Reactions vary to 2019 special General Conference

The United Methodist Council of Bishops’ announcement that a special General Conference likely won’t happen before 2019 brought a range of reactions, from support to frustration.

Faulting the bishops about timing, or anything else, is not the way to go, according to Mathew Pinson, chair of the North Georgia Conference delegation to General Conference 2016.

Who will serve?

The Book of Discipline says delegates to a special General Conference will be the delegates from the preceding General Conference or their “lawful successors” — unless an annual or missionary conference decides to have an election.

The projected special General Conference would consider the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. General Conference 2016 approved letting the Council of Bishops create such a commission, in an effort to work through divisions over church law related to the practice of homosexuality.

“I think there is some wisdom in keeping the delegations as close to the last General Conference as possible,” said Mathew Pinson, chair of the North Georgia Conference delegation to the 2016 General Conference. “It was that body that asked for this work to be commissioned. It should be that body that receives that work back and acts upon it."

“It’s the job of those of us who were at General Conference as delegates, and the larger church, to undergird these bishops with prayer and support as they carry out to the best of their ability what the church asked them to do,” Pinson said.

But the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the unofficial evangelical caucus Good News, said waiting until 2019 for the special church law-making session “telegraphs a lack of urgency.”

“We’re in a crisis, and we need some reason to believe that we’re moving forward,” Renfroe said.

The 2016 General Conference approved the Council of Bishops creating a commission to examine and possibly revise church law dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer United Methodists, with the prospect of the bishops calling a special General Conference in 2018 or 2019 to act on the commission’s recommendations.

The effort came as church leaders acknowledged deep divisions, even the threat of schism, over restrictive church law related to the practice of homosexuality.    

The Council of Bishops recently named a 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, and on Nov. 2 the bishops announced that they’re planning for a special General Conference in early 2019 to deal with the commission’s recommendations. 

That means the gathering would come just a little over a year before the regularly scheduled 2020 General Conference, to be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Some United Methodists grumbled about a long wait for the special General Conference, and about the prospect of two expensive meetings in close succession.

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“It’s a waste of time and money,” said Lonnie Brooks, former Alaska Conference lay leader. Brooks believes that if 2019 is the earliest a called  General Conference can occur, it makes more sense to let the 2020 General Conference deal with the commission’s recommendations.

The case for extra time

But the bishops noted in a press release the obstacles to moving quicker, including the logistical details and the Book of Discipline requirement for delegates to have 230 days to study any petitions they’ll be considering.

Such arguments satisfied the Rev. Tom Berlin, who led the Virginia Conference delegation to General Conference 2016.

“I would say that while many of us hoped for a 2018 time frame, all of us understand that scheduling a meeting of that size takes time, and a few more months will give all of us the opportunity to be more deliberate and prayerful as we prepare for the called General Conference,” said Berlin, a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. 

The Rev. Beth Jones, a General Conference 2016 delegate from the Susquehanna Conference, sees the 2019 date as an advantage.

“This extended time will give the commission that needed extra time to build relationships with each other, and mutual understanding,” Jones said. “That needs to be the foundation.”

The Rev. Judy Zabel, a Minnesota Conference delegate to General Conference 2016, agreed that a deliberate pace is better.

“While there are many in the church who are anxious for a way forward, taking time to intentionally listen, pray and reflect will give us the space and time to wait on God,” Zabel said. “Rushing forward with a goal for expediency may quench the Spirit.” 

Tim Crouch, leader of the North Texas Delegation to General Conference 2016, said he’s disappointed the special General Conference won’t happen earlier, but strongly believes it would be a mistake just to wait until General Conference 2020.

“We have to have a special session devoted to these issues,” Crouch said. “I just don’t know how we could do the regular work of the General Conference and dedicate the kind of time and attention that’s necessary.”

Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, said 2019 “is longer away than we would have liked.” But Berryman, whose group favors changing church law related to LGBTQ people, supports the special General Conference.

“That means the church is willing to spend a huge amount of money and believes it’s incredibly important to go ahead and solve the problem,” said Berryman, who has been named to the Commission on a Way Forward.

The global factor

Florida Conference Bishop Kenneth Carter, who serves as one of three moderators for the Commission on a Way Forward, said the worldwide nature of the denomination dictates a more deliberate pace than some will like. He noted that the council itself represents four continents and a variety of languages.

Carter, who said the commission will have its first meeting in January, counseled patience and a commitment to democratic decision-making within the global context.

“This will not have a good outcome if one part of the church walks much faster than another,” he said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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