Reflecting on General Conference 2008
SUMMARY: As the top policy-making body of the international United Methodist Church, the every-four-years General Conference is the only body that officially speaks for the denomination.
Delegates to the April 23-May 2 sessions at the Fort Worth Convention Center grappled with many issues, including what it means to be a global church of 11.5 million members. More than ever before, youth and young adults spoke up and spoke out.
‘A Future with Hope’
Under the theme “A Future with Hope,” delegates and visitors celebrated the sacrament at a table made of wood from trees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. While they heard stirring speeches and sermons offered from a pulpit made of the same hurricane-damaged trees, taken from historic Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss., delegates were reminded of both physical and spiritual storms.
A global denomination
Although General Conference always has included delegates from Africa, Asia and Europe, this gathering seemed less centered on issues confined to the United States than earlier quadrennial gatherings. One reason was that 278 of the 992 delegates came from outside the United States—100 more than the number that attended the 2004 session. It also was the result of proposals from a six-member task force studying the global nature of the church.
The United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, the largest regional conference of the worldwide denomination with almost 700,000 members, received full rights and responsibilities. As a result, United Methodists in the West African country, which has only two delegates at this General Conference, will receive significantly greater representation at future assemblies.
Noting that United Methodist churches in Africa are the fastest-growing congregations in the denomination, delegates approved a request for $20 million for Africa University. They also called for $2 million for United Methodist theological schools in Africa.
The assembly approved a plan that will result in one less bishop in four of the five U.S. jurisdictions, beginning in 2012. They agreed that savings from those reductions will be used to fund new episcopal areas outside the United States.
Delegates approved 23 constitutional amendments that would make it possible to make the United States a central conference similar to conferences in other countries. The amendments, which must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the aggregate total of annual conferences, also would change the words “central conference” to “regional conference.” A 20-member committee will bring recommendations to the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla.
On May 1, a day after the General Conference continued the Social Principles statement declaring homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” some 200 witnesses for inclusion were allowed to walk silently through the aisles of the legislative gathering. Participants covered the Communion table with a black shroud to mourn conference actions that deny gays and lesbians the right to serve as clergy and legislation that holds the practice of homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
A general consensus was reached to keep the budget at the proposed level of $642 million. The budget calls for a 1.2 percent increase over each of the four years from 2009 to 2012. Finance leaders acknowledged this increase does not keep up with inflation projections. For the first time, the budget was developed on an outcome-based model shaped around the denomination’s four areas of focus:
Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.
Creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations.
Stamping out diseases of poverty by improving health globally.
- Engaging in ministry with the poor.
Delegates passed a constitutional amendment that reduces from two to one the number of years a person must be a professing member of a local church before he or she can become a member of an annual conference. Annual conferences also will vote on proposals that provide for newly created conferences to be represented at General Conference, jurisdiction or regional conferences on a non-proportional basis. Another constitutional amendment would make it clear all persons shall be eligible to attend worship services and, upon taking vows, become church members.
Delegates learned that church members raised $3 million to restore churches damaged by Hurricane Katrina. More than $60 million was given through the United Methodist Committee on Relief for humanitarian aid in the Gulf Coast.
The 40th anniversary of the founding of the denomination also marked the 40th anniversary of the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction, a racially based structure, and the formation of the General Commission on Religion and Race. The assembly also celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Advance and the 100th anniversary of the ministry to Methodist men, the Social Creed and the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
During the sessions, delegates learned that the denomination will receive $5 million to eliminate malaria and other diseases of poverty. The grant comes from the U.N. Foundation with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Special addresses and music
Along with the traditional Episcopal Address and Laity Address, the first-ever Young People’s Address introduced delegates to six youth and young adults who shared their perceptions of and dreams for The United Methodist Church. Choirs from all over the world performed during the assembly. The 23-member Hope for Africa Children’s Choir, including many Ugandan children from displaced persons’ camps, seemed to be everywhere for a few days, and they touched the delegates’ hearts.
General Conference delegates also:
Added a statement on abortion to the Social Principles that includes language offering “ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies” and assisting the ministry of crisis pregnancy and support centers that help women “find feasible alternatives to abortion.”
Added the words “for the transformation of the world” to the church’s mission statement.
Addressed migration issues, urging U.S. lawmakers to ensure immigration laws don’t tear families apart and advocating for “full protection of all workers.” Another resolution signaled the church’s intention to help all types of migrants and advocate for them.
Adopted several health and wellness petitions sponsored by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
Advocated equal rights of men with regard to parental leave and child custody.
Affirmed the validity of scientific findings to expand understanding of the natural world and of the mysteries of God’s creation and the Word.
Approved legislation allowing pastors or district superintendents to ask the bishop to give sacramental authority to a deacon if an elder is not present. That right is confined to the location of a deacon’s primary appointment. In areas where it would take a great deal of time to deliver the sacraments to people, a layperson is given the right to deliver the Communion elements.
Asked the General Board of Church and Society to identify and publish on its Web site educational resources on stem-cell research.
Called on United Methodists to divest funds from companies which support the government of Sudan in order to end the genocide in that area.
Continued membership of the General Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Continued the study of ministry.
Created a hymnal revision committee, authorized to bring a proposed hymnal to the 2012 General Conference.
Created a new, 24-member standing committee on faith and order to help bishops and the church reflect on matters of faith, doctrinal teaching, order and discipline.
Decided a proposed new creed, which has been set to music, would serve the church better as a “companion litany.”
Declined an opportunity to create a permanent site for the Judicial Council, but agreed to provide an office for a part-time clerk.
Encouraged implementation of the universal school lunch program.
Increased the retirement age of bishops from 66 to 68.
Requested the legislature in Texas, where more than 400 people have been put to death since 1982, to end executions.
- Urged Israelis and Palestinians to uphold U.N. resolutions and International Court of Justice rulings in response to Israel’s violations of international law by building a wall on Palestinian land.
The final gavel came down May 2 at 11:15 p.m., followed by worship, which ended shortly before midnight. Weary delegates packed more than 2,500 pages of legislative materials and hugged people at neighboring desks who had been strangers 10 days earlier.