Commentary: The GC legislative process explained. Kind of.

I tried to organize a stampede, but everyone has their own agenda.

I tried to organize a stampede, but everyone has their own agenda.

“I am with the press and wish to observe this committee.” So I told the man standing at the door of one of the 12 different legislative committees meeting simultaneously.

“I’m sorry, the observation space room is full. I can’t let you in until someone comes out.”

Fair enough. All meetings must be open to any who want to observe. However, the work of the committee must be the first priority so it is reasonable to limit unnecessary distraction of unseated observers.

When I was able to enter, I walked into a space that hit me with audio and visual chaos. This particular committee, Global Ministries, had broken into two subcommittees to start sorting through petitions. The delegates had repositioned their round tables into two sections, each roughly forming an oval. Because of the nature of the seating, it meant that the delegates on the subcommittees could not see the faces of everyone else in their circle, hampering communication.

They also could not use microphones because the two committees met simultaneously in the same space. Furthermore, carpeted breakout rooms with sound absorbing ceilings muffle voices admirably well. Anyone in a subcommittee that needed to speak had to use their “outside” voice. And, of course, not everyone speaks English, plus many who do speak English fluently do so in accents and with cadences unfamiliar to the US ear.

Six booths sat on a dais on one side, each labeled with a language that would see a simultaneous translation. Translators at General Conference are available to English, French, German, KiSwahili, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Swahili. This particular room didn’t need Korean, German or Swahili translators. Delegates are assigned to various committees long before GC meets, giving time for adequate translation services to be made available.

Because delegates could not use the microphone, however, it didn’t appear that any translation was taking place. The subcommittee that I was able to observe was led by a delegate whose first language was French but who spoke fluent English. All who spoke during my observation time also spoke English.

The extended fight to approve the rules for General Conference meant that important time to train leaders of the various legislative committee officers had been seriously compromised. The lack of training was evident in the time I observed. The sub-committee chair made procedural errors, several corrected by a member of the committee who appeared to have greater familiarity with Roberts Rules of Order,

At one point, all action was stopped when it became necessary to inquire as to whether sub-committee officers should be able to vote. Normally, adequate training would have prevented these delays. But there is only so much time to meet, and again, the prolonged and difficult rules fight both squeezed the training time and left a heightened anxiety level further hampering the training.

I watched as they debated one petition, number 60206. It reads: The General Conference of The United Methodist Church calls upon the nation of Israel to provide the same access to water and electricity in the West Bank as settlers in the Israeli settlements in the area receive and to recognize existing titles to land within the West Bank which Palestinians hold. We ask the USA to respect international law and use its influence on Israel to demand equal access to water and electricity, and recognition of land titles.

The chair called for the requisite “two arguments for and two against.” Two committee members who had traveled to Israel talked about the difficult conditions of those living in the West Bank. One delegate rose and spoke against it. She reminded the subcommittee that Israel is a long-time ally of the US, that international relations are immensely complex and that the resolution in some sense asks the US to make an intentional move against a long-time ally.

A question: Does this group of people really know enough to spend time and energy on debating and voting on a resolution that could have international consequences?

The petition did pass, of course. We do want to honor our baptismal vows to stand up against injustice, but what about the lack of knowledge of international law and currently existing treaties that inevitably underlie the discussion?

Over a thousand pieces of legislation were submitted to be considered by the various committees. Many are written in complex terminology–a kind of ecclesiastical legalize.

These petitions were made available, both print and digital form, to the delegates in four languages: English, French, KiSwahili, and Portuguese.

The English version, if printed, ran to over 1500 pages. That is 1500 pages, single spaced, full of dense verbiage. It has to be read and interpreted alongside a current Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions because the context of many of the proposals can only be found in those equally daunting publications.

Clergy delegates to General Conference all serve in full-time positions, many as senior pastors to large and demanding churches. Lay delegates have jobs and their share of demanding obligations.

Delegates need to know and understand all items that will come before their particular committees–and that means over 200 petitions in some cases. Many petitions focus solely on US issues. However, all committees contain international delegates and those delegates carry an equal responsibility to understand and vote on them appropriately. They may hold expertise on none of them. Not a single one.

Many petitions carry giant implications. Multiple petitions, for example, call for financial divestment of any industry that engages in oil or gas extraction because of possible damage to the environment. The unintended consequences of passing such a piece of legislation are simply staggering. But there are people assigned to that committee who have no knowledge at all of such implications and might only see the undeniable good intentions behind it, much like the water issues mentioned above.

But this is how we are structured.

The questions many are starting to ask:

“Is this a viable structure?”

“Would any business survive if they functioned like this?”

“Is this not akin to asking an engineer to perform brain surgery or a computer programmer from no faith tradition raised in a totally urban environment to start an Amish-style dairy?”

The passion for the church underlies all we do. The practical implications the way we operate may be part of our challenges that keep us from moving forward.

I’m a retired Elder in the United Methodist Church, the place I finally discovered grace after a lifelong search. I love writing, gardening, reading, asking questions and making connections between political and religious practices.

My husband and I jointly claim eleven children (as he says, “mostly by mergers and acquisitions!”) and twelve grandchildren. In between our own travels, we love to have them and many others come and stay with us a bit. We see so much of the heavenly grace in the offering of earthly hospitality.

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2 Comments on "Commentary: The GC legislative process explained. Kind of."

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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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Richard F Hicks
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Never try to teach pigs to sing. Never try to heard cats. But, sheep, they are another matter. Clergy are the sheep dogs who are under the direction of The Shepherd. Or they’re suppose to be. Clergy sheep dogs run along side the sheep yelling “Yeah God! Go Christians!” while we all follow the one and only Good Shepherd. (YouTube has vids of English sheep dog competition. The shepherd need only whistle his commands to the dog.) Even pigs can herd sheep. Watch the Babe movies! Yes that’s what I’m saying – Clergy are to be our herding dogs and… Read more »
Carla Skidmore
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This G. C. seems to be like herding cats, and if anyone has had a cat or two, they quickly learned that one does not tell cats what to do, or where to go. This G. C. is marching to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but singing these words, “Like a Mighty Tortoise Moves the Church of God. Brothers We Are Marching Where We’ve Always Trod. We Are Not United, Not One Body We. Some Lack Hope, Some Lack Love and All Lack Charity.” When we finally gain Love, Hope and Charity, we will really attain and live by… Read more »
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