A brief history of General Conference sessions

Here’s a review of some General Conference landmarks since the 1968 Uniting Conference that brought together the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the UMC.

Each General Conference has its story and its record of accomplishment. Associate editor Bill Fentum offers a boiled-down look at each one since 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed.

  • Accepted church-wide responsibility for ministerial education.
  •  Authorized autonomous status for 28 overseas annual conferences in 14 countries.
  • Established the General Commission on Religion and Race to ensure racial integration in annual conferences following the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction.
  • Appointed commissions to develop United Methodist doctrine, church structure and the Social Principles.
  • Approved a special session of General Conference for April 1970 (in St. Louis, Mo.), to receive progress reports from the commissions.

 

1972—Atlanta, Ga.

  • Adopted the merged Book of Discipline.
  • Adopted the Social Principles as part of the Discipline, including a statement on homosexuality that said in part: “We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth . . . although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • Voted to make permanent the General Commission on Religion and Race, to lead the transition into a racially just and fully inclusive church.

1976—Portland, Ore.

  • Established the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
  • Authorized the General Board of Discipleship to prepare a UM Hymnal supplement, eventually published in 1982. The task force working on the supplement agreed to be “sensitive to the importance that United Methodists place on inclusive, nonsexist, and nondiscriminatory language.”
  • Created the office of diaconal minister, designed to give a permanent place to professional laypeople employed by the church, including musicians, Christian educators and church administrators.
  • Revised the 1972 paragraph on homosexuality to state the church did “not recognize”—rather than “not recommend”—marriage between people of the same sex.

1980—Indianapolis, Ind.

 

  • Established the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
  • Rejected a proposal to ban self-avowed, practicing homosexual men and women from ordained ministry in the UMC.
  • Directed the General Council on Ministries to establish a task force on guidelines for inclusive language. Its report became available in 1985 in a study booklet, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: Language About God and People.
  • Granted voice but no vote at annual conference sessions for student local pastors—those who serve part-time appointments while attending seminary.
  • Placed the denomination’s Volunteer in Mission program under the direction of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Young Guest

A young guest listens along with delegates to the proceedings of the 1968 Uniting Conference.

  • Celebrated 200 years of Methodist history in America by observing the bicentennial of the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Approved a proposal to ban self-avowed, practicing homosexual men and women from ordained ministry in the UMC.
  • Passed a resolution to appoint a committee that would revise the 1972 doctrinal statement to “reflect the needs of the church, [and] define the scope of our Wesleyan tradition in the context of our contemporary world. . . .”
  • Established a commission to prepare a new hymnal.
  • Officially adopted new liturgies for the sacraments of baptism and communion, and for services such as weddings and funerals. Baptism was made the only initiatory rite for the membership in the UMC, ending both infant dedications and the two-stage process of baptism and confirmation.

1988—St. Louis, Mo.

  • Adopted a revised doctrinal statement stressing the primacy of Scripture.
  • Approved the United Methodist Hymnal, which was then published in 1989.
  • Formed a committee to study homosexuality.
  • Voted to establish Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, to be funded primarily by congregations in the United States.
  • Celebrated the centennial of the Deaconess movement in American Methodism.

1992—Louisville, Ky.

  • Authorized a new Book of Worship.
  • Received but did not endorse the report of the committee to study homosexuality. A statement was approved to “insist that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”
  • Expanded the role of lay speakers in the church to include caregiving ministries, and instituted the position of licensed lay preacher, an unpaid office with more extensive training and responsibilities than the certified lay speaker.
  • Established a new episcopal area for Russia with headquarters in Moscow.

1996—Denver, Colo.

  • Passed a resolution opposing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that banned openly gay, lesbian or bisexual persons from U.S. military service.
  • Adopted “By Water and the Spirit,” a theological statement dealing with baptism. It declared that “God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but it must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives.” The statement identified “baptism as the initiatory sacrament by which we enter into the covenant with God and are admitted as members of Christ’s church.”
  • Restructured ordained ministry in the UMC, creating the orders of deacon and elder as separate and distinct offices.
  • Banned same-sex union services in UM churches, and barred UM clergy from officiating at same-sex unions anywhere.
  • Passed legislation that simplified the required structure of the local church, and allowed a more flexible structure for annual conferences.
  • Authorized a major study of the denomination’s domestic and international structures.
  • Approved a new book of hymns and liturgies for Spanish-speaking congregations, Mil Voces Para Celebrar: Himnario Metodista. The book was not a Spanish translation of the English-language UM Hymnal, but a selection of Spanish-language hymns and rituals that followed the denomination’s basic pattern of worship.

2000—Cleveland, Ohio

  • Sustained the church’s position against rebaptism and infant dedication.
  • Approved the publication of a Korean-English hymnal.
  • Reiterated the denomination’s position that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • Through an Act of Repentance service, delegates confessed the sin of racism that had caused major divisions among American Methodists since the 19th century. Leaders from Methodist traditions outside the UMC were present and participated in the liturgy.
  • Launched the Igniting Ministries campaign to raise public awareness of the UMC through advertisements in print, television and other media. “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” was adopted as the campaign theme.
  • Authorized a study of Holy Communion.

2004—Pittsburgh, Pa.

  • Approved “This Holy Mystery,” a theological statement of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in United Methodism.
  • Specified “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a chargeable offense for which a United Methodist clergyperson could be tried in a church court.
  • Approved an expansion of the Igniting Ministries campaign.
  • Held a service of thanksgiving and appreciation for the contributions of African Americans who had remained in the UMC and its predecessors.
  • Amended the denomination’s Constitution to create two membership categories, “baptized members” and “professing members” (persons who, in addition to being baptized, take “vows declaring the Christian faith”).
  • Created two additional categories of lay ministry: Lay Missioners trained to team with pastor mentors in congregational development and community ministries, and Certified Lay Ministers who assist pastors by preaching and supporting the ministry of the local church.

2008—Fort Worth, Texas

  • Passed 23 amendments to the constitution of the United Methodist Church, to allow for creation of a U.S. regional conference. However, the amendments then failed to win approval from a two-thirds majority of delegates to annual conferences.
  • Approved a budget that would be guided by four focus areas of mission and ministry: developing Christian leaders; starting new churches and renewing existing ones; ministering to the needs of the poor; and improving global health.
  • Approved a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
  • Gave full rights and responsibilities to the United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, the denomination’s largest conference.
  • Voted 501-417 to uphold the church’s 2004 stance that describes homosexual practice as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • Raised nearly a half million dollars for the anti-malaria campaign Nothing But Nets.

 

Information from sources including United Methodist News Service and the book, United Methodism at Forty: Looking Back, Looki

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william johnson
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Why were there no highlights for the 1984 General Conference?

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