We have made our way through a great deal of legislation as we near the latter part of the second week. The General Conference is a complex assembly of almost 1,000 people. The representation beyond the United States, now approaching almost 40%, is much more engaged than in the last two gatherings (2004, 2008). And the regional divides within the U.S. are underneath most of our discussions: the southeastern and south central jurisdictions are focused most often on personal holiness or piety, and the northeastern, north central and western jurisdictions speak out of stronger traditions of social holiness or justice. The regional groupings (and yes this is a generalization) see different solutions for our way forward; the two southern jurisdictions sense the need for more vital congregations that will be a part of the transformation of the world, while the northeast, north central and western jurisdictions argue for representation and inclusion in bodies that shape strategy at the denominational level. We do often find ourselves talking past each other, and the common ground can often seem difficult to locate.
I said to a friend today that General Conference makes everyone unhappy at some point along the way. The body is filled with gifted, passionate and authorized delegates who are often accustomed to leading constituencies that resonate with their values. When they enter into the bar of the conference they discover that they are sometimes lost in a great sea (to borrow our worship metaphor) of voices that can at time seem disorienting. It is also true that many (general conference staff, bishops, large church pastors, activists) bring initiatives into this process, and these initiatives become the property of almost 1000 people, who promptly go about the business of bending and amending, reforming and transforming them into proposals that bear resemblance to the original dream. This is true for impulses toward restructuring, justice, evangelism, stewardship and mission.
Someone noted this morning that only two percent of the work done in legislative committees (the primary focus of the first week) is reversed in the plenary. For those who began to watch the General Conference in the second week, this is essential background: the wrestling, praying, revising, and struggling happens in greater depth in the legislative bodies (often groups of 50 to 90 persons) and this material passes in the second week to the plenary. The great difference this year was the General Administation Committee’s inability to bring a proposal for structure to the plenary; this did indeed mean that the plenary (a committee of the whole, in Bishop Watson’s language) spent greater time reflecting on some of the core values related to the new structure (inclusiveness and representation). I favored retaining the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) and the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). We gain little by combining them, and the merging of them into a Committee on Inclusiveness comes with the inevitable residue of bad feelings in what is lost. And yet their missions can still be accomplished as we move forward.
Thus far we have resisted proposals for significant changes to the episcopacy (a non-residential Bishop, labeled a #superbishop in the twitterverse and a pope by one of the African delegates, and term limits for their tenure) and then moved into significant shifts in security of appointment and denominational structure (although these matters have been studied over the past four to eight years). The next two days will include a discussion of human sexuality—and likely a proposal here from two pastors of our largest churches for more missional language in response to data that suggests that we are perceived as hostile to gays and lesbians by younger generations—and will surely include adoption of a budget. Here the regional divisions will resurface, but in the end we will arrive at closure. The result will be a new Book of Discipline, and we will move into the next quadrennium attempting to make sense of all that we have created in Tampa.
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