The committee that establishes rules for the United Methodist Church's lawmaking assembly has recommended that bishops - rather than elected laity or clergy - lead the assembly's legislative committees, beginning in 2004.
The 10-member Committee on Plan of Organization and Rules of General Conference, meeting in Chicago May 3, proposed that two bishops be assigned as chairpersons for each of the 11 legislative committees that review and recommend petitions to General Conference. If approved by the opening plenary of the 2004 General Conference, the rule change would go into effect at that session of the church's assembly, which meets every four years. The Rev. Jerome K. Del Pino, top executive with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, is chairman of the rules committee.
The current rules stipulate that, once legislative committees are organized at General Conference, committee members themselves elect one of their own as chairperson. Supporters of the rule change say the current practice is problematic because committee leadership may be uneven, depending on who is elected, and because it removes those chairpersons - elected delegates from the church's regional units - from participating in discussion and debate.
"After serious and careful research and discussion, the committee has made a bold decision that is worthy of the defining moment that awaits our denomination when the 2004 General Conference undertakes its legislative task," Del Pino said. "In a word, the committee's decision will enable that task to be taken utterly seriously by providing leadership that is prepared, focused and competent."
Assigning bishops as chairpersons would foster more consistent leadership and give all delegates a chance to participate in debate, proponents of the change say. The recommendation by the rules committee would not allow bishops to make reports to the full body at General Conferences, as is the current practices of legislative committee chairpersons. Rather, a delegate - possibly a recorder elected by each committee - would make those reports.
The recommended change surfaced last year, when an ad hoc committee of the Commission on the General Conference was seeking ways to improve the denomination's lawmaking process. The commission oversees planning and logistics for General Conference, which includes about 1,000 delegates from United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in Europe, Africa, the United States and the Philippines.
Currently, United Methodist bishops only preside and serve as parliamentarians during full plenary sessions at General Conference. They have no voice or vote in setting church law. Under the new rule, bishops would chair the 11 legislative committees at the 2004 General Conference.
The Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss, reporting for the ad hoc group to the rules committee, said she hopes naming bishops as chairpersons will allow more equal participation among the delegates during legislative committee proceedings. She also sees it as a way to take some of the negative political nature out of what should be "holy conferencing" by the church, lessening divisiveness by eliminating the highly partisan election of chairpersons.
General Conference delegates can change anything in the denomination's Book of Discipline except the church's Constitution. The 2004 assembly, meeting April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh, will have 11 legislative committees: church and society; conferences; discipleship; faith and order; financial administration; general administration; global ministries; higher education and ministry; independent commissions; judicial administration; and local church.
Each legislative committee deals with petitions related to a series of paragraphs from the Book of Discipline. Petitions related to the Book of Resolutions are sorted by subject matter. A legislative committee can recommend to the full delegation concurrence or non-concurrence with the language as submitted, or the committee may change the language and then recommend concurrence. Legislative committees can also submit majority and minority recommendations.