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Historically known for being a stop along the cattle-driving Chisholm Trail, Fort Worth recently corralled United Methodists from all over the globe for the 2008 General Conference. Beginning on April 23, the international delegates spent 10 days sorting through 1,564 proposals, singing hymns in worship services, and deliberating over pressing issues facing the 11.5 million-member United Methodist Church.
Delegates descended upon “Cowtown” from around the world, with 278 representatives coming from the Central Conferences (Africa, Europe, and the Philippines)—100 more than attended the last gathering. Others came from autonomous Methodist churches in places such as Great Britain, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Panama, Brazil, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Mexico. Other countries sending delegates included Korea, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Hong Kong, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Japan. The proceedings were translated into nine different languages through a team of 140 translators.
Under the theme “A Future with Hope—Making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” the opening worship service celebrated communion from a wooden table fashioned from trees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The General Conference pulpit was also made from the storm-damaged wood of the Gulfside Assembly retreat center in Waveland, Mississippi.
While in Fort Worth, United Methodism officially added its largest addition to membership since the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Church merged in 1968. On the fortieth anniversary of that historic merger, the 700,000 members of the French-speaking Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire received its full rights and responsibilities.
As if to highlight the increasing nature of United Methodism’s global nature, the assembly was addressed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a United Methodist. “This is a special honor for me,” she said. “I am the first African leader and the first female president to address the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.”
The General Conference, held every four years, is the top legislative body for the denomination and is the only group that can speak officially for the church as a whole. An equal number of clergy and lay delegates make decisions on ministry and missional directions for the denomination. Statements to be included in the church’s Social Principles and positions on other religious and societal issues are adopted.
According to a poll taken prior to the 2008 General Conference, delegates considered “Becoming a Global Church” to be the most important issue facing denomination. More than 38 percent of the respondents believed that United Methodism had ideas, but no clear vision, goals or direction. In addressing that lingering concern, the United Methodist Council of Bishops proposed Four Areas of Focus that include leadership development, church planting, ministry with the poor, and stamping out killer diseases.
In the midst of emotional protest, United Methodism’s 36-year old statement that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” was once again affirmed. The body also retained the position that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are prohibited from ordained ministry. Additionally, delegates reaffirmed that conducting or performing same-sex unions or wedding ceremonies would be prohibited, as well as affirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Early in the proceedings, delegates elected several new members of the Judicial Council—the denomination’s highest court. Traditionalists and conservatives within the denomination were disappointed that the three incumbent evangelicals on the Council were neither nominated by the Council of Bishops nor re-elected by the General Conference.
The 2008 General Conference will in part be remembered for a communion table that was covered with a black shroud by activists on the day after delegates voted to maintain the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. The proceedings of the General Conference were once again interrupted by a nearly half-hour protest orchestrated by Soulforce and United Methodist gay-rights supporters.
Delegates in Fort Worth faced the daunting task of dealing thoughtfully with hundreds of petitions from groups and individuals across the church. When the final gavel sounded, delegates had acted on a number of both controversial and constructive issues:
• Approved a constitutional amendment to Para. 35 allowing probationary members, associate members, and local pastors who have completed their educational requirements and served under appointment for two years to vote for clergy delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.
• Approved a $642 million denominational spending plan for the next four years.
• Directed UM agencies and organizations to look for ways to care for the earth and reduce global warming.
• Approved creation of a committee to bring a proposed hymnal to the 2012 General Conference.
• Defeated by a 51 to 49 percent vote an attempt to change Para. 214 to require pastors to admit any person to membership who is willing to take the vows.
• Defeated a minority report that would have placed into the Discipline the substance of Judicial Council Decision 1032, giving the pastor the right to determine readiness of persons to assume the vows. Therefore, the language of Para. 214 remains as it is in the current Discipline, as interpreted by Decision 1032.
• Acknowledged and commended the “positive contribution to the work of mission through the Mission Society” and called upon the General Board of Global Ministries to “develop new conversations and liaisons with the Mission Society for new and ongoing partnership in areas of mutual concern.”
• Adopted a new resolution was adopted calling for the U.S. to allow professing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces of our country.
• A new resolution was adopted opposing homophobia and heterosexism and directing the Board of Church and Society to produce resources to combat these evils.
• Rejected a new resolution outlining a position opposed to transgenderism. Provisions to forbid the ordination or appointment of transgendered persons were also rejected.
• Added the statement to Para. 161J that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being … of the unborn child.”
• Officially supported parental notification and consent for underage girls receiving abortions.
• Declared: “We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.”
• Failed to end our membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice by a vote of 516-484.
• Defeated petitions to make United Methodist Women optional in the local church and to provide for other official women’s ministries. Another petition to make the Women’s Division subject to the same financial accountability standards as all other general boards and agencies was also rejected.
• Amended Para. 161A to delete the importance of “both fathers and mothers” in favor of “loving parents” for all children. References to “same-gender parents” were not adopted.
• Strengthened Para. 161D on divorce to declare that women and especially children are affected by the burdens of divorce, we are concerned about the high divorce rate, we want governments to reexamine laws that might contribute to the high divorce rate, and we encourage reconciliation wh
erever possible as an alternative to divorce.
• Readopted resolution on combating sex trafficking.
• Adopted a new resolution decrying the exploitation of women and children by UN personnel.
• Rejected resolutions calling for increased ministry to prostitutes and opposing the legalization of prostitution.
• Removed one provision in the Discipline requiring general agency program staff to be Christian.
• Defeated attempts to change the percentage of the Ministerial Education Fund allocated to annual conferences, but new restrictive language was inserted, mandating that MEF money given to the seminaries be used only to educate UM students preparing for pastoral ministry and/or to provide curriculum and teachers for such students.
• Reformed the complaint process against bishops. Judicial complaints will be made to the president of the jurisdictional or central conference college of bishops, but the complaint will immediately be forwarded to an elder in full connection within the jurisdiction or central conference. That elder will represent the interests of the church in pressing the claims of the person making the complaint. This takes the process out of the hands of the bishops.
• Defeated proposal for term limits for bishops.
• Voted to reduce four of the five jurisdictions by one bishop, with the monetary savings going toward new episcopal areas in the central conferences.
• Committed $2 million to theological education and pastoral training in the central conferences.
• Supported a number of global health initiatives, particularly on malaria and AIDS.
• The study of the worldwide church structure was continued for another four years, with a revised task force to bring recommendations to the 2012 General Conference.
• Added a process for addressing pastoral ineffectiveness to the Discipline. This process protects clergy due process rights, while setting forth a way for bishops not to appoint ineffective pastors.
• Strengthened the language in ¶2501 on the Trust Clause to maintain the denomination’s ownership of local church property.
• Defeated attempts to shrink the size of General Conference or limit who could submit petitions.
—Good News Editorial Team
©2007 Good News magazine
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