In a surprise move late on the morning of May 3, after protesters on human sexuality moved into the bar of the conference, Indiana Bishop Michael J. Coyner ordered the 2012 General Conference into an early lunch recess and announced that under the direction of the conference secretary, the Rev. L. Fitzgerald "Gere" Reist II, the plenary hall would be cleared and that the May 3 afternoon session of the United Methodist General Conference would be open to delegates only.
After an emergency consultation among representatives of the Council of Bishops, the secretarial staff and Commission on General Conference, Kansas Bishop Scott Jones stated, "As the presiding bishop for the afternoon session, I've decided that the afternoon session will be open in accordance with rule 3.3." That rule gives the presiding officer of the General Conference discretion to recess the conference and reconvene it with attendance limited to "delegates, authorized personnel and authorized guests."
The General Conference is not subject to the church's "open meetings law" in Paragraph 721 of The Book of Discipline, which calls for all meetings of bodies at all levels of the church to be open, except under specific circumstances. The paragraph specifies that General Conference, the Judicial Council and the Council of Bishops are expected to live "by the spirit of this paragraph," but says, "Each of these constitutional bodies is governed by its own rules of procedure."
The morning session, according to the Committee on Agenda and Calendar, was to focus on petitions related to human sexuality. The conference dealt with a statement in the Social Principles and expected to act on others after its morning break.
As delegates left for the break, a group of demonstrators advocating for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church moved to the center of the delegates' seating area and began to sing. They remained there as the session reconvened and continued singing during presentation of a monitoring report. When Coyner asked them to leave the bar of the conference, they refused and he immediately called for the lunch recess.
Stephen Drachler, lay delegate from the Susquehanna Annual (regional) Conference, challenged Coyner's ruling that the afternoon session would be closed. "We're a church who has based our life together on openness and transparency," Drachler said later.
"Bishop Coyner's actions to close the proceedings to the public may have been within his legal right but contrary to the spirit of our life together."
"I can't speak to that," Jones said when asked what would occur if the demonstrators were still in place and interrupting the conference when it reconvened. Shortly before, other conference leadership had said attempts were being made to mediate between the Council of Bishops and the group of demonstrators.
Jones also said he could not speak to the afternoon's agenda, which was scheduled to address changes in clergy pension plans proposed by the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
The Rev. Frank Beard, chair of the agenda committee, stated that there were to be no changes in the committee's plan to address clergy pensions this afternoon. He made no comment on whether the sexuality issues would return to the floor of the General Conference.
If the remaining petitions related to human sexuality are not addressed by the time the conference adjourns on May 4, the statements in the current Book of Discipline will remain church law at least until the 2016 General Conference.
Demonstrations by groups seeking changes in church law that call the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," prohibit the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and limit ministry to same-gender couples began on April 26 with a silent witness outside the evening session. Demonstrators moved into the plenary hall on May 1 and 2 but remained on the perimeter of the delegate seating area in a mostly silent witness.
*Voorhees is coordinating United Methodist News Service (UMNS) social media at General Conference 2012. Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine for United Methodist Communications and a part of the UMNS news team.
News media contact: Kathy Noble, Tampa, Fla., (813) 574-4837, through May 4; after May 4, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470, or email@example.com.