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General Conference— a first-timer’s account Alan Heath, May 11, 2012
By Alan Heath CEO, UMR Communications
Based on the volume of discussion before General Conference 2012, I knew it would be “historic.” I had never attended a General Conference, only observing as an interested church member for the past 12 years. Just over eight months ago, I assumed CEO responsibility for UMR Communications, the parent organization of the United Methodist Reporter.
During the first week of the conference, I was in Texas, keeping an eye on developments by way of our new website, www.unitedmethodistreporter.org. On Sunday, April 29, I boarded a plane and flew to Tampa to join staff members Sam Hodges and Mary Jacobs. My assignment was to observe and report my impressions.
Here are some highlights as I write this on May 1:
We are a global church. This was apparent as I observed numerous delegates from Africa dressed in the traditional garb of their native countries. It became even more apparent as some delegates rose to speak and could only communicate with the aid of interpreters. Although English is the primary language of the General Conference, I heard interpretations in French, German, Portuguese and Swahili. Over 40 percent of delegates are from outside the United States.
It’s an occasion for celebration. It’s not all just “business.” A significant amount of time is devoted to celebration as attendees are exposed to examples of how God is using ministries of the United Methodist Church to transform lives around the world.
Business sessions can be extremely tedious. This is just an observation, not a judgment. Business is governed by a complex system of rules that do not always lend themselves to efficiently moving business forward. As I write this during the afternoon break on the second day of week two, we have expended 35 percent of the plenary time allotted to business, but have addressed only about 20 percent of the legislation.
Twitter is constantly abuzz. The convention hall is huge. The nearly 1,000 delegates are set apart on the main floor by pipe and drape barriers and no one but delegates may enter the area. While this helps keep order and minimizes the distraction of non-delegates coming and going, it does not create a communication barrier. That’s because this is the first General Conference where Twitter allows real-time discussion with multiple recipients during the course of deliberations. While not directly confirmable, I saw the impact of Twitter today as a delegate jumped to his feet after receiving a tweet to request that something previously approved as part of the consent agenda be brought up for discussion.
Words do make a difference. In fact, words are at the heart of all discussions. And sometimes just one word can make all the difference. Today, a significant amount of time was devoted to adding one sentence to the preamble of the Social Principles. And the nexus of the debate centered on two words—“belief” and “practice.” The point of the statement was that neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God. Some clearly felt that this language might be interpreted in a way that could support improper doctrine or behavior. Then someone stepped forward and offered up a one-word substitution that a strong majority could support. That word was “nothing.”
Divergent views are gracefully accommodated. For the past several General Conferences, the issue of homosexuality has been debated and those conferences continued to uphold the “incompatibility” language of the Discipline. It appears this conference will continue in that tradition. However, supporters of change on multiple occasions have walked the aisles in the convention center holding signs supporting their point of view without being accosted in any way.
There’s a sweet spirit in this place. While I know from talking to some delegates that there have been spirited debates in legislative committees, there seems to be little of that on the convention floor. Discussions have been marked by courtesy from the presiding chair as well as the various speakers from the floor.
These are a few of my observations as a first-timer at General Conference. Now, for my editorial comment: We are a church made up of fallible human beings, sometimes struggling under our own power seeking solutions to personal and corporate challenges. But the good news is that we are recipients of unspeakable grace, made right and holy through the crucifixion, resurrection and life of Jesus Christ.
In John Wesley’s words, we are moving on to perfection, even though we may have a long way to go.