Clearing up four misconceptions about General Conference, and affirming one that is right on.
For the 50 days after Easter, heavy on Methodists’ minds will be General Conference, the quadrennial gathering of United Methodists from across the globe, held May 10-20, 2016. Everyone tries to describe General Conference to the media and their friends…but I find that four descriptions they use are not actually correct.
Here’s four half-truths, and one that is actually true, about General Conference.
1. General Conference is not equivalent to other denominational bodies.
The half-truth is that other denominational groups are similar to–or bellwethers of–how General Conference will be for United Methodism. For example, folks said that the conflict over homosexuality at the recent Anglican Primates meeting portents how General Conference will be for United Methodism, or that since the Presbyterians affirm gay clergy, that the UMC surely will. This is not the case.
The UMC is the only global Protestant denomination in the world, and General Conference is unique in its worldwide makeup, authority, and influence.
- Worldwide makeup: In contrast to the delegations of the Seven Sisters of Protestantism, the delegates that are sent to GC come from all over the world: 58% of the delegates are from the U.S., 30% from Africa, 4.6% from Europe, and 5.8% from the Philippines. No other denominational gathering has that kind of global diversity.
- Authority: The Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide church. However, the authority vested in General Conference is different from the Catholic Church: while they have regional bodies and even a topmost conclave of Cardinals, every doctrine and polity decision is approved/decided by the Pope. In contrast to Catholicism, General Conference is the ONLY body that can speak for The United Methodist Church. No Bishop or agency can speak uniquely on behalf of all of Methodism.
- Influence: the Church of the Nazarene is the most similar, where the USA delegation is only 25% of their General Assembly which has the same authority as General Conference. However, United Methodism’s 12.7 million members are far more influential than the 2.2 million members of their Wesleyan cousin.
So while folks tend to compare policy decisions of other top bodies in Protestantism and Catholicism, none are similar to General Conference.
Side note: the actual parallel to the Anglican Primates meeting and even their Lambeth Conference is the World Methodist Council, which includes all the varieties of Wesleyanism, meeting next on August 31 in Houston, Texas.
2. General Conference is not a proportional body
The half-truth is that delegate numbers to GC are assigned at a rate proportional to their regions’ lay membership. This is not the case.
General Conference does not reflect United Methodism proportionally, and it is not supposed to.
In a recent UMNS article by Sam Hodges, both Africa and the Southern USA complain that they are underrepresented at 2016 General Conference. This continues the trend from 2012, per Joe Whittemore’s analysis of the 2012 General Conference:
[In 2012,] the 2nd/3rd-largest areas of the UMC, the United States’ Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions, respectively, will see their representation diluted…The SEJ, with 24 percent of total UMC membership, will have 22.3 percent of delegates. The SCJ, with 14.4 percent of members, will have 13 percent of delegates.
Why is GC not 100% proportional? Because General Conference includes mandatory minimum representation by an annual conference: regardless of how small a regional conference is, they get a lay and clergy voice at the table. This means that the UMC gives token representation to:
- unique mission fields (European ACs represent entire countries with different languages and cultures)
- unique geographic challenges (Philippines ACs represent entire islands)
- huge geographic areas (Oregon and southern Idaho get 2 delegates for a land mass four times as big as Missouri, which gets 12 delegates)
So it is problematic both to claim it is proportional, when it isn’t, and for the South USA/Africa to complain about losing delegates, when they hold the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd highest voting blocs (556 delegates, 64% of the vote in 2016). It is therefore troubling to read of efforts to remove minimum representation or reallocate delegates to benefit the South USA/Africa who already enjoy huge voting margins.
GC is not proportional, and it is not meant to be, for the sake of its mission to transform the world. It’s hard to transform the world if you take voices away from huge swaths of it. As Audun Westad, GC delegate from Norway, states in Hodges’ article:
“Whether a democracy is a good democracy or not is not measured on the majority’s ability to take what they claim is statistically theirs,” he said. “It is measured on the majority’s willingness to protect the minority.”
3. General Conference is not a representative body
The half-truth is that General Conference represents the clergy and lay beliefs of their annual conferences. This is not the case.
Delegate selection for General Conference is a political event influenced by caucus groups.
- In Oklahoma, the Mainstream United Methodists and the Wesley Fellowship caucus groups had their slates of who to vote for, and for the past three GCs, the only delegates elected were on those slates.
- In a Texas conference in 2007, the entire delegation was line-by-line the same as a Confessing Movement voter guide.
- When one caucus group gets defeated, like evangelicals in Ohio in 2015, they are quick to blame not the members of annual conference but other caucus groups.
The result is that the delegates elected may not be members of those caucus groups, but they are predominantly elected by them. I don’t know what delegate elections look like outside the USA.
Representative bodies are never truly representative, but strongly tilted by politics, and the same can be said of General Conference.
4. General Conference does not create worldwide uniform polity.
The half-truth is that General Conference creates the same doctrine and polity for everyone that is United Methodist. This is not the case.
Bishop Pete Weaver’s introduction to the 2008 Book of Discipline states:
The Discipline is not sacrosanct or infallible. It is the product of research, prayer, conversation, and worship which provides the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.
This is true, but in polity and practice, it is even more true because it is not even the same book across the world.
Since 1972, Central Conferences (regions of Methodism outside of the USA) could change their Books of Discipline to reflect their diverse contexts. Sometimes it was different educational requirements for clergy (since not every region has access to a United Methodist school), but other times there were drastic differences.
- The 1992 Book of Discipline (written in French for Africa) excluded children of polygamists from receiving communion.
- Liberia currently excludes divorced clergy from seeking to be bishops while the USA and the Book of Discipline does not exclude divorcees from anything.
The truth is what General Conference decides only applies 100% to the United States, which, unlike the rest of the world, cannot adapt language for their region. This colonialist structure has many changes proposed to it for 2016. A Global Book of Discipline (defining what areas are uniform across the denomination) will be a major topic in 2016.
The decisions of General Conference are not applied uniformly across United Methodism. It will take drastic changes to make it either be uniform everywhere, or be adaptable everywhere. Presently, it is neither.
5. General Conference is the worst form of Conferencing–except for all the others.
The truth is that General Conference is a unique but flawed institution, subject to politicking, self-bettering majorities, structural inequality, huge wastes of money, and perpetuation of systemic injustice long beyond the time when the majority know they are wrong.
And yet we believe the Holy Spirit works through General Conference.
Like God’s continuing revelation through hundreds of biblical characters who were incredibly flawed, God works through the people God has, not the people God wants. I believe God wanted a Methodist Church that affirmed women clergy, but didn’t get it until 1956. I believe God wanted a Methodist Church that didn’t put African Americans in a separate-but-unequal jurisdiction, but didn’t get it until 1968. Who knows what Methodist Church will God want in 2016?
So may we make do.
- May we perfect the rules to balance majority rule and minority privilege.
- May we finish well the Imagine No Malaria campaign and embrace a new challenge for 2017-2020.
- May we seek unity without uniformity, diversity with a common mission.
- May we look protestors in the eyes, hear their stories, and remove discriminatory or unjust rules in our polity.
- May we value the delegate representing 175 members in Russia the same as the one representing 60,000 from West Michigan.
- May we be the people our grandchildren look back on and say “Surely this was the greatest generation of Methodists there ever was” instead of “Really? They wasted time on THAT?”
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