By David F. Watson
The so-called “Rule 44” is the latest plot twist in the strange tale we are writing as we approach General Conference. This proposal would alter the process of debate and legislation at General Conference. More specifically, it would involve setting aside Robert’s Rules of Order and instead undertaking a small group process ostensibly designed to deal more sensitively with difficult topics. If you are interested in the specifics of Rule 44, you can find it in the Advance Edition of the Daily Christian Advocate, beginning on p. 93, line 1108.
One of the biggest challenges to discussing Rule 44 is understanding it. It is a complicated and cumbersome proposal. As difficult as it is to understand, however, its implementation would make it much easier to change the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order. Whereas right now a two-thirds majority is required to change these, under Rule 44 we could change the rules of order with regard to a specific topic by a simple majority vote.
As for the rest of it, I’ll try to break it down by layers of process:
Layer One: The Small Group
Rather than dealing with petitions on the topic under consideration in legislative committees, as is our standard practice, we would deal with them in small groups. “The Secretary of the General Conference and Business Manager will assign all delegates to small groups of no more than 15 members. Attention shall be given to geographic, language, ethnic, gender, age, and clergy/laity diversity.”
Delegations may nominate up to three people as small-group leaders, and the Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference will select leaders from among those nominated. The selection criteria are unspecified.
Small groups should then engage in conversation with one another, with specific attention to “the centrality of mission, unity for the sake of mission, and our identity as Christians and United Methodists.”
The small groups will make recommendations to a Facilitation Group (see below) as to how the petitions should be processed. The recommendations are recorded on a Small Group Reporting Sheet. All members of the small group have the opportunity to review the sheet and sign it, but it is not clear what we will do with the responses of those who do not agree with the recommendations.
Layer Two: The Monitors
The group process will be overseen by monitors from the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW), the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCRR), and JustPeace. “These monitors are empowered to observe the process and signal the group leader if they observe harmful behavior as determined according to the Guidelines for Conversation.” What happens when they signal the group leader is unspecified.
Layer Three: The Facilitation Group
The recommendations from the small groups will then go to a Facilitation Group for processing. This group will craft the actual legislation that will go to the plenary session of the General Conference. How will the Facilitation Group be chosen? “One male and one female from each central conference and US jurisdiction will be nominated by the Leadership Discernment Committee of the Council of Bishops.” After this, however, Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference will cull the list, creating a slate of six people to be presented for election by the General Conference. The Secretary of the General Conference will convene this group, and they will elect a leader from among their ranks.
Layer Four: The Plenary Session
The chair of the Facilitation Group (elected by the group itself) will present any new petitions and a group report to the plenary session. The petitions will then be available for discussion using the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference.
I can see no reason to prefer this process to our standard legislative process. In fact, there are several reasons not to do so:
First, this proposal changes the rules of the game late in the game. People have already submitted petitions according to our standard practices. To change the process now in such a way that the actual petitions come through the Facilitation Group is unfair.
Second, Rule 44 would place considerable power in the hands of a few people. For one thing, apparently only the Commission on General Conference can recommend that the small-group process be implemented. Delegates cannot do so. Further, the Secretary of the General Conference and the Business Manager are empowered to assign group membership. The Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference will assign group leaders, and we have no clear sense of the selection criteria they will use. Group membership and leadership will determine the reports that will go to the Facilitation Group. The Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference will also have a very important role in selecting members of the Facilitation Group. A few people, then, are exerting considerable influence on the legislative process.
I want to be clear that this is not a criticism of the people who serve in these positions of authority. It is just a commentary on the problems with the process described in Rule 44. It transfers considerable power from the delegates themselves to particular officers of the General Conference. I don’t doubt they are good Christian people, but the proposed process is inherently flawed.
Third, the process for making recommendations to the Facilitation Group is unclear. Are the recommendations decided upon by majority vote? If not, what level of consensus is required to move a recommendation to the Facilitation Group? How much influence does the group leader have? What is his or her role in writing the recommendations? What if the group leader is clearly in favor of a petition that a majority of the group does not support? Can the group leader continue to push for some slightly revised version of it?
Fourth, the presence of monitors within the group process is concerning. In any meeting, it is the responsibility of the chair or facilitator to keep the conversation within the boundaries of respectful and relevant discourse. I have attended and/or chaired untold numbers of meetings, and maintaining both proper tone and focus can be challenging. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of meetings I have attended, the chairperson of the meeting has been able to handle this task with acceptable competency. For some reason, however, the architects of the proposed Rule 44 see it as necessary to add another layer of control to these small group discussions. Representatives from COSROW, GCRR, and JustPeace will monitor the conversations. If we must have monitors, JustPeace seems logical because they focus specifically on conflict resolution. But before designating COSROW and GCRR for the task of monitoring, shouldn’t we know what the topic of the small group discussions should be? Does the topic relate to the status and role of women or religion and race?
Of course, in this case we know what the topic is. While unspecified in the proposal itself, it obviously emerges out of concerns related to LGBT persons. This certainly seems to be the conclusion drawn by the United Methodist News Service:
“Christian conferencing is what General Conference is all about,” said Judi Kenaston, chair of the Commission on General Conference, as she outlined an alternative group discernment process that General Conference could approve for use on “challenging” conversations.
The proposal, nicknamed Rule 44 because it follows General Conference’s Rule 43, could be used with legislation on human sexuality if the rule is adopted.
Ironically, one of the purported virtues of this revised process would be that it would help to facilitate truthful speaking. Somehow, speaking truth in love and the presence of designated conversation monitors seem to stand in tension with one another. This is particularly the case when the extent of the monitors’ authority is unspecified. They may signal the group leader when a comment seems inappropriate to them, but what happens next is unclear.
Finally, the most significant reason that I oppose this revised process is that it will not do any good. The issues dividing the UMC have not emerged because of our legislative process. They have emerged because we lack a coherent theological center from which to begin our discussions. Beginning in 1972, we undertook Albert Outler’s grand experiment in theological pluralism. We constructed our identity not upon core theological beliefs, but upon a method of inquiry which came to be called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The net result of this is that we do not have in place today the repertoire of theological concepts necessary for us to find common ground on the issues that divide us. As a denomination, we do not have well-developed theological understandings of personhood, marriage, procreation, or ordination. We are not building the bridge as we walk across it. We don’t have the materials to build the bridge, but we’re trying to walk across the chasm nonetheless.
To find our way through the present morass will require three commitments, and none of them will be easy. We will have to commit ourselves to:
- Staying together as a denomination.
- Abiding by the rules around marriage and ordination in the Book of Discipline.
- Engaging denominationally in long-term, focused work on core Christian beliefs.
If denominational unity is in fact what we want, there will be no simple or quick solution to the problems that beset us. Small group discussion and a revised legislative process cannot begin to address the deep and abiding differences that have emerged within our denomination. It is as if we are prescribing a band-aid when what we really need is a heart transplant. There is no reason to change the process when the process is not the problem. And until we confront the root problems in our denomination, and not simply the symptoms, we will continue along this bumpy road to division.
David F. Watson is an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church. He also serves as Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary. He blogs at www.davidfwatson.me.