General Conference 2016 brings changes, maintains unity

Members of the Council of Bishops stand as their president, Bishop Bruce Ough, reads the group’s May 18 statement to General Conference delegates. The bishops made clear their commitment to unity and recommended a commission to address petitions related to human sexuality, rather than using Robert’s Rules of Order to debate them.

Members of the Council of Bishops stand as their president, Bishop Bruce Ough, reads the group’s May 18 statement to General Conference delegates. The bishops made clear their commitment to unity and recommended a commission to address petitions related to human sexuality, rather than using Robert’s Rules of Order to debate them. AUM PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

By Amy Forbus
Editor

PORTLAND, Oregon—What happened at the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church?

In short: Opinions vary. Assessments of General Conference 2016 will likely last longer than the four-year intermission between this and the next regularly scheduled gathering, and there’s a chance that a special called session of the General Conference will occur before then.

While it acted on hundreds of legislative items, celebrated ministry in a variety of forms, participated in acts of repentance and marked significant anniversaries, the 864-member body made of equal parts clergy and laity may best be remembered for asking its Council of Bishops for leadership, then deciding to go with that leadership by the thinnest of margins.

Rules debate, request to lead

One action taken during the first week affected a substantial portion of the proceedings: Debate that stretched across the first three days of the gathering focused on what was known as “Rule 44,” a proposed group discernment process for having conversations around potentially controversial topics. The 2012 General Conference had requested that the Commission on General Conference offer an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order for this purpose, but as the 2016 General Conference did not approve it, Robert’s Rules remained the only manner by which business would move forward.

But delegates later turned to the Council of Bishops to ask for leadership on handling divisive issues, particularly surrounding petitions related to human sexuality. (Bishops do not vote at General Conferences; their primary tasks there are to preach in worship and preside over plenary sessions.) The bishops returned with a statement that upheld a desire for unity and recommended forming a special commission to examine every paragraph of church law that deals with human sexuality. The statement read, in part:

Lay reserve delegate Miller Wilbourn, center, stood with other young people as they read the statement of unity they adopted at the Global Young People’s Convocation. They timed their statement to occur during a debate on the Council of Bishops’ recommendation to form a commission to discuss contentious matters surrounding human sexuality.

Lay reserve delegate Miller Wilbourn, center, stood with other young people as they read the statement of unity they adopted at the Global Young People’s Convocation. They timed their statement to occur during a debate on the Council of Bishops’ recommendation to form a commission to discuss contentious matters surrounding human sexuality.

“We will name such a Commission to include persons from every region of our UMC, and will include representation from differing perspectives on the debate. We commit to maintain an on-going dialogue with this Commission as they do their work, including clear objectives and outcomes. Should they complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then we will call a two- to three-day gathering before the 2020 General Conference.” (Read the bishops’ full statement)

Though the first motion to adopt the bishops’ recommendation failed, a slightly different motion later passed by just 23 votes. The commission’s size, specific membership and the convening date have yet to be determined.

A variety of changes

From making small wording changes in the Book of Discipline to paving the way for further expansion of the church outside the United States, actions of the General Conference have a variety of ramifications.

Actions taken by the delegates included:

  • Approving a new high-tech hymnal project, which will be the first official United Methodist Hymnal produced since 1989. Delegates approved the creation of the cloud-based, print-on-demand hymnal, and a 15-person hymnal revision committee to shepherd its development.
    Arkansas delegation chair the Rev. Mark Norman served on the Discipleship committee, which approved legislation for the new hymnal.
    “It’s a hymnal that gives the diverse kind of congregations that we have in Arkansas the opportunity to be able to sing praises to God in their different ways, whether it be in more contemporary venues, or whether it be in more traditional venues,” he said. “The new hymnal is going to be so flexible that it really helps congregations be able to use multimedia… it’s going to be a great benefit and change to our churches in Arkansas.”
  • Clergy delegate the Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles was elected a subcommittee chair in the General Administration committee, which gave her the duty of introducing legislation to change the wording of Article IV of the church’s constitution. The change was approved by a 68 percent margin, and will take effect if ratified by a two-thirds majority at next year’s annual conference gatherings.

    Clergy delegate the Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles was elected a subcommittee chair in the General Administration committee, which gave her the duty of introducing legislation to change the wording of Article IV of the church’s constitution. The change was approved by a 68 percent margin, and will take effect if ratified by a two-thirds majority at next year’s annual conference gatherings.

    Adding age and gender to Article IV of the church constitution, which addresses the inclusive nature of the church. Because it changes the constitution, this measure will not be final unless it is ratified by a two-thirds majority at annual conference gatherings. Arkansas and other conferences will hold that vote in 2017.
  • Withdrawing from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, of which the denomination was a founding member in 1973 and which has prompted debate at every General Conference between then and now.
  • Approving the addition of five new bishops to help lead United Methodists in Africa, beginning in 2020.
  • Celebrating the success of the Imagine No Malaria campaign, to which Arkansas Conference churches and individuals have given more than $1 million. The celebration included the release of the song “Able,” available for free download and use by churches.
  • Launching the Abundant Health Initiative on the heels of Imagine No Malaria, with the goal of reaching one million children with life-saving intervention by the year 2020 by ensuring safe births, promoting breastfeeding for infant nutrition, preventing and treating childhood diseases and promoting children’s health and wholeness.

Arkansas delegates reflect

Like others surrounding them in Portland, members of the Arkansas delegation experienced frustrations throughout their time together.

Brian Swain (left), the Rev. John Embrey and Karen Millar join hands in prayer with other delegates seated at their table on the floor of General Conference.

Brian Swain (left), the Rev. John Embrey and Karen Millar join hands in prayer with other delegates seated at their table on the floor of General Conference.

“Our work was sabotaged by parliamentary maneuvering and parliamentary confusion and repeated referrals. There was so much distrust,” said Karen Millar, a lay delegate from Searcy. “I am very thankful that General Conference is not the Church. I was so thankful and almost giddy to get back to my local church.”

“We do much better in small groups than in large,” wrote the Rev. John Miles in a May 20 Facebook post reflecting on his experience. “Our small group conversations were cordial and respectful. It is hard to demonize people when you talk to them. I think this has applications for the local church. Is it possible to have a wide diversity of people in the same church? If they are willing to talk and listen I think it is possible. Especially if they are all willing to put Jesus first.”

Karon Mann, the first-elected lay delegate and current Arkansas Conference lay leader, expressed appreciation for those who served at General Conference.

“One of the things I appreciate the most about the Arkansas delegation is our commitment to be in covenant and treat each other with respect, even when we do differ, and it is valuable to have safe space where you can feel what you feel, think what you think, but still be loved and respected by your fellow delegates,” she said.

Alex Shannon (top row, left), a member of Pulaski Heights UMC Little Rock, sang on May 16 as part of the Centenary College Choir. The choir performed as part of morning worship, as well as at a lunchtime concert.

Alex Shannon (top row, left), a member of Pulaski Heights UMC Little Rock, sang on May 16 as part of the Centenary College Choir. The choir performed as part of morning worship, as well as at a lunchtime concert.

Norman saw the close vote on the bishops’ recommendation as a reflection not just of differing opinions, but also of different approaches.

“A lot of people had a heartfelt desire to want to talk about the human sexuality issues. And it was out of that passion to want to talk about it that people were not always a fan of the Council of Bishops’ decision, because there was this hunger, this desire to talk and deal with it now,” he said. “But I so appreciate our desire to have focused conversation about the human sexuality issues later. It’ll make for better conversation.”

Like Miles and numerous other delegates, the Rev. Dede Roberts, director of the Arkansas Conference Center for Vitality, shared on social media her thoughts on the bishops’ recommendation.

“Their suggested way forward is a deliberate process to keep us in conversation,” she wrote on Facebook. “I pray they will gather a commission which is representative without being controlled by the caucuses that have deadlocked us for years. I am hopeful that there is a way forward, for as I have said before, I think our greatest witness for the love of God is that we stay at the Table together instead of fracturing into our constituency groups. If we teach of a Triune God whose name is love, we must witness to that love through our relationships together.”

The Rev. Rodney Steele, a member of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, introduced the proposal to add five bishops in Africa beginning in 2020. Steele currently serves as superintendent of the Arkansas Conference’s Southwest District.

The Rev. Rodney Steele, a member of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, introduced the proposal to add five bishops in Africa beginning in 2020. Steele currently serves as superintendent of the Arkansas Conference’s Southwest District.

Norman, a first-time delegate, said he had heard stories of how difficult General Conference could be, but felt blessed by being able to interact with United Methodists from all over the world.

“There’s still an overcoming joy about being part of a global church,” he said.


Learn more about GC2016 actions

Watch a series of videos taken at General Conference featuring members of the Arkansas delegation, and a May 20 audio interview with Karon Mann and the Rev. Mark Norman that includes a photo essay of images captured May 16-20.

View the albums posted at www.facebook.com/arkansasumc for more photos taken at the gathering.

Visit gc2016.umc.org for more detailed news reports on General Conference.