As we have reported elsewhere, there was so much to celebrate about this year’s General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon.
But one of the major problems was the extreme lack of basic fairness and consistency in how the presiding bishops managed the proceedings.
It is true that in our system, our bishops have no direct vote at General Conferences, which are set up for issues to be debated and final decisions made solely by those of us who were elected as delegates by our annual conferences, with bishops serving as no more than impartial facilitators.
But this particular limit on our bishops’ power must be understood in light of the big picture of how the United Methodist Church’s bishops are perhaps the most powerful bishops of any major Protestant denomination. There is of course the extraordinary appointment power they have over the lives and livelihoods of clergy in their respective episcopal areas, and their ability to unilaterally impose particular pastors on or take pastors away from particular congregations. And it would take a separate article to detail all the many leadership bodies at the annual-conference and denomination-wide levels that are directly led or appointed by our bishops or their hand-picked representatives.
The role of presiding over the proceedings of General Conference, the supreme legislative body in our denomination, is one of the major such powers reserved for (at least some of) our bishops.
It should be noted that as with the other privileges and powers of our bishops, we see quite a range between individual bishops in terms of how competent, fair-minded, and kind they are in fulfilling this duty. And of course, those bishops who got to preside at this last General Conference were only a minority of the whole.
In reviewing the sub-set of our bishops who got chosen to preside at plenary sessions during the second week of General Conference (the only period in which final action could be taken on anything), it is a simple statistical fact that this group was rather “weighted” in favor of more liberal bishops, while over-representing the radicalized U.S. Western Jurisdiction, under-representing the American South, and not including a single bishop from the Global South.
By the numbers, 33 percent of these presiding bishops were from the U.S. North Central Jurisdiction, 17 percent were from the U.S. Western Jurisdiction, another 17 percent were from Europe, 11 percent were from each one of the remaining three U.S. jurisdictions, and ZERO were from Africa or the Philippines. A quick review of our latest statistics shows this is wildly out of proportion to the geographic distribution of our membership.
Apparently, the argument is that such imbalance is necessary for the sake of ensuring that the bishops who preside can be trusted to be fair moderators who have a good understanding of our parliamentary rules and traditions.
But the fact is that among the presiding bishops who were supposedly chosen for their fairness and parliamentary competence, we saw some who handled this task well but others actively going far beyond their assigned roles as neutral moderators and/or appearing to have an embarrassingly insufficient grasp of the parliamentary rules they were tasked with using to referee our debates (but nevertheless choosing to accept the power and prestige of getting to preside rather than humbly making way for someone more knowledgeable in this area).
In a recent conversation, someone who has attended every General Conference since 1992 told me that the 2016 General Conference was the worst s/he had ever seen, in terms of liberal bishops abusing their presiding power in actively attempting to influence legislative outcomes in accord with their personal biases.
Space does not permit a detailed accounting, but a few prominent examples stand out.
The extraordinary departure from normal protocols by Bishop Minerva Carcaño (then of Los Angeles) to sink a resolution I authored on anti-Semitism is worth its own article (which you can read here).
I have noted previously how Bishop Bruce Ough of Minneapolis rather rudely prevented Pastor Mike Childs of Mississippi from making a perfectly valid parliamentary motion to challenge the legitimacy of a recent action. The motion Childs was challenging was to affirm a statement calling to refer everything related to “human sexuality” to a special commission. Since Bishop Ough obviously favored this particular contested piece of legislation, he was apparently eager to do what he could to help it, even to the point of preventing proper discussion among us delegates.
Later that same day, Bishop Ough spoke to the body to admit that he “was heavy-handed with Michael [Childs]” and made a show of professing to apologize to him. But the fact remained that the bishop had dramatically overstepped his bounds to prevent Pastor Childs from making a valid motion, by his own admission forced Childs to sit back down in a “heavy-handed” way, and quickly brushed aside another delegate (Rev. John Martin of Upper New York) who respectfully attempted to point out how the bishop had no right to prevent a vote on the parliamentary challenge made by Childs.
If Bishop Ough was sincerely repentant, and more interested in actually setting things right than in simply doing damage control for how he had made himself look bad, he could have used his professed apology as a time to make it right by allowing a vote on the parliamentary challenge Childs had made, the thing the bishop should have allowed in the first place. But Bishop Ough chose not to do so.
What makes Bishop Ough’s heavy-handed abuse of his authority all the more offensive —especially considered alongside his looseness in upholding the Book of Discipline and his using his past leadership of the Connectional Table to openly favor activists like Amy DeLong’s Love Prevails group while ignoring more orthodox United Methodists—is the fact that this is evidently exactly the sort of leadership that many of our bishops believe our church most needs, since they elected him to be president of the Council of Bishops.
During the first week, we also saw heavy-handedness in the debate of Rule 44, a proposed new rule pushed by liberal activists to have a separate new process for considering petitions related to sexuality morality (which Mark Tooley discussed here).
Rule 42 of the official General Conference Rules of Order clearly states that any change or amendment to the Rules of Order needs “a two-thirds vote of the Conference” in order to be adopted. Rule 44 was a proposal to rather dramatically change the rules by adding a whole new section and stipulating that this new section would override the rest of the rules in certain circumstances. General Conference had not, to that point, taken any direct vote on Rule 44, but had earlier voted to approve a motion to adopt a large proposed set of updates to the rules “with the exception of Rule 44” (emphasis added).
Yet in presiding over the discussion of the Rule 44 proposal, liberal Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of North Carolina declared, with rather non-sensical logic, that this dramatic proposal to change the rules was “not an amendment to the rules,” and therefore required only a simple-majority rather than a two-thirds super-majority to be adopted.
So because she rather obviously favored Rule 44, and knew that it had faced a lot of public opposition, Bishop Ward apparently attempted to simply speak her own rules into being for the sake of making it harder for concerned delegates to block the adoption of Rule 44. And what about the explicit requirement that such amendments needed to pass the high bar of getting the support of two-thirds of voting delegates? Bishop Ward tried to simply declare that that rule didn’t apply when it may be inconvenient for her preferred agenda.
When that effort of Bishop Ward failed, she was not done over-stepping the bounds of her moderator role.
Delegates were being asked to vote in a two-step process. First, we were to vote on whether or not to amend the rules to give delegates the option of assigning all petitions related to one particular issue to be considered by Rule 44’s alternative new legislative process (which itself did not explicitly mention sexuality). Then if we voted to approve that, we would vote on whether or not to exercise this option by using this new process to address those petitions related to “human sexuality.”
Everyone knew, and no one on any “side” seriously disputed, that the whole point of developing Rule 44, and the reason to adopt it at this time, would have been if we wanted to use this new process for discussing petitions related to “human sexuality.”
And yet when Dr. Dorothee Benz, a lay delegate from the New York Conference, tried to speak in support of the initial step of amending the rules to add Rule 44 because she believed that “Rule 44 is the best chance we have to try to have an honest conversation” about human sexuality, Bishop Ward rather heavy-handedly shut her up by forcefully interrupting her and abruptly moving to the next speaker.
Bishop Ward asserted that in the debate preceding the first vote, we were to only discuss Rule 44 in the abstract without reference to any particular subject for which it may be used. So we delegates were supposed to decide whether not to adopt Rule 44 without, at this point, making any mention of the rather explicitly, publicly stated entire purpose of proposing Rule 44. And apparently, we were supposed to temporarily forget all the official public presentations and printed materials telling us directly that the whole point of Rule 44 was for the 2016 General Conference to use this alternative process to discuss sexuality issues.
I don’t know what sort of parliamentary system would sustain Bishop Ward’s decree that Benz was “out of order” for using a time allotted for a speech in favor of the motion on which we were about to vote to urge YES on this vote, and using as her core argument that she agreed with the basic logic of the main drafters and promoters of this proposal before us.
But I agree that Dr. Benz was right to protest Bishop Ward’s sudden silencing of her. And when John Lomperis and Dorothee Benz agree on an issue, that should tell you something!
Given Bishop Ward’s prominent liberal sympathies, and the ways she has over the years so eagerly made such a high priority of using her leadership positions to advance the homosexuality-affirming agenda (even to the point of actively rewarding and enabling the bullying, any-means-necessary tactics of Amy DeLong’s Love Prevails protest group), it was odd to see her clash with Benz.
But it soon made sense to me.
The faction seeking to liberalize church standards on homosexuality, with which Bishop Ward has gone out of her way to publicly identify, eagerly favored Rule 44 as a strategy to achieve what they had previously failed to do through normal legislative means. But the first step was to convince (or confuse) enough delegates into voting in favor of Rule 44.
As seasoned and skilled a church politician as Bishop Hope Morgan Ward certainly understood that a militant lesbian activist like Dorothee Benz would not have been the ideal saleswoman to persuade moderate delegates, let alone when Benz was explicit about Rule 44 being helpful to her favored agendas on sexual morality. It is a matter of public record that Benz has been a leader in the New York chapter of the Reconciling Ministries Network (which has become notorious for its abrasively scorched-earth tactics), openly panders to anti-Southern prejudice, is known to use profanity in vulgarly attacking the character of orthodox United Methodists, and is employed by the far-left Center for Constitutional Rights.
These sorts of incidents at General Conference caused me to quip at the time, only half-jokingly, that our operative rules as a denominational assembly were not what was actually written down and formally approved by our denomination, but rather whatever the one individual in the presiding bishop’s chair wanted them to be at any particular time, even when this bishop’s imaginatively desired rules were explicitly contrary to our collectively agreed-upon rules.
Regardless of one’s position on any of the specific motions noted above (Benz and I certainly disagreed on Rule 44), this should greatly concern any United Methodist of any theological or political persuasion who agrees that the highest levels of our denomination should be governed in a fair, transparent, consistent, and trustworthy way.
There was some helpful talk about improving future General Conferences by having a professional parliamentarian on hand to assist presiding bishops.
But others have talked about doing away with time-tested boundaries like Robert’s Rules of Order which, at least sometimes, provide for a transparent, fair process that ensures that the rights of ALL delegates are equally respected.
But such proposals to effectively increase the unilateral power of presiding bishops are the last thing we need, especially given the track record noted above. The rules are essential for protecting the integrity of the process, the fairness of how issues are considered, and the rights of duly elected delegates. We had enough problems at the 2016 General Conference with liberal U.S. bishops overstepping their bounds to seek to trample on all three of these things to actively influence legislative outcomes.
Will our bishops have the collective humility to review how many of their colleagues fell dramatically short of the leadership the church should expect from presiding bishops? Will they make any major attempt to do better at future General Conferences?
Time will tell.