As I type this, I am extremely exhausted from the hectic last couple weeks of General Conference work. But knowing how eager many of you readers are for news, here is a non-comprehensive summary of key highlights from the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
- On sexual morality, we maintained our church’s biblical standards on marriage and sex. While some liberal delegates may have felt optimism for their cause as early as the beginning of this General Conference, committee voting in the first week made clear that the votes were not there to liberalize our standards. So liberal delegates, in cooperation with an extraordinary intervention with our bishops, narrowly rushed through a little-understood motion that involved tabling all “sexuality” matters, which meant keeping our present, orthodox standards. Contrary to some misunderstandings and rhetorical smoke-blowing, this motion to refer such matters to a special commission did NOT call for a moratorium on enforcing our Book of Discipline’s standards. Rather, it simply used similar language to what bishops routinely say, and the Discipline itself says, about wanting to avoid complaint processes and treating them as last resorts, but then also expressed an explicit commitment to uphold our Book of Disicpline. While there are many good reasons to be skeptical of this whole process, it is worth noting that this special commission to be appointed by our bishops will only have authority to make recommendations rather than actual changes in church teachings, and that when similarly called commissions or study committees have recommended liberalizing our sexuality standards, the church has rejected their advice. For one less-than-elated liberal reaction to this development, see here. We also allowed the expiration of an embarrassingly bad resolution passed by the 2008 General Conference decrying “heterosexism and homophobia” so that that is no longer an official UMC statement.
- On pro-life issues, we overwhelmingly voted to end our denomination’s scandalous 43-year affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), voted by an even larger margin to delete an official UMC resolution expressing appreciation for RCRC, and in other actions, we voted decisively to repeal a 40-year-old official “Responsible Parenthood” resolution very broadly defending abortion and endorsing the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, re-adopted a resolution decrying sex-selective abortion while describing abortion as “violent” and criticizing those done for “trivial reasons,” and allowed the expiration of a 16-year-old official UMC resolution bewailing an alleged “crisis” of some hospitals not offering abortions. The petition to withdraw our membership in RCRC was submitted by several annual conferences from the Northeast to the Midwest to the South: Western Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama-West Florida. We also strengthened and re-adopted an existing resolution on human cloning and bioethics. And we re-affirmed our church’s opposition to “mercy killing,” while a dangerous petition from the California-Pacific Conference to promote the pro-assisted-suicide “Death with Dignity” movement died in committee. While much work remains in more firmly establishing a clear pro-life commitment in our denomination, these were HUGE steps in the right direction.
- In terms of other harmful agendas, we decisively defeated variations of the “Global Segregation Plan” to create a new US-only structure in which peskily orthodox overseas delegates would have been excluded (including one proposal advancing this from the once-formidable Connectional Table), rejected fossil-fuel divestment, protected guaranteed appointments for clergy, and did not adopt any of the liberal resolutions that would have put our church on the wrong side of recent religious liberty controversies we have seen in America.
- With accountability, we adopted a package of reforms to make bishops more accountable to the global connection, rather than only to their respective regions, to end the impunity with which some bishops have flaunted our denominational covenant. We also adopted petitions to bring a little more transparency in our judicial accountability processes, and to require those appointed as counsel for the church to be willing to uphold our church law in pursuing charges against wayward clergy.
- On Israel, anti-Israel divestment petitions were soundly rejected in their legislative committee, an 11th-hour attempt to resurrect this cause in the final day’s plenary session was rejected in a vote of 559-167, or 77-23 percent (an even more lopsided margin than the 2012 General Conference’s 2-1 vote rejecting divestment), a run-of-the-mill UMC petition to criticize Israel was gutted by an amendment, and much to my pleasant surprise, we actually adopted a petition calling on the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) to end its affiliation with an extreme anti-Israel group the GBGM itself helped establish – and the 60-40 vote on that was not even close.
- On the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), we amended the Discipline to require that our denomination’s notoriously liberal DC lobby office begin doing some work to advocate on behalf of Christians persecuted for their faith around the world.
- On Proportional Representation, we adopted a plan that will add five new bishops in Africa by 2020 (partially addressing some serious imbalances), added a few more African members to the powerful Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters as well as to the General Commission on Communications.
- On Men’s Ministry and Reclaiming Wesleyan Spirituality, we adopted a resolution encouraging men’s groups to adopt the “class meeting” format as outlined by Professor Kevin Watson, modeled on the historic Methodist class meetings.
- On Women’s Ministry, we amended the Discipline to explicitly encourage a variety of women’s ministries without treating United Methodist Women (UMW) as an absolute monopoly. Such explicit support for supplemental women’s ministries has been a longtime goal of our friends at the Renew Network, as you can read about here. Perhaps finally succeeding on this matter after so many years could be attributed in part to the Manhattan national headquarters of UMW finally overplaying its hand, not just in its longtime disregard for the values of non-liberal women in our churches, but also with its (failed) petitions submitted to this General Conference on the “crisis” of abortion-free hospitals and to make the “Responsible Parenthood” resolution even more callously pro-abortion.
- Also from the Local Church committee, we adopted one petition allowing for more flexible structures for our local churches for the sake of reaching new people for Jesus Christ, and another petition, submitted by Rev. Riley Case (Associate Director of the Confessing Movement and UMAction Advisory Board member) to promote “awareness of and concurrence with” our church’s Doctrinal Standards within each of our congregations.
- In distribution of resources, we doubled the funding to support theological education in our overseas central conferences, from the officially planned $5 million to the $10 million for which we pushed strongly.
- On inclusion of non-US delegates, who constituted some 40 percent of all delegates, we saw a perhaps unprecedented level of non-Americans being engaged in discussions and elected as officers of legislative committees. The 71 elected committee officers included three Filipinos, three Europeans, and sixteen Africans. Furthermore, we adopted a petition requiring that from now on, the most important information that has been printed only in English in the Daily Christian Advocate to guide delegates in what we are doing each day at General Conference, will now also be translated and made available in French, Swahili, and Portuguese. In practical terms, this last change means that beginning in 2020, we should expect a new, unprecedented level of informed engagement on the part of African delegates, significantly beyond even what we saw this year.
- In elections, evangelicals handily swept the elections for our denomination’s Judicial Council (Supreme Court) and University Senate. Now the nine-member Judicial Council includes three Africans, one Filipino, one European, one African-American, one Vietnamese American, and two white American women – and eight of these nine were elected with the support of evangelicals because of their commitment to fairness, integrity, and upholding our Book of Discipline. Furthermore, while the powerful Commission on the General Conference has traditionally been stacked with liberal appointees of our Council of Bishops, a new rule allowing nominations and elections allowed us to elect three strongly evangelical Americans to this important body, in addition to the numerous non-Americans now serving on it.
- On General Conference, we changed the Discipline to clearly mandate democratic processes in delegate elections (pending ratification of this Constitutional amendment), and also adopted a petition submitted by the Indiana Conference to require future General Conferences to actually take action on the petitions submitted to it. The latter means that liberals will no longer be able to rely on the cynical “filibustering” weapons they have used against us at this and the previous General Conference. In other words, in future General Conferences, when the orthodox majority has key petitions that we really want to pass, they now have much less ability to stop us.
All of the major losses for evangelicals were “offensive losses” – as in we failed to gain as much new ground as we had hoped in some cases. I cannot think of a single major area in which progressives actually gained ground at this General Conference.
But I had been particularly hoping that we could have gained more ground in proportional representation (reversing how declining liberal regions of our church are over-represented while more faithful and growing areas in the USA and globally are under-represented in denominational leadership structures) and accountability for wayward clergy. On the latter, the outgoing, liberal-dominated Judicial Council issued several frustrating rulings disallowing several of the key accountability petitions we supported.
Several silly, far-left political resolutions were passed, as at every General Conference, but that is nothing new – every General Conference does that.
The General Conference failed to take time to even consider serious reforms to our U.S. seminary education system or our geographically unequal distribution of U.S. bishops, aside from establishing a group to study possible “changes to the jurisdictional conferences’ and episcopal area boundaries.” A petition to establish term limits for all UMC bishops failed to get the needed two-thirds super-majority for such a Constitutional amendment. But it did get over 59 percent support, suggesting momentum since a similar motion received only 50.05 percent at the 2012 General Conference.
I will probably write another article or two about this section later.
There was so much rather unhinged anger and stridency among protesters at the conference, in illegally storming the delegates-only area, in social-media trolling, and elsewhere. And it will be hard to forget that liberal clergy delegate who took to the microphone to angrily and confidently accuse a presiding bishop, who is known for having twitchy hands, of “telegraphing” how to vote on something with his alleged secret hand signals.
Some liberal delegates and surrounding activists stooped to rather blatantly misrepresenting the truth, particular on issues related to abortion or Israel.
Our bishops take turns serving in the chair to preside over each couple-hour segment of the General Conference plenary meetings. Our system was clearly broken when there was such a lack of consistency between how the rules were applied from one presiding bishop to another. This led some to quip that the only governing rules we effectively had were whatever the individual in the presiding bishop’s chair wanted them to be in that moment. Most of this I am willing to chalk up to parliamentary procedure not being something most of our bishops understand well, which highlights the importance of a proposal made to hire a professional parliamentarian for future General Conferences. But there were several instances of liberal bishops rather blatantly disregarding the rules, or dramatically breaking with the consistent pattern of how the conference had handled similar parliamentary situations, in ways that clearly prevented conservative delegates from promoting perspectives with which these bishops are known to disagree. It was particularly bizarre to see how the new Council of Bishops president, Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, rather forcefully shut down a valid motion from the Rev. Mike Childs of Mississippi, later made a public show of seeming to apologize to Mike, but then did not actually give Mike the opportunity to make the motion Ough had illegally prevented him from making.
Overall, I am beyond elated and thankful for the great things He has done in this General Conference, not only in the great actions taken but also the clear “writing on the wall” of the newly emerging global orthodox majority in our denomination, and the apparent inevitably of future General Conferences being able to establish even firmer standards of doctrinal and moral accountability. I look forward to seeing what He will do with our future.
(Note: This article has been updated since its original posting.)