May 17 wrap-up: Schism rumors quashed

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General Conference 2016 may have started off slowly, but it’s full steam ahead now. On a day with a full docket, delegates considered whether to give $20 million to a group of church growth consultants, whether to eliminate lifetime tenures for U.S. bishops and whether it’s time to create a new hymnal. All that while the Council of Bishops president said the bishops are committed to church unity.

Opening worship

In his May 17 sermon on Matthew 18:10-14, Bishop Ivan M. Abrahams, top executive of the World Methodist Council, warned of the dangers of pledging allegiance to something other than Jesus.

History, he declared, is littered with examples of the church building its own empires. “To go in the name of Jesus of Constantine is to live comfortably with power, prestige and profit, failing to hear the voices of the ‘least of these,’” Abrahams said, placing profit before people and preaching Christ without the cross.

Methodism was committed to those on the margins, he reminded delegates, adding, “Conference, is this still true for us today?”

Ough: Council of Bishops does not support split

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, acknowledged the pain and anger that has been bubbling up at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference over the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, but said the Council of Bishops supports church unity.

Social media rumors before his announcement indicated the bishops were going to create a special commission to explore the church’s differences and hold a meeting in 2018 to discuss schism. That is not correct, Ough said. However, he did say the bishops were not in unity with each other.

He also indicated the door was still open to "new and innovative ideas," perhaps even new structures for the church. "We have risked exploring what many would consider radical new ideas," Ough said in confirming that the bishops had been meeting with both conservative and progressive groups. 

Hey brother, can you spare $20 million?

Delegates referred to the Judicial Council a petition that would remove $20 million from general church ministries and reallocate them to a new committee on U.S. church growth. The denomination’s top court will rule whether the plan is in line with the denomination’s constitution and whether it constitutes a conflict of interest.

Donald House Sr., a delegate from the Texas Conference, is the architect of the proposed Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth. An economist, House estimates the church only has 14 years to make a turnaround in the United States to have a sustainable future. His plan is to create a board made up of church-growth consultants and “entrepreneurs of local church revitalization” to develop strategies for growing congregations.

Some delegates opposed the plan, questioning whether the board’s creation would supplant the General Conference as the sole authority to direct the functions of the denomination’s general agencies. Others questioned the ethics of putting consultants on a board responsible for administering money that may go to their firms.

“We can talk about conflict of interest, and if we want to play that game, we’re toast,” House said.

New hymnal project gets green light

The United Methodist Church is on track to get its first new hymnal since 1989, and this one will be Internet-cloud based and print-on-demand — the first high-tech hymnal for a mainline denomination.

General Conference 2016 approved on a consent calendar May 17 a petition authorizing the creation of a 15-member Hymnal Revision Committee. The 2020 General Conference will need to approve the Hymnal Advisory Committee’s recommendations, with release of the new hymnal coming as early as 2021.

Votes of note

Once you’re a bishop, you stay a bishop — at least in the U.S. A petition to amend the constitution and impose term limits for U.S. bishops failed get the required two-thirds vote to pass. The final tally was 482-332. Some bishops outside the United States are already subject to term limits.  

Deacons now have fewer hoops to jump through to request permission to administer sacraments. A petition passed that allows deacons to contact their resident bishop directly to ask for permission. Previously, the pastor-in-charge or district superintendent had to make the request on the deacon’s behalf.

Delegates passed a new formula for allocating funding to the Central Conference Theological Education Fund. All money in excess of $750,000 collected by central conference apportionments for the General Administration Fund will now be directed to the education fund. The original petition, which would have removed Central Conference Theological Education from the World Service Fund and established it as its own apportioned fund, was amended in legislative committee to create the new formula.

During the afternoon plenary, delegates approved calendar items related to the Asian American Language Ministry Plan, the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan, the National Plan for Hispanic Ministry and the Korean Ministry Plan as well as Accessibility Grants for Churches and the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.

Delegates approved a constitutional amendment that would allow General Conference to set provisions for the Council of Bishops to hold its individual members accountable for their work. They also approved legislation that alters the complaint process against bishops. The new measure sets a definitive timeline of 180 days to try to resolve a complaint in the denomination’s supervisory process within the College of Bishops. The legislation also allows the Council of Bishops at any time to remove the complaint from the College of Bishops with a two-thirds vote of the council.

Two new special Sundays without offering were created: Women’s Ministry Sunday may be observed annually on a Sunday designated by the annual conference; Volunteers In Mission Awareness Sunday shall be observed annually on a date determined by the local congregation.

In other news

Delegates asked the Council of Bishops to lead the church out of the “painful condition” it is in after an address by Bishop Bruce Ough that called for unity but did not address full inclusion of LGBTQ people. The Rev. Mark Holland, a delegate from Great Plains, said the May 17 call for unity did not provide a path forward. He asked the Council of Bishops to meet today and bring back a report tomorrow. Bishops do not have a vote at General Conference, but they can call for a special session of the General Conference.

The 2016 General Conference marks the 40th anniversary of members of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference being granted voting rights in the top legislative assembly of The United Methodist Church. Although recognized as a conference by the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference delegates had voice but no vote until the 1976 General Conference, which also met in Portland.

Two more bishops had health problems at General Conference 2016. Retired Bishop Richard B. Wilke fell from the dais May 17, fracturing his right shoulder. The injury will not require surgery and Wilke said he plans to be back for the 30th anniversary celebration of DISCIPLE Bible Study May 18. Bishop David Kekumba Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area was hospitalized May 17 for malaria treatment. Yemba had been hospitalized May 12 for fatigue and prescribed rest. As he was preparing to come to the May 17 session, he fell ill again and was readmitted and diagnosed. Florida Bishop Kenneth Carter fell on opening day and required surgery to repair a severed tendon.

Butler is a multimedia editor/producer for United Methodist Communications. Contact him at [email protected] or 615-742-5470

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