GC2016: The debate about how to debate sexuality

When the 2016 General Conference begins next month, one of the delegates’ first tasks will be to decide if they want to use a new way to address tough issues.

However, that proposal is already getting pushback — including questions of whether it would pass muster with the denomination’s top court.

The Commission on General Conference, which organizes The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly, is proposing what it calls a Group Discernment Process to consider complex and contentious legislation. The goal is to help more delegates weigh in on legislation and foster greater consensus among the multinational body of United Methodists on church policies.

Delegates can use the proposed process for any grouping of legislation they choose or even postpone using it until the 2020 General Conference.

Nonetheless, the commission already has a topic in mind for the process’ first use — legislation related to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

The denomination bans the performance of same-sex marriages and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Fierce and at-times hurtful debate about how the church ministers with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals has raged at each General Conference since 1972.

“We need to expand the ways that we can make decisions and be in conversation with each other,” said Judi Kenaston, the commission’s chair. “This was requested of us by the General Conference 2012 and also was extremely important to the members of the commission from central conferences (church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe).”

Still others argue the process will not help church decision-making.

The proposal “is a distortion of how we as Methodists should understand Christian conferencing,” Mathew Pinson, chair of the North Georgia Conference delegation, wrote in a position paper he is sharing with other delegates.

The Rev. Keith Boyette has written an open letter, saying he believes the Group Discernment Process is unlikely to withstand a challenge before the Judicial Council, the denomination’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. Boyette, a reserve delegate from the Virginia Conference, is a former Judicial Council member.

“Frankly, I do not see an alternative process that would achieve the benefits that occur under Robert’s Rules of Order,” Boyette told United Methodist News Service.

“I find this Group Discernment Process especially troublesome. I was going to use the word ‘pernicious.’ It is fraught with potholes, fraught with places where problems can arise and where people can walk away from it saying I wasn’t really heard.”

What the Church Teaches

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which contains the policies General Conference approves, since 1972 has proclaimed that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Debate over that teaching has surfaced at each subsequent General Conference, which meets every four years. The legislative assembly has consistently voted to keep the language and over the years has expanded on restrictions against gay clergy and same-gender marriages.

The book lists officiating at a same-sex union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.

However, the dispute has intensified in recent years as more parts of the world — including the United States — have legally recognized same-sex civil marriage, and more United Methodists, including retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, have publicly defied  the church’s restrictions.

At the same time, homosexual acts are criminalized in 38 of 54 African countries, including most of the 18 African countries that could be sending delegates to General Conference. Thirty percent of delegates at the 2016 General Conference will be from Africa.

Read full coverage of sexuality and the church

How the process works

Under General Conference’s usual procedure, delegates first meet in legislative committees that consider petitions. The committees typically decide what goes before the whole body for a vote.

Under the commission’s plan, all 864 delegates would review the same group of petitions in small groups with no more than 15 members. The commission sees the small groups as a way for everyone to have a voice.

Each small group’s recommendations would then go to a six-member “facilitation group” elected by General Conference and responsible for crafting a petition or group of petitions based on the small-group recommendations.

The results of the facilitation group’s work would then go to the full plenary, and General Conference would resume its usual procedures including Robert’s Rules of Order.

To use the process, a majority of General Conference delegates first must adopt Rule 44 — the last of the 44 rules the commission is proposing for how the legislative body does its business. (The proposal is available online as part of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, pages 93-95.)

If the rule wins approval, the delegates can then vote to use it with any 2016 legislation. The petitions identified for potential use are on pages 1187-1225 of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.

General Conference delegates are scheduled to vote on the rules May 10, the first day of their 10-day gathering in Portland, Oregon.

The Judicial Council question

Boyette, in opposing the process, specifically cites the Judicial Council’s Decision 876. In the 1999 ruling, the church court struck down a “discernment model” the California-Pacific Conference used for its decision-making that year.

The Judicial Council, citing an earlier ruling Decision 367 from 1973, said its standard for annual conference legislative procedures is that they protect “the rights of individual members of the conference to be informed on and to participate fully in all legislative decisions.” (Emphasis in the 1999 ruling)

Boyette, who was elected to the Judicial Council after the 1999 case, said be believes the Group Discernment Process does not meet this standard.

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“What if there is a group within a small group that disagrees with how the consensus is being characterized?” he told UMNS. “In our current system, there are votes taken. It’s objective. It’s verifiable.”

The Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of the General Conference, said the process is transparent.

“All participants in the small groups get to see the report from their small group and sign off on it,” he wrote in a response to Boyette. “The reports can indicate the level of conflict or consensus within the small group and is specifically designed to record the diversity of opinions offered.”

Boyette is also the chair of the board of Good News, an unofficial United Methodist advocacy group, that seeks to maintain the denomination’s current teachings on homosexuality. The Rev. Rob Renfroe, the group’s president, also has publicly come out in opposition to the process.

He expects the church court ultimately to rule any legislation passed using the process null and void. However, other former Judicial Council members disagree. Evelynn S. Caterson, chair of the Greater New Jersey Conference delegation, served on the Judicial Council that issued Decision 876.  

She noted that the proposed Group Discernment Process ultimately has petitions going before the full plenary, allowing for amendments or substitute motions. So she sees the process as more similar to legislative processes the Judicial Council previously has upheld rather than the California-Pacific model the court struck down.

“The rule makes it so that the delegates have full participation and will make the final decisions concerning the petitions,” she said.

Voices across the BlogoSphere

United Methodists, from varying theological perspectives, have written blogs about the proposed “Group Discernment Process.” Here is a small sample.

  • The Rev. Kevin Watson, a professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, wrote a two-part blog on why the process is not Christian conferencing. Read the second entry. His writing is basis of Mathew Pinson’s position paper.
  • The Rev. Chris Ritter, a delegate from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, has written four blogs, sharing his thoughts as he has gone from limited support to opposition to the proposal.
  • The Rev. Andy Bryan, a reserve delegate from the Missouri Conference, has a blog on why he likes the idea.
  • The Rev. Jeremy Smith, a reserve delegate from the Oregon-Idaho Conference, blogs about his support and includes links to other perspectives.

Concerns and support

Dorothee Benz, a delegate from the New York Conference, said she has concerns about the process but is open to a new approach. She is particularly worried that people could be prosecuted under church law for what they say in small groups.

Benz is a founding member of Methodists in New Directions, an unofficial United Methodist group seeking to end what it sees as discriminatory practices against LGBTQ individuals. She is also gay.

“What’s important for LGBTQI people at General Conference is that the church live up to its Wesleyan mandate to ‘do no harm’ and that means preventing a repeat of the abuse and hate speech that has been directed at us at past General Conferences,” she said.

“Whether that is using the Rule 44 process or the existing rules, it’s the church’s job to keep us from ending up as spiritual roadkill yet again.”

The Rev. Andy Bryan, a reserve delegate from the Missouri Conference, said he sees a potential for the new process to encourage for “grace-filled, respectful dialogue.”

“I think as Christians, we’re called to higher standards than Robert’s Rules of Order,” Bryan said. “Christ calls the church to be witnesses and models of love and grace and Christ-like relationships.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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