The Commission on General Conference recently announced a new process for handling sexuality-related (and perhaps other) legislation at the 2016 General Conference. The new process, patterned after one used by the United Church of Australia, gives an opportunity for more thorough discussion by all the delegates. Breaking up into small groups of about 15, delegates will discuss the legislative proposals and channel feedback to a Facilitators group. The Facilitators group will then compile the feedback, report to General Conference what it heard, and submit revised legislation based on the feedback.
This new process would provide more opportunity for all the delegates to speak with one another about the sensitive and emotional concerns we all have regarding sexuality and marriage. The conversation in the small groups would not be directed toward a parliamentary process, but toward expressing opinions within a small group. If properly implemented, this conversational approach holds promise for defusing the rancor that often besets our dealings about the church’s ministry with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.
There are a number of concerns, however. Just as at the 2012 General Conference, if not properly implemented, these conversations could prove to be a waste of time or even harmful to participants. There are many logistical challenges, such as providing translation for over 50 small groups.
Most problematic is giving a group of six Facilitators the task of revising legislation that is usually carried out by a legislative committee of 60-80 delegates. Even when carried out with the best of intentions, the process has the potential to distort the feedback of the small groups and unfairly influence the form the legislation takes as a result. We listen and prioritize what we hear through our own theological and experiential filters, and that can have a dramatic effect upon what is heard and given importance. The Facilitators group is supposed to consist of “impartial” delegates nominated by the Council of Bishops. I wonder if there are any such delegates out there.
Once the listening and revising is finished, we will return to Roberts’ Rules of Order and deal with the revised legislation in the normal (adversarial?) manner. After having had the conversations, will the atmosphere be different? Perhaps. This experiment is an effort to find out.
What the new process will not and cannot change is the underlying division within our church body. There are committed people of conscience with various perspectives who will not be able to compromise on their principles. At the end of the day, the General Conference will still need to deal with the ongoing tearing apart of our covenant through acts of disobedience. It will still need to deal with the deep theological disagreements over marriage and sexuality, overlaying even deeper disagreements over our theology of church, the meaning, interpretation, and authority of Scripture, and even the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The General Conference will still need to make a decision: will we allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings or not? Will we ordain persons to ministry who are active in a same-sex relationship or not? There will still be persons of deep conscience who will not be able to abide by the decision of General Conference, no matter which way it goes. How will General Conference provide for the dissenters?
The new process being proposed may help provide more talk time for the delegates, perhaps increase understanding and a feeling of participating in the decision. On the other hand, it could end up causing harm or slanting the results. Either way, however, no process (new or old) can be a “magic wand” that will somehow enable us all to give up our disagreements and sing “Kum Ba Yah.” We can only prayerfully seek God’s will to the best of our ability as aided by the Holy Spirit and with an attitude of humility and love. Hopefully, that will be enough to help guide our church to a faithful future.