Christians, and not more generally the experiences of, for example, spiritualists, Buddhists, Gnostics, or ancient druids for that matter. In this sense, we believe the petition was squarely within the Wesleyan understanding of how we go about doing theology, as seems obvious by the following statement in the Book of Discipline: “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason” (Discipline, 77). A majority of us on the subcommittee believed we were merely strengthening the rest of the Discipline’s statement. Our intent was (1) to clarify the role of experience in the Quadrilateral, and (2) to make more explicit throughout the entire discussion of “Our Theological Task” that Scripture is indeed primary among all other criteria.

I was encouraged when the petition passed the Doctrine Subcommittee with little debate, 16 in favor, 6 opposed. The entire Faith and Order Legislative Committee, however, was another matter. In sum, the committee was divided over the issue of experience as restricted too narrowly to that of Christian experience at the exclusion of wider human experiences. A leading voice in the debate was J. Thaarup, a professor of Wesleyan theology and pastor from Denmark who became a friend during those days. I respect him a lot, even though we disagreed on the substance of the debate. He made the case before the full legislative committee that, in fact, we Wesleyans must incorporate the wider experiences of non-Christians in our theological task. I countered that we must certainly learn from all human experience. But the Discipline’s intent in referring to this “new life in Christ” as a criterion for doctrine is more precisely what we UMs mean when we speak of “Christian experience” (Discipline, 81). Our petition attempted simply to make more explicit what is already stated earlier in the discussion of the Quadrilateral, namely, we base Christian doctrine on the experience of believers in the church, informed by the Holy Spirit, and inspired by Scripture, which again is always our primary source and criterion for doctrine. In this sense, the petition merely confirmed and strengthened what was already stated in the Discipline. Our petition was passed by the Legislative Committee – 39 in favor, 29 opposed.

When the petition passed the Faith and Order Legislative Committee, I believed it had a better-than-average chance of passing on the General Conference floor. I also believed it was an improvement on the way we understand our theological task, and therefore would help the church. So much for my naiveté!

What happens next in my narrative explains more about the way things get done at General Conference than anything else I have said. We all knew that the moment we discussed and decided issues surrounding human sexuality, specifically same-sex practices, would be the conference’s gut-check moment. It would be emotional, intense, painful, and divisive. It came this year on Thursday morning, and led immediately to what we have come now to expect at UMC General Conferences: a demonstration. This year’s demonstration struck me as smaller than most but vocal nonetheless, enough to lead to an immediate recess and early lunch. The demonstrators had taken positions at the center of the floor around the conference’s altar and refused to leave. When we delegates left the conference floor for lunch on Thursday, we fully expected to return to the rest of our slated business and to get on with the tasks before us.

When we returned from lunch, however, we learned that a small group of bishops had negotiated with the demonstrators to end the demonstration. They made a deal, which included having one of the demonstrators open the afternoon session with prayer, and moving ten additional petitions related to human sexuality to the back of the conference’s agenda. Everyone understood that moving a petition to the back of the agenda effectively meant it would never be heard from again. Conference would end the next night, Friday, and whatever agenda items were left would simply disappear in the legislative trash heap. Those involved in the negotiations with the demonstrators agreed that additional petitions related to sexuality would be “hurtful” and there was no need for additional pain.

The next morning, at the Agenda Committee meeting, it was argued further that our petition on the Primacy of Scripture would also be hurtful; and likewise, the petition on withdrawal from the RCRC. In other words, any petitions that seemed remotely objectionable to the demonstrators, who had hijacked the conference on Thursday morning, were relegated to the back of the agenda, where they were certain to die a quiet death. In this way, our petition would not cause additional pain for those who had already lost the debate on human sexuality. It could be objected that the petitions on the primacy of Scripture and the RCRC are not directly related to our debates on same-sex practices. But on Friday morning, they were deemed hurtful by the Agenda Committee. A desperate attempt late Friday evening, as delegates were packing and getting ready to leave the conference floor, to revive the RCRC petition was doomed to failure.

How do things get done at General Conference? In this case, a dozen petitions that took long hours of work, debate, revising and planning, were simply shuttled off into the Tampa air because a group of powerful planners of the agenda decided they were hurtful. Earlier in the week, we delegates had committed ourselves to listening to each other in holy conferencing, without judgmental tones in our voices or prejudices in our minds, as much as possible. In most cases, the debates were, in fact, respectful and considerate of differing opinions. But at the end of the conference, little of that mattered. The voices of those who had prevailed in many legislative committees the previous week were dismissed as hurtful.

Our church is committed to a decision-making process that is representative in structure and designed to ensure the vox populi is heard as much as possible. But as the twenty-first century moves well along in its second decade, we are clearly incapable of nimbly responding to the changing needs of our worldwide ministries, and we appear slavishly enmeshed in our own power structures and bureaucratic machinations. In 2012, the Agenda Committee and the bishops who struck a deal with the demonstrators caused us to miss opportunities, and those opportunities went well beyond the famous unconstitutional Plan UMC. We were poised to make more significant changes. But in a way much quieter and with much less fanfare than the Judicial Council, the Agenda Committee negotiated the undoing of much of our work and accomplishments. May General Conference 2016 be different!

Posted Nov 01, 2012