Work continues on issues, details as GC 2012 looms

Bishop Peter Weaver

Bishop Peter Weaver

In preparing to give the Episcopal Address for the 2012 General Conference, Bishop Peter Weaver gave himself a lot of homework. That included studying the 1912 Episcopacy Address.

It’s 75 pages. Bishop Weaver estimates delivery would have taken four-and-a-half hours.

“The General Conference delegates will be happy to know that I’m trying to target about half an hour for this Episcopal Address,” he said.

General Conference 2012 looms, and by April 24, the opening of the 10-day gathering, nearly 1,000 delegates will have arrived in Tampa, Fla., to begin deciding church policy, law and budget matters for the next four years.

The preparatory home stretch has included still more discussion of options for restructuring general church agencies. This General Conference marks 40 years since the UMC adopted its official position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and the evergreen effort to overturn that has seen at least one interesting development.

‘Resurrection people’

Mostly, it’s a time of tending to details, including polishing of sermons and addresses.

Bishop Weaver’s episcopal colleagues, in a process carefully spelled out in the Council of Bishops bylaws, chose him to give the Episcopal Address.

He’s a former president of the council and, at age 67, on the verge of retirement from overseeing the five-state New England Conference. He’s scheduled to continue working, beginning Sept. 1, as executive secretary of the COB.

This will be the 200th anniversary of the first Episcopal Address, given by Bishop William McKendree. Following established practices, Bishop Weaver provided an outline and themes for his address at one COB meeting, then delivered a draft of it in an executive session of the meeting last fall.

“They had the opportunity to critique it, make suggestions, affirmations,” he said. “I’m speaking on behalf of the Council, so it’s collaborative.”

Bishop Weaver will speak on Wednesday, April 25, just before the organization of legislative committees. His title is “The Resurrection Revolution,” and it takes advantage of the post-Easter timing of General Conference.

“That’s a great time for General Conference to meet, particularly if we pay attention to the fact that Christ is alive and leading us forward,” he said. “It is the core doctrine of the Christian faith that we serve a risen savior, he’s in the world today, and that we really are a resurrection people.”

The Episcopal Address’s purpose is to offer a theological statement that provides a foundation for the General Conference. “I will certainly reference the work that is before us,” Bishop Weaver said, but added quickly that he would not argue for a particular position.

He hopes that his address—combined with the Laity and Young People’s Addresses that follow—will help create an atmosphere conducive to what John Wesley called “holy conferencing.”

“We’re all going to be trying to help people to remember our oneness in Christ even though we may have different opinions on a host of issues,” he said.

Persisting divide

One issue certain to divide General Conference is homosexuality. Along with declaring the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching, the UMC does not permit ordination of openly gay persons, nor does it allow clergy to officiate at same-sex unions, though those are increasingly common as more states allow them.

The intense debate about proposals to restructure general church agencies and end guaranteed appointment for clergy has, to a large degree, overshadowed homosexuality this time.

But 2011 saw a number of relevant developments, including a letter from 36 retired bishops calling for an end to the ban on ordaining gay clergy; the church trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong for officiating at a same-sex union; about 1,000 UM clergy pledging to officiate at same-sex unions, come what may; and a much larger number of clergy and laity calling on bishops to enforce the Book of Discipline against clergy who do officiate at such unions.

In recent days, the Native American International Caucus of the UMC, the Black Methodists for Church Renewal and the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists have all joined the Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition, which is leading the push for full inclusion of gay people in the UMC.

“All these groups have recognized that when one group is harmed, we’re all harmed, and so, for the love of neighbor, it’s time to stop the harm,” said retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, board vice chair of the Reconciling Ministries Network, another unofficial caucus within the coalition.

The conventional wisdom is that African delegates are social conservatives, and that with consistent growth in African conference delegations, prospects for changing the church’s positions on homosexuality have dimmed.

But the Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, believes there is more support among the African and other non-U.S. delegations than many realize.

“It’s going to be a squeaker,” he said of key votes regarding homosexuality.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the unofficial conservative UMC group Good News, was more confident of the outcome.

“We believe the church’s biblical and compassionate stance will continue to be affirmed by the majority of General Conference delegates,” he said.

And if he’s wrong?

“The results would be similar to those experienced by every other mainline denomination that has changed their stance—membership loss, the departure of entire congregations and smaller financial resources given to denominational missions and activities,” Mr. Renfroe said.

Demonstrations have become standard at General Conference, after the status quo on homosexuality is upheld. But the form of the protests has varied.

Mr. Plummer wouldn’t predict what will happen if the votes go against his side this time.

“We have all options on the table,” he said.

Modest prediction

There are some other wild cards, including the possibility that a well-known speaker might get added to the program. President Obama has been invited, as is standard for a U.S. president.

The Rev. Jim Harnish, chair of the host committee and pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, said nearly 2,000 volunteers will be on hand to help things run smoothly.

“We are pretty close to having everybody knowing where they’re going and what they’re going to be doing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist II, secretary of the General Conference, has been dealing with various issues, including contacting U.S. Consulates.

“Delegates from the Philippines are having significant difficulty getting visas this year,” he said.

Mr. Reist began as a General Conference staff volunteer in 1992 and was elected secretary in 2004. Veteran that he is, he resists all but the most basic of predictions.

“I am confident that General Conference will happen,” he said. “The quality of the decisions reached there will depend upon the delegates’ openness and ability to listen to the leadings of the Spirit. Minds that are made up before General Conference begins are minds that are closed to God’s will.”

 

Sam Hodges, Managing Editor – shodges@umr.org

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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