What the May 3 mid-morning session of General Conference 2012 lacked in productivity, it made up for in drama.
After attempts to change language regarding The United Methodist Church's stance on homosexuality failed, dozens of protestors, led by Common Witness Coalition, a gay-rights group, gathered on the plenary floor after the break, singing "What Does the Lord Require of You?"
Indiana Area Bishop Michael Coyner, who was presiding, asked the protestors to stop. When they didn't, he recessed the session for lunch, telling the group, "I think you're actually hurting your point."
Coyner also said the afternoon session would be closed to all but delegates. It was later decided the session would remain open to visitors.
The protestors stayed on the plenary floor during the lunch break, and continued to sing for several hours until the afternoon session began. At the same time, representatives of the Council of Bishops spoke with leaders of the demonstration to negotiate a solution to the impasse.
Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, new president of the Council of Bishops, opened the session with a statement crafted by the bishops. She acknowledged the pain General Conference's decisions and church polity have caused to the homosexual community and urged everyone to stay committed to holy conferencing. She quoted Philippians 2:1-5: "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus."
The Rev. Frank Wulf, a California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference delegate, was invited to pray. He asked God to "help us to find our voice, a voice that promotes healing and hope. Help us not to seek our own personal agendas, but to seek your will."
Following the prayer, the demonstrators left the floor peacefully.
"We talk about embodying the love of God, but in difficult situations, we need the Holy Spirit to tutor us," said Kansas Area Bishop Scott Jones, who presided over the afternoon session.
Can't agree to disagree
After more than an hour of passionate debate and clear disagreement, two items stating Christians have different opinions about homosexuality were not approved by the 2012 General Conference, leaving the current language in The Book of Discipline intact.
Paragraph 161.F of the Discipline states: "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
The Rev. Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., and the Rev. Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church, Tipp City, Ohio, proposed a substitution for part of the paragraph that sought to clarify that United Methodists disagree on whether homosexual practice is contrary to God's will and urged unity over division and respect for coexistence. Their substitution would have replaced the last paragraph of a petition submitted by the Global Convocation of Young People after its 2010 conference.
Jen Ihlo, a Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference delegate, worked on the Church and Society Legislative Committee's subcommittee on human sexuality. She said there was lengthy debate about where the church is on homosexuality.
"This petition represents that compromise; it states our positions are vastly different. I am a lesbian and a child of God. I strongly urge the body to adopt this compromise so gay youth will recognize the church loves them and the pain will stop."
The Rev. Maxie Dunnam of the Kentucky Annual Conference spoke against the substitution saying, "I see no reason to state that we disagree. If we're going to state what we disagree about, we might as well put that as a headline on our Book of Discipline."
The vote on the Hamilton-Slaughter substitution defeated it 441-507, and the main motion failed 368-572.
Since no more business was conducted in the morning after the protest began, the remaining legislation on human sexuality was sent back to the calendar committee to determine if and when to revisit.
Pension plan modified
United Methodist clergy in the United States will continue to participate in a retirement program that includes a monthly pension payment.
By a vote of 819 to 78, delegates approved the restated Clergy Retirement Security Program. The plan combines a defined benefit component with a defined contribution component, like the clergy's current retirement program, but with a reduced benefit for clergy and, consequently, a lower contribution for U.S. annual conferences.
A defined benefit plan provides a monthly pension payment for life, with the employer assuming the investment risk. A defined contribution plan-like the 401(k) plans most corporate employees now have-provides an account balance to use during retirement, with the clergyperson assuming the risk that the money will run out in his or her lifetime.
Delegates endorsed an amendment made by the Financial Administration Legislative Committee to allow annual conferences to determine whether clergy who serve half-time or three-quarters appointments can participate in the program.
The body voted down a clergy retirement program that would have relied on defined-contribution only.
Proposed constitutional amendment fails
The assembly failed to approve a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would allow General Conference to name a committee to reallocate funds between sessions of the quadrennial gathering.
A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the General Conference followed by ratification of two-thirds of the voting members of annual conferences.
The Rev. Andy Langford, a delegate from Western North Carolina and a member of the Connectional Table, argued for the amendment. He noted that since no one can change the budget between sessions of General Conference, budgets must be set as far as six years out and cannot be adjusted to meet changing needs.
Others opposed the amendment. Prior to the discussion, the Rev. Timothy McClendon, a delegate from South Carolina and also a member of the Connectional Table, said allowing a group to adjust the budget between General Conference sessions was like allowing the pastor to change budgets established by the church council.
In other business, the assembly:
- overwhelmingly supported by a vote of 682-251 a measure to direct United Methodist boards and agencies, annual conferences, and local church groups to consider the school schedules of young people when planning meetings and events
- rejected a motion to set a time for discussion of a petition directing the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries/Women's Division to withdraw membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
- voted to change the name of Lay Speaking Ministries to Lay Servant Ministries
- recognized two General Conference delegates who were hospitalized May 2. Jessica Ireland, Iowa Conference, was struck by a car-driven by another General Conference delegate-while walking back from dinner. The Rev. Guy Mande Muyombo, North Katanga, Congo, spent several hours in an emergency room with symptoms from exhaustion. "This isn't a way to become famous; I don't recommend it," Ireland said.
- recognized outgoing members of the Judicial Council, as well as the two newcomers who were elected during this conference. The Rev. Susan Henry Crowe and Jon Gray are ending their terms at the close of General Conference and rotating off. Also welcomed were the two new members, the Rev. Kabamba Kiboko of South Congo and Texas conferences, and Oswald Tewh from Liberia
*Butler is editor of young adult content, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
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