Delegation offers its report on General Conference

June 17, 2016

“But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” – Genesis 32:26
In light of our United Methodist tendency to debate, amend, argue, and “perfect” polity in mind-boggling ways, attempting to summarize ten days of close
2016 New England Conference Delegation
Bonnie Marden 
We Hyun Chang 
Ralph Oduor 
Scott Campbell 
Rene Wilbur 
LaTrelle Easterling 
Steve Dry 
Leigh Goodrich 
Oscar Harrell 
Rene Perez 
Rebecca Hewett 
David Abbott 
Christine Wright 
Becca Girrell 
Roberta Bragan 
David Nicol 
Sean Delmore 
Jung Sun Oh
encounters with the messy, malleable, diverse, Body of Christ is all but impossible. The video you’ve just seen offers glimpses of the experience, but for many of us who were on the ground in Portland, it rings a little too cheery. The truth is that, like Jacob wrestling with the Divine Stranger in the night, United Methodists wrestling with God and one another come away blessed but limping, a tangled mess of the hopeful and the hurting, within our denomination, within our delegation, within our individual selves.
It might be easy to assume General Conference 2016 didn’t accomplish anything; we know  decisions on Book of Discipline paragraphs regarding human sexuality were postponed, pending a commission being formed to discuss potential re-writes to these sections, and to wrestle with the challenge of living together in our increasingly diverse global church. We know the harm and pain discrimination causes is not undone by deferring it.  For many, the unwillingness to even talk peacefully together about this harm serves to amplify rather than diffuse it. Moreover, the wider question of how and if our denomination can adapt to a culturally diverse, global context remains and significant work on attempts to re-imagine denominational structure were referred to 2020.  
Despite these referrals and the lack of change in our denomination’s positions, there were many things General Conference 2016 did accomplish, and your New England Annual Conference delegation was part of the impact at this quadrennia’s session.
Delegates and Reserves from New England helped the General Conference:
  • Offer an inspiring Korea Peace presentation and dinner
  • Advocate for peace in Israel/Palestine in a variety of constructive ways (although the General Conference did not support divestment)
  • Approve legislation strengthening our commitment to healthy relationships regardless of the status of marriage or divorce
  • Successfully refer to the Judicial Council legislation imposing mandatory penalties in the just resolution process where the legislation was declared unconstitutional
  • Encourage the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to develop new medical forms to protect the privacy of candidates for licensed and ordained ministry, advocating for a policy change regardless of the failure of the legislation (by ONE vote!)
  • Add gender, age, abilities, and marital status to our Constitution’s statement of inclusivity and protection from discrimination
  • Engage in powerful, justice-seeking conversations in committees and sub-committees; even though some legislation didn’t make it to the floor, we know hearts and minds are opened by conversation more than by plenary debate
Our New England contingent’s presence was powerfully felt through LaTrelle and We’s service as sub-committee chairs, Rene Wilbur’s service on the Journal committee, Bonnie’s service as Chair of the Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, and countless hours of work: researching, preparing and crafting talking points for legislation, speeches on the floor of committees and full plenary, and demonstrations, protests, and witnesses supporting stewardship of creation, rights of migrant and refugee persons, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people in the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church.
Other actions coming out of General Conference include:
  • Lowering the General Church budget, however Conference apportionments will increase due to US decline
  • Retaining nine bishops in the Northeast Jurisdiction which will elect two Bishops this July
  • Adding to the Social Principles acknowledgement that as a global church we are culturally and ethnically diverse, we agree no one culture or ethnic group should be privileged over another, and we specifically oppose white privilege
  • Adopting legislation to streamline and simplify the processes for people to become certified lay servants, certified lay speakers, and certified lay ministers, and transforming Deaconess and Home Missioner status into the Lay Order of Deaconess and Home Missioner
  • Forwarding proposals about denominational restructuring to 2020, while adopting both a draft rewrite of the Social Principles from a global perspective, and approving the proposal of a new hymnal with a digital interface
  • Commending the ongoing study and visioning by Faith and Order entitled “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” which by 2020 will produce a vision of our theological grounding for the nature of the Church, a refreshing departure from grounding the church in politics and pragmatism
  • Witnessing and participating in the global church through simultaneous translation, including a session presided over by a French-speaking Bishop, while English speakers got a taste of legislating and conversing in something other than their first language!
There were actions, too, that many—not all—in our body find difficult and painful:
  • The General Conference voting to not engage in conversation about the church’s treatment of LGBTQ people, and unwillingness to even hear those words spoken aloud
  • Speeches in committees and subcommittees that re-inscribed harm
  • Stepping away from the denomination’s long-standing commitment to the comprehensive health care and rights of women in reproductive decisions
  • Voting down attempts to align General Church investments with the stewardship of the environment
  • The revelation of the depth of some of our theological divide, evidenced in a debate about creation versus evolution
What General Conference 2016 revealed most clearly is the process of becoming a global church is very complicated, and we United Methodists have a long way to go.  Deep questions remain about how the denomination can navigate such profound differences.   We are increasingly aware that LGBTQ people and the pain the church inflicts through its policies are not the cause of the challenges to our increasingly global identity, but rather a symptom or a scapegoat for some of the deep divisions rooted in social and theological paradigms as well as the long church history of power, privilege, and colonialism we must confront if we are to be formed in the image of Christ who tears down these barriers. Even in these matters we are not all of one heart and mind, but we strive together after the image and example of Christ.
And therein lies our hope: despite ourselves, it is Christ who calls us and Christ who unites us, when all our polity and debate and Rules of Order fall short. The General Conference was challenged to “Therefore, Go,” but the UMC remains unclear about where and how we are going. We are indeed in a wilderness time, and we acknowledge that wilderness times are familiar to the people of God, and often the places where God’s presence becomes most starkly evident.
Here in New England, our task is to dig more deeply into our unique identity as United Methodists in this region, and the ministry to which God calls us, even as the global church digs into the same. The General Conference called out for leadership from the Council of Bishops, to help us find new and creative ways to live in our messy, malleable connection together, and the Bishops responded. We hope and pray the Bishop’s Commission and process will discern a way forward for the people called United Methodists. 
We trust ultimately that it is God who blesses us when we struggle together. We have demonstrated even in the midst of the pain of wrestling with each other, that we are not willing to let go, not without a blessing. The sun rises over us, here in New England, here where we have seen God’s face and have the opportunity to offer God’s love to all persons in our local mission fields, offering grace and hope to our congregations, communities and neighbors. 
Because of the wrestling… Jacob limps away, his hip stiff, but his life broken open into new possibility.  We must Therefore, go.