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S.C. at General Conference

S.C. delegates join worldwide UMs for quadrennial legislative gathering

By Jessica Connor

TAMPA, Fla.—In an 11-day whirlwind of sunup-to-sundown work, nearly 1,000 delegates from across the globe descended upon the Tampa Convention Center for General Conference, the quadrennial legislative gathering that is the voice of The United Methodist Church.

Eighteen delegates from South Carolina “ nine clergy and nine laity “ joined their United Methodist brothers and sisters from five continents to address a host of legislative issues that will become church law for the next four years. Four alternates also attended every session and were seated more than once on the floor, plus two additional alternates were seated at least once.

First in legislative committees and then on the floor, delegates wrestled with complex and often divisive issues “ many with final votes splitting the church nearly down the middle. Major issues included a full restructuring of the UMC (the biggest topic of GC2012 and creating a huge uproar when the Judicial Council declared it unconstitutional on the final day of business). Other key issues included the church s stance on homosexuality, guaranteed appointments for clergy and whether to create a set-aside bishop

The body also elected Judicial Council members (see story, Page 3); passed a 2013-2016 budget of $603.1 million that is about 6 percent smaller than the budget for the last quadrennium; entered into full communion with a number of pan-Methodist denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and AME Zion; made United Methodist Women an autonomous organization rather than operating it under the UMC s General Board of Global Ministries; and decided not to divest from three companies whose products are used by the Israeli military in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Noteworthy this year was the sheer volume of discussion by delegates, onlookers and people back home on social media. Twitter and Facebook were teeming with discussion both professional and tongue-in-cheek, and personal blogs were prominently featured on a new segment of the UMC s GC2012 website, Join the Conversation (including this editor s; read it at http://tiny.cc/bwupew ).

About 1,200 pieces of legislation were addressed at GC2012.

Some highlights, and how they impact South Carolina:

New structure ˜unconstitutional

On the final day of General Conference, days after the body approved a new denominational structure designed to streamline general agencies of the church, the Judicial Council unanimously ruled the Plan UMC restructuring plan unconstitutional.

In essence, the UMC s top court said the creation of a General Council for Strategy and Oversight under Plan UMC violates the UMC s constitution because it usurps the oversight authority of the Council of Bishops, and also the General Conference s authority over the budget.

GC2012 appointed a transition team to work on 14 constitutional issues within the new UMC structure legislation, then present it again to the full body. That team asked the body to refer the plan to the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops with the possibility of having a called GC before 2016.

But during the evening session, debate after debate and vote after vote later, GC2012 ended with a motion to adjourn, leaving Plan UMC on the table indefinitely “ essentially dead. Those interested in a new structure will have to start from scratch in 2016.

Several from South Carolina, including the Rev. Tim Rogers and Dr. Tim McClendon, played a key role in developing this or earlier versions of a structure plan for the church.

Many across the UMC and in South Carolina expressed disbelief and frustration at the ruling, while others appeared relieved the structure was struck down.

Guaranteed appointments for clergy

Another of GC2012 s biggest surprises came when one of the most controversial issues of the gathering, an end to clergy appointment security, was approved as part of the consent calendar “ and with no debate. See full story on this here .

Human sexuality and protests

Despite long debate and protests, including singing and chanting that made doing business on the floor impossible for a time on May 3, the body did not approve legislation calling for inclusivity in human sexuality. Language in the Discipline remains as follows The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. 

Many said the issue was troubling and divisive and nowhere near black or white.

Wearing rainbow striped stoles, many of those passionate about inclusivity for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender United Methodists walked silently outside the bar at GC2012 Tuesday morning, May 1. Many carried signs saying I m Queer,  Young Gay Pastor  and Discrimination Kills, Love Prevails. 

Two days later, on May 3, after a morning of debate and both love-filled and inflammatory language,
one of several petitions on human sexuality failed by a 40-60 split. It had called for the UMC and the world to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices until the Spirit leads us to new insight. In the meantime, let us seek to welcome, know, forgive, and love one another as Christ has accepted us that God maybe glorified through everything in our lives. 

Following the petition vote-down, protestors broke the bar of the conference and surrounded the communion table, clasping arms, swaying and singing during the proceedings. Bishop Mike Coyner called for an early lunch recess because of the disruption, and announced that the afternoon session would be open to delegates only.

But the protestors were still there more than two hours later when the plenary resumed. The Council of Bishops reportedly consulted with the protestors on how to peacefully resolve the situation and decreed the afternoon session would be open. Then, after a prayer of inclusion by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, protestors quietly left the floor.

On the final day of General Conference, May 4, United Methodists got another surprise: a massive demonstration by the taunting, gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church, which brought signs and shouting outside the tent where the Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition had been holding daily lunches in support of full inclusion of all races, genders and sexual orientation in the church.

You are lying to these people; Methodists are fag enablers,  Westboro s signs read. God Hates the Methodist Church.  Westboro also opposes the ordination of women clergy.

UMC pastors and laity formed a human shield in front of the demonstrators, singing inclusion songs and other hymns.

Set-aside bishop

The body also rejected a proposal for setting aside a bishop to serve as full-time president of the Council of Bishops. Rife with controversy, the creation of a bishop position not tied to an Annual Conference concerned many in South Carolina who feared it would place too much control in the hands of one person. Some dubbed the set-aside bishop the UMC pope. 

Others felt the position would be unifying for the church, perhaps help the denomination communicate more clearly.

Lay servant ministries

S.C. Lay Delegate Michael Cheatham had a role in massaging one piece of legislation during General Conference: the name change of Lay Speaking Ministries to Lay Servant Ministries.

A certified lay speaker himself, Cheatham understood the desire to change the word speaking  to the more understandable servant,  but he did not want to lose the role of lay speaker entirely. So Cheatham proposed an amendment, which passed, to preserve the Office of Lay Speaker. Now, a lay speaker is a specialized lay servant who has taken extra coursework to train to be in pulpit supply.

Historically, lay speakers filled in for clergy if they were on vacation or out sick,  Cheatham explained. Many times, lay speakers have not been adequately trained; some are not gifted or equipped to do that well. This amendment (requires) that they take a course of study to prepare them to be better preachers; they must take five specific courses. 

He said it was interesting to hear the perspective of the name change from the church s African delegates, who consider the position to be of utmost importance. On that continent, Cheatham said, lay speaking is one of the first steps people take before going into the ministry.

Pan-Methodist Communion

General Conference voted to enter into full communion with a number of pan-Methodist denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Protestant “ those denominations with whom we have a historic relationship with our common Methodist heritage.

The Rev. Kathy James, who was part of this petition s legislative committee, said she enjoyed being a part of the process, which could have a positive impact on S.C. churches.

We recognize their clergy and they recognize ours,  James explained. What it could mean is if we are ever in a situation where there was a UMC in a small town and they didn t have a pastor, and an AME Zion church in town, they could have one pastor. It s sharing resources with clergy. 

Act of Repentance

Delegates to General Conference got the chance to participate in a much-publicized Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples  on April 27. The service enabled delegates to better understand tragic struggles in the lives of Native peoples “ including the 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, where John Chivington, a Methodist pastor, led 700 Colorado territory militia in the killing and mutilating of some 165 peaceful Cheyenne men, women and children.

As the service concluded, participants were encouraged to pick up symbolic stones from the river of life  scattered in the worship area and take them back to their own communities. These stones are intended to be a healing covenant.

South Carolina Native Americans will recognize this Act of Repentance during Annual Conference in June.

Close votes

One of the half-jokes going around after the close of GC2012 is that the body was so divided and took action on so few of the many significant issues that we should just save money and slap a 2012  sticker on the 2008 Book of Discipline.

Many of the votes were coming in at 55-45, or 60-40, so the body was unable to pass any legislation that calls for a two-thirds vote.

While many expressed frustration at being able to accomplish so little, James said the church should consider what that actually means: a lack of support for a particular item.

We are pretty divided in what are our priorities,  James noted. We are unable to pass any legislation that calls for a two-thirds vote, but that s probably not a bad thing when you don t have consensus. I heard earlier that a compromise means everybody s unhappy about something. I like to think when we come for General Conference we can get consensus. I think there is a difference between consensus and compromise, and we (did) a lot more compromise than in past General Conferences. 

Moving forward

Echoing moving forward  language encouraged by Bishop Larry Goodpaster and new Council of Bishops President Wenner, several S.C. delegates said that no matter how we feel about legislation that was passed or not passed, United Methodists should remember that it s not about us. It s about the Spirit of the Lord working through the church to create disciples.

We all need to sit back, relax and trust the Spirit is working in our midst,  said delegate the Rev. Ken Nelson. I don t remember a time when the issues have been more critical than they are now. What s most at stake is both the unity of the UMC, but also what does the future look like for the church?
Will this be a time when we stand together? ¦ Will we continue finding a way to survive instead of finding a way to thrive? 

Delegate the Rev. Tim Rogers recounted feeling depressed four years ago after that General Conference “ it was a really hard experience for him.

What I learned was the sun came up the next day, and life went on,  Rogers said. This time, when I watched the process and the debates, (I realized) the church is more like a very large ship that does not turn. 

For information on other legislation at GC2012, as well as further in-depth coverage of the gathering, visit gc2012.umc.org . For more on the South Carolina perspective of the event, visit gc2012.umcsc.org .

Some information for this article garnered from United Methodist News Service reports.

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