The experience of being at General Conference is much different than the experience of watching it on live stream. I can’t imagine General Conference makes very good TV and much of what is good about General Conference never makes it on TV.
When you are at General Conference, you are surrounded by many heroes in the faith. You meet people from all over the world whose stories inspire you and whose friendships enliven you. You work in committees to perfect legislation and you experience the camaraderie that develops in those committees as you spend three or four full days together working through important detailed legislation for the good of the denomination. You experience powerful, diverse worship with sermons from some of the greatest preachers in our denomination.
You also see that even great people struggle to work in a constrained system. At General Conference, you find that governance of the UMC is structured to have a strong legislature branch (General Conference), a strong judicial branch (Judicial Council), and a weak executive branch (Council of Bishops). Bishops have no voice or vote at General Conference and the Council of Bishops cannot advise the General Conference without a request to do so from General Conference. In a system such as what we have, it is easy to experience the tyranny of the majority. With a 51% vote one side can entirely impose its will upon the 49% minority. Thus, many times debates gets quite heated since it is possible for a small majority to pass legislation that is entirely untenable to the large minority.
The United States dealt with these same issues when forming their government. For this reason, the United States chose to implement a strong executive branch, the President, and to divide its legislature into two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The president helps to represent the minority because he or she is elected by the entire nation, not just a state or district. The Senate also helps to give the minority a voice because each state gets an equal number of Senators, unlike the House of Representatives in which representation is based on population. Not surprisingly the House of Representatives often produces the most extreme legislation. For this reason, I seriously doubt that many of us would be comfortable with a country that had only a House of Representatives without a Senate.
It is reported that when the United States government was being formed in 1787 that George Washington told Thomas Jefferson that the purpose of creating the Senate was to “cool the hot tea of the House” in the same way a saucer provides a cool place to set a hot tea cup. Washington’s understanding was that the Senate should help make the more extreme legislation coming from the House of Representative milder by incorporating the needs of the minority to a greater degree.
In no way do I want the UMC to suddenly create a denominational senate. However, this is largely the reason I was glad to the see this General Conference asked its Bishops to lead. Often we complain about why our Bishops do not lead more strongly. It is not as we often imagine that our Bishops are not strong leaders. It is because our Bishops have very little institutional authority to lead. When facing important matters that threaten the very unity of our fellowship, it would be unwise if we failed to ask those who occupy the highest posts in our denomination to help guide us towards a path that addresses the concerns of all involved.
While I have been an outspoken supporter of the plan put forward by our Bishops (see my previous blog Praying For A Ram), I have heard a legitimate concern about the plan repeated often. The concern is this: Are we further delaying dealing with these issues? Are we just kicking the can further down a road we have been traveling for over 40 years?
I actually believe the Bishops’ plan forces us to deal with the issue. Asking the Bishops guidance and giving support to a special called General Conference were unprecedented steps. If there is any hope we will stay together as a denomination we will not find that compromise in a format where those with 51% of the vote can impose 100% of their will on those with 49% of the vote. If such a compromise cannot be reached and a split is necessary, this gives us two years to cool our “hot tea” and hot tempers and do so in the most amicable way possible.
Here’s a more little history on the issue. Over the past 4 decades, every time we have created a special commission to address this issue in a manner that would provide for unity within our denomination, the commission has recommended that the majority make concessions to the minority that the minority would not have the votes to get passed through a purely legislative process. In each instance, the majority voted not to make these concessions and our conflicts continued and intensified.
If we follow this trend, then we can expect the commission will devise a way forward that requires compromise. The special General Conference will vote not to compromise. And then a plan for some sort of amicable separation will be put into place.
Whether we stay together or not, I am glad we are taking our time to be as intentional and prayerful as possible as we enter these unchartered waters. I respect those who see our differences as too fundamental for us to remain together. However, I still pray that the God who specializes in making ways out of no way will do so again and allow us to remain united in mission.
Turning to today’s work on the floor of the General Conference, there was a significant amount of legislation passed by the General Conference today. Please check UMC.org to learn more about all those pieces. I will mention only one here because you may hear about this one n the secular media.
The General Conference voted to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The RCRC supports many needed women’s health initiatives, but it also supports abortions to an extent that the UMC does not. Those who supported remaining in the RCRC argued that there was good work being done by the RCRC and that by remaining at the table we could articulate our beliefs about abortion to the coalition. Others argued that there were other ways to support women’s health without seeming to affirm the RCRC’s position on abortion. The General Conference voted to withdraw from the RCRC.