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A reclaiming of General Conference as a gathering of delegates, not representatives, challenges the ability of the majority culture to silence the minority voices at critical votes.
Keep Record of Individual Votes at GC?
In the United Methodist Church, every four years we send 800-1000 delegates to General Conference to vote on changes to the polity and doctrine of the UMC. The General Conference is similar to the United States Congress with one big exception: the individual votes and roll-calls of the members of Congress are public knowledge, whereas we have no idea how individual members of General Conference. Only the final vote tallies are recorded.
I used to be an advocate for having the voting records of General Conference delegates made public. After all, they were our representatives and I wanted to know how they voted so I would know whether or not to vote for them next time around. It would be more transparent and with more accountability to have their voting records public. It’s called democracy, right?
I decided that I was wrong.
Delegates Or Representatives?
Back in 2011, a very elder clergyperson in the Oklahoma Annual Conference was speaking with a younger person who had just been elected as a delegate. That delegate said that “it was an honor to represent our Annual Conference.” Firmly, the elder pastor said to them:
You are not representing our conference. You are a delegate. That means we have delegated our collective authority to you. You vote your conscience as a delegate and pay no heed to “representing” your state. Authority has been delegated to you: take it and vote as a United Methodist who loves their church.
That is a great distinction:
- A representative represents their constituency. So one would expect a representative to vote how their constituency would want them to.
- A delegate has had authority delegated to them. They have been elected on their own character and bring only the good of the Church Universal to the table at General Conference.
So asking for voting records is not appropriate: they are delegates and not accountable to their annual conference, but accountable to God and one another.
But there’s more to this than voting records.
There’s the conflict over the soul of General Conference itself.
The Hegemony of “vote in a bloc”
The “delegates, not representatives” sentiment is not universally appreciated, especially by those who represent the majority powers in the United Methodist Church.
In the days prior to General Conference 2012, delegates from Africa stopped in Atlanta and were hosted by one of the caucus groups that is dedicated to retaining the anti-LGBT doctrine in The United Methodist Church. While little is known of the private gathering, one of the presentations given to the delegates included the encouragement to “vote as a bloc” in order to “represent Africa’s interests.”
A similar gathering is being planned (see Rev. Lambrecht’s comments) for the days prior to General Conference 2016. You can bet that the encouragement to “vote as a bloc” will be presented again.
“Voting as a bloc” matters because when it is a visible vote, then there are repercussions to those who do not vote with the majority of their delegation. In 2004, a member of the Florida Annual Conference delegation was witnessed being physically removed from the floor and berated for not voting with the rest of the delegation on a sensitive issue. So that person was not able to vote as a delegate because their delegation treated them like a representative.
We see that misrepresenting the elected body’s role is a tactical decision: if people see themselves as representing their sponsoring conferences and voting in lockstep with their delegation, then the pressure is for them to listen more to their advocates than to the Holy Spirit. That works in the advocacy groups’ favor and their list of hoped-for legislative achievements, but not in the favor of the United Methodist Church overall.
A Proposed Solution
What can be done to help ease the pressure on delegates to conform to their area’s interests? Thankfully, there’s a significant change in store for 2016 that will help correct this calculated misrepresentation of the role of the delegates. From Heather Hahn’s UMNS report:
For the first time, delegates will use handheld electronic devices to log their votes in legislative committees, just as they do during plenary sessions of the full General Conference. Essentially, the move means delegates will have secret ballots in both locations…
The United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women requested the change after the agency’s monitors reported that delegates faced pressure from observers during the 2012 General Conference legislative sessions…
Steve Furr, a veteran delegate from Alabama-West Florida Conference, [said] that the change might help delegates more comfortably vote on topics their cultures consider too taboo to discuss openly. The Rev. David Dodge, a Florida Conference delegate, expects the change also will encourage delegates to prepare better to vote rather than simply following the lead of others.
By allowing for electronic voting in both plenary and legislative sections, along with holding presiding bishops accountable for calling for standing votes, delegates will be better able to vote their conscience and their communion with the Holy Spirit.
To the General Conference Delegates:
While it isn’t appropriate to ask you to represent the interests of the annual conference, what is appropriate is to ask that you remember that you are delegates.
- It doesn’t matter what caucus or special interest or big shiny gold star got you into General Conference.
- It doesn’t matter who buys you phones and texts you their desires, or who buys you breakfast, or who gives you rainbow stoles.
You are not representative of the UMC. Rather, you are delegated the authority as the United Methodist Church for two weeks. Vote how your heart and head and experience and reason and tradition would vote, not who elected you wants you to vote. Vote to discern God’s dream for your Church, not make the hometown happy.
On our part, we will pray for you, be of good counsel to you, and for two weeks know that you are not there representing our state but are part of the worldwide church struggling together to listen to the reality of our world and the hope of the Holy Spirit and find the thin places where the twain meet.
Note: portions of this post were originally published here.