As we get closer to the special called General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, more aspects of the process are coming into clearer focus.
The Commission on the General Conference just met and decided on how the special General Conference will run, according to an article by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service.
This special conference, unlike other “regular” General Conferences, will be devoted to one issue only: receiving and acting upon the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) report and proposals. The report and proposals deal with whether or not the church will allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Additional proposals not from the COWF that relate to the same topic will also be considered.
Since the subject matter of the conference is different from what happens in a “regular” General Conference, the process that takes place at the conference needs to be different, as well. It appears that the Commission on the General Conference has come up with a process that is fair, open, and transparent, and that will allow the conference to make its best attempt at arriving at a definitive decision.
Normally, the conference is divided into as many as 12 or 13 legislative committees, with each committee assigned a portion of the several hundred petitions coming to a conference. But in the 2019 conference, there are only 99 petitions, and many of them are linked together as part of one or another overall plan. To consider them separately in different legislative committees would hamper the ability of the conference to deal with the plans as a whole.
Therefore, the Commission decided to have only one legislative committee to consider all the petitions that have been submitted. And that one committee will consist of all 864 delegates. The conference will meet as a “committee of the whole” on one day of the conference, so that all delegates may be part of fashioning the legislation that will be finally adopted. This legislative committee day will be presided over by an elected member of the conference, rather than one of the bishops. It will perfect the petitions that will eventually be acted upon again by the plenary session of the conference. The person to be elected chair will be one of those who served as a legislative committee chair at the 2016 Portland General Conference. That election will take place on the first day of the conference.
This approach will be helpful because it will allow the plans to be considered and perfected as a whole package, rather than piecemeal. It will allow all the delegates to be part of the perfecting process and to hear the arguments pro and con for each of the petitions dealt with. It will also create a more transparent process that can help build trust within the body, and it will enable all United Methodists (as well as others) to witness the whole process through live-streaming (something that could not happen when the conference is broken up into many legislative committees).
The special conference will run as follows:
- Saturday, February 23, will be a day of prayer and preparation, culminating the bishops’ “Praying Our Way Forward” campaign to seek God’s help for our church’s way forward.
- Sunday, February 24, will be the first day of business. The conference will hear a report from the Commission on a Way Forward on the three plans it brought forward. The conference will spend the rest of the day debating the three different directions suggested by the plans. At the end of the day, there will be a straw poll to determine which plan will be the one that the body works on. (This is not a final vote, but rather determines which set of petitions will be considered in the committee process. There will need to be more votes before the action becomes final.)
- Monday, February 25, will see the conference meet as a legislative committee of the whole, presided over by a delegate. The body will consider, amend, and pass the petitions related to the plan they voted to consider on Sunday. Other petitions can be added to or substituted for the ones directly related to a plan. All the other petitions that are not approved will presumably receive a vote of non-concurrence, since all petitions must be voted on by the legislative committee. If the petitions related to the chosen plan do not pass, the body could presumably try to perfect other petitions related to another plan instead.
- Tuesday, February 26, will be the final day of the conference and it will meet in plenary session, again with a bishop presiding. The petitions perfected on Monday will receive a final vote. The conference will also consider the implications of its actions for the future, particularly for the upcoming regular 2020 General Conference. This day also provides a bit of margin, in case the perfecting work is not completed on Monday or the conference votes to go in a different direction. Whatever is enacted by the plenary session on Tuesday will be the final decision of the conference.
Worship and prayer will be integral to the process of the special General Conference. It will begin each day’s session and be interspersed throughout the day, as well. The process will attempt to create a worshipful atmosphere in which delegates are better able to discern God’s will for the church moving forward.
This proposed process was approved unanimously by the Commission on the General Conference, gaining support from persons across the theological spectrum. It also has the benefit that it will not require changing the rules of General Conference. Changes in the rules were highly controversial in 2016 and took three days to adopt. The proposed process will still need to be approved by the General Conference on the first day of its meeting, but absent any concerted opposition, it seems sure to be enacted.
Of the 99 petitions submitted, 48 are in the report of the COWF. The General Conference Committee on Reference will meet prior to General Conference to determine which of the other 51 petitions are “in harmony” with the topic of the special conference. That report will be considered on the opening day of General Conference, and petitions found “not in harmony” will be able to be voted back in for consideration by the plenary session.
The Commission on the General Conference also tried out new voting machines for use in St. Louis. They have additional security features to prevent one person from voting on both his/her own machine and another delegate’s. They also create an easier mechanism for requesting to speak that will hopefully enable a smoother flow of the conference.
We believe the process proposed by the Commission on the General Conference is a good and positive one. We commend the Commission for placing a priority on fairness and transparency in developing the process. We encourage everyone to continue praying for the special General Conference, for the delegates, and for the many organizational details that have yet to be worked out.