A Mixed Day for the Council of Bishops

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You win some. You lose some.

That was certainly true for the United Methodist Council of Bishops today, who were the focus of several important pieces of legislation before GC2012 today.

One of the first issues to come before the body (after passing items on 9 consent calendars) was the request coming from the Council of Bishops for a non-residential president of the Council of Bishops. The legislation (contained in calendar item #219) involved a change in paragraph 49 of the constitution which requires (as affirmed by Judicial Council decision #961) bishops to be appointed and serve within a specific jurisdiction. The bishops were asking for language which would allow the election of a “fulltime president of the Council [of Bishops].”

The conversation on the floor and the flurry of Twitter posts was heated, split between those who had sympathy with the request with those who believed it was creating a new executive officer for the United Methodist Church which fell outside the bounds of United Methodist polity. While Bishop Goodpaster, the outgoing president of the Council, assured the conference that the so-called (on Twitter at least) “superbishop” would have no additional powers beyond that of the current part-time president, delegates worried that this office would obtain new powers. This was a special concern for non-US delegates, who spoke with passion against the measure. In the end the measure had a majority of the votes cast, but could not obtain the 2/3 needed to approve a constitutional amendment.

Later in the morning session, a second petition related to the episcopacy was brought before the body. Calendar item #218 contained a proposal to amend article paragraph 50 in Article VI of the constitution to move from the current system of life tenure for bishops to an episcopal term of eight years (with the possibility of one re-election). The item had not been able to muster the required 2/3 votes in the legislative committee but had received the required twenty signatures to be pulled from the consent calendar and brought to the floor.

Again, the argument was heated and long, eventually split between the morning and afternoon sessions. In the end, the measure received a majority of the votes (by a 1 vote margin) but did not have the required 2/3 to become a constitutional amendment.

The debate continued to lift up two of the themes of this General Conference – concerns about trust and power. It was clear in the conversation that there is a large contingent of delegates – both inside and outside the U.S. – who are very nervous about the power of the Council of Bishops, both real and perceived. While Bishop Goodpaster made a good case for why it is unfair to ask someone to try and carry out two full-time jobs (president of the Council and residential officer), but in the end the nervousness about power and the lack of trust that increased power would not be abused, led the delegates to reject the “set-aside” bishop. Likewise, there seems to be a movement among many which believes that the bishops should be subject to the same provisions as elders in the church; that is that the loss of guaranteed appointment should extend to the Council as well as to other clergy. In the end the conference wasn’t able to muster the votes, but several delegates are convinced that this issue will again be before General Conferences in the future.

More than anything, today’s votes reminded all of how difficult it is to make changes to the constitution. The framers of our communion intentionally made the change of the constitutive documents that hold us together hard. Getting 2/3 of the delegates to vote in these changes, especially in the new world of the increasing presence of non-U.S. delegates, doesn’t come easily, and changes in the constitution should be considered with great peril.

For the Council of Bishops, sitting under the hot lights of scrutiny that aren’t usually a part of their General Conference experience, it was a say of wins and losses. It remains to be seen if the themes that guided these conversations will continue throughout the rest of the conference in the consideration of restructuring and other hard questions.

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