Not sure how General Conference works? Here’s GC101

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When the United Methodist Church’s top legislative body meets this spring in Pittsburgh, nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will once again speak to issues of the day and set direction for the denomination.

Convened every four years, the General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the entire 10-million member denomination. The 2004 assembly will meet April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

Understanding how General Conference works can be a challenge, even for people who have attended it in the past.

“General Conference is the legislative body that sets policy for the denomination,” explains Carolyn Marshall of Veedersburg, Ind., longtime secretary of General Conference. “We come together from divergent theological and geographic backgrounds to struggle, pray and work together to discover who we are as United Methodist people of God.”

In an intense, two-week period, 998 delegates from the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia will handle more than 1,600 pieces of legislation. They will also participate in daily worship and take other action related to guiding the church for the 2005-08 period.

Majority votes can change any part of the denomination’s book of law, or Book of Discipline, except the Constitution, the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith. Restrictive rules in the Constitution also prohibit the conference from eliminating the office of bishop and the right of clergy to trial by committee. Any proposed changes to the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote of General Conference and a two-thirds affirmative vote by the aggregate total of voting members of all annual (regional) conferences.

General Conference will take stands on various social-justice issues. The “Social Principles” were first written in 1972, four years after the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to form the United Methodist Church. These principles have been revised at every General Conference since then. The quadrennial assembly will also apply these principles to contemporary social justice issues such as the situation in Iraq, cloning, peace in the Middle East, immigration policies, and censorship. These positions on contemporary social justice issues are later published in the denomination’s Book of Resolutions.

The number of delegates from each annual conference is determined by the number of church members. One hundred eighty-eight of the 998 lay and clergy delegates will come from nations outside the United States. Due to increased membership in African churches, that figure is up 36 from the last assembly, held in 2000 in Cleveland.

A total of 8.3 million United Methodists reside in the United States, and 1.4 million live in Africa, Asia and Europe. Sixteen percent of United Methodists live in Africa, 1 percent in Europe and 2 percent in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines.

Each annual conference sends an equal number of lay and clergy delegates to the legislative assembly.

The location of the quadrennial assembly rotates to cities within the five U.S. jurisdictions or regions. Pittsburgh is in the Northeastern Jurisdiction.

The assembly is expected to cost $5 million, with an estimated $2 million of that covering the travel, meals and lodging of delegates.

Every clergy and lay member of the denomination has the right to petition the conference. However, most petitions are sent to General Conference by local churches, general agencies and annual conferences.

The Commission on General Conference, which planned the 2004 assembly, will suggest that in the future only annual conferences and general agencies be allowed to submit petitions. If that measure is approved by the conference, individuals and churches would have to have their proposals approved by a general agency or an annual conference in order to be considered by General Conference.

At General Conference, petitions are first considered by one of 11 legislative committees that may vote concurrence, non-concurrence or concurrence as amended. Most of the first week is spent considering proposals in committees. During the second week, the entire gathering considers legislation proposed by the committees. A proposal coming from a committee is called a “calendar item.”

To expedite the process, legislative committee calendar items with fewer than five negative votes are placed on a “consent calendar.” If an item is not removed by a written request of five delegates, and if it does not involve funding or a Constitutional amendment, the entire consent calendar is approved with a single vote. General Conference may change the specific rules related to the consent calendar, but the process enables the assembly to quickly deal with hundreds of legislative proposals.

On the opening day, following a first-ever orientation session for all delegates, a worship service will surround delegates and church leaders with songs from around the world. The songs will celebrate a renewal of baptism and Holy Communion, emphasizing the conference theme, “Water Washed and Spirit Born.” Banners, dancers and a variety of drummers and musicians will emphasize the worldwide nature of the gathering.

During the first week, the assembly will hear the Episcopal Address, given by Bishop Kenneth Carder of the Mississippi Area on behalf of the Council of Bishops. They also will hear the Laity Address, given by Gloria Holt of Trussville, Ala.

On April 30, the conference will hold a service of appreciation for African Americans who remained with the denomination during the segregation era and after. At the 2000 gathering in Cleveland, the conference held a service of confession and sought forgiveness for actions leading to the formation of black Methodist denominations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

President George and Laura Bush, members of the United Methodist Church, have been invited to address the Pittsburgh gathering, but assembly planners have not received any verification of their attendance.

One of the denomination’s 69 active bishops will preside over each plenary session. However, bishops cannot vote on any of the proposals and may speak to issues only after approval by a majority of delegates.

Bishops are selected to preside by a committee of delegates, and a single bishop generally presides over only one plenary session. Since the assembly has a history of getting into some knotty parliamentary problems, presiding officers ask colleagues to serve as parliamentarians. Both active and retired bishops sit together behind the presiding officer.

This year, the conference’s Rules Committee will ask delegates to approve a proposal that bishops also be allowed to serve as chairpeople of legislative committees.

Plenary sessions of the assembly will be translated simultaneously from English into German, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

For the first time, the Advance Edition of the Daily Christian Advocate, a 1,600-page English-language book including a listing of delegates, all proposals and reports from all agencies, has been translated into Portuguese and French.

Each day during the conference, delegates will also receive an English edition of the Daily Christian Advocate containing the agenda, news, features, recommendations from legislative committees, and a verbatim report of preceding plenary sessions. Those daily editions enable delegates to know which proposal is being debated and actions taken on previous days. By the end of the 10-day session, delegates will have received more than 2,500 DCA pages.

A computer-tracking system enables delegates and visitors to determine the status of any petition or calendar item.

For additional information on General Conference, visit online.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference. He served as editor of the Daily Christian Advocate for four General Conferences and edited the 2000 Book of Resolutions. News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615)742-5470 or [email protected].

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