The United Methodist Church General Conference Special Session – A Beginner’s Guide
by Mandy Briggs
So what IS happening?
On February 23rd, elected delegates from the United Methodist Church in the USA, along with UMC bishops, will meet in St Louis, Missouri, for a special session of the UMC’s General Conference. The aim of the meeting is to enable the denomination to find a way forward on the topics of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy.
Why does this matter?
The UMC is the largest grouping within the worldwide Methodist Church. It has around 12 million members – about 7 million in the USA, with 4.4 million across Africa, Asia and Europe (excluding the Methodist Church of Great Britain and Ireland which has a separate constitution and organisation). In the USA, the UMC is the third largest Christian denomination in the country. Because it is so big, the UMC is made up of many conferences, which meet in one large General Conference every four years. (this is a special one)
Who gets to go?
More than 850 Methodist delegates will be attending the Conference – about 58 per cent from the USA and 30 per cent from Africa. The remaining delegates are from the Philippines, Europe and Eurasia as well as from ‘concordat’ churches (churches which the UMC has formal relationships with). Four delegates have been invited from the UK. There are both lay and ordained delegates (like the British Conference) but the difference here is that the UMC also has bishops (described as elected and consecrated persons but not ordained). The Bishops do not vote but instead preside over the plenary sessions of the Conference. The letter written by Dignity and Worth to the current President of the Council of Bishops, Bp Ken Carter, has been received and acknowledged.
What is being debated?
A lot of careful work has gone into the preparations for this Conference. The main purpose is to receive and act on a report from the ‘Commission on a Way Forward’ – a group set up to examine paragraphs from the UMC’s ‘Book of Discipline’ (like CPD) concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.
Different options are being debated, including several main plans which are up for debate. You can read more about them here: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/the-commission-on-a-way-forward-report-what-you-should-know
For an in depth look at the main plans being proposed for debate, click here: http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties_UGC/learn/documents/GC2019-Plan-comparison.pdf
More plans/ways forward have also been suggested for debate.
What is the timetable?
General Conference delegates from around the globe will have three days to complete their legislative work.
The first day (Feb 23) will be largely spent in prayer. (If you would like prayer resources to use yourself then go to the end of this blog post).
On the following day, Sunday, Feb 24, with bishops presiding, delegates will seek to determine which of the multiple plans the majority wants to refine.
On Monday, Feb 25, all delegates will meet in a single legislative committee to do that refining work and vote on all legislative petitions. This is to fulfill the denominational policy that all petitions receive a vote in legislative committees.
The plan is for delegates to elect the chair of the committee from a pool of delegates who already have been trained and served as committee chairs in 2016.
The delegates will return to plenary on Tuesday Feb 26 for final voting. Again, bishops will preside.
A live stream is available here: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/general-conference-2019-live-video-stream-english
Please join us in praying for the Conference in the next few days.
Here are some ideas for prayer from Sam:
The General Conference is currently meeting to decide on a way forward in living with contradictory convictions about marriage, relationships and LGBTQ inclusion. Please join in prayer with our United Methodist sisters, brothers and friends, as difficult conversations are held and decisions made.
Pray for our delegates. The British Methodist Church sends four delegates – Ms Megan Thomas, Mr Doug Swanney, Deacon Liesl Warren and Revd Dr Andrew Wood.
Then pray for the rest of the delegates coming to St. Louis from all over the world to make these important decisions for the church. Whilst the decisions taken here do not directly affect the British Church, the outcome will have profound repercussions for the whole World Methodist family.
Pray for the bishops. Bishops do not vote at General Conference, but they lead the sessions. It can be a very taxing job to manage the legislative process of more than 800 delegates.
Pray for support staff. Holding a General Conference takes the work of many behind-the-scenes people. Lift them up in prayer as well. There are long, tiring days ahead for them. Pray for the Holy Spirit to grant them strength.
Pray also for all pastors and members of The United Methodist Church as we wrestle with these disagreements.
Pray for LGBTQ+ United Methodists, especially those who have been removed from ministry, bullied or excluded, because of who they are. Give thanks for those congregations and communities who are openly welcoming and inclusive and those who have made themselves vulnerable by standing up and speaking out.
The Upper Room has also launched the UMC prayer initiative: https://umcprays.org/