Tuesday, October 22, 2013

General Conference delegates and the Global UMC

The Commission on the 2016 UMC General Conference just voted to set the number of delegates for 2016 General Conference at approximately 850, a reduction from the nearly 1,000 delegates at GC2012.  I'm sure that decision will generate a lot of discussion within the American branch of the UMC about what it means for the relative strength of varying American factions within the church and favored legislation of each of them.  What is really significant about this decision, though, is not about the United States.  The important aspects of this decision have to do instead with the global nature of The United Methodist Church.  There are two ways in which this decision is wrapped up in the discussion of the global UMC.

The first and most significant connection is that part of the explicit reason for this reduction in the number of delegates is to prepare the way for General Conference to be held outside of the United States, something that has never happened before.  Heather Hahn reports in the article linked above:
"More significantly, the reduction in delegates begins to smooth the way for The United Methodist Church to hold its first General Conference outside the United States, said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist II, the General Conference secretary. That move could happen as early as 2024.
"“At the present time, there is no one willing to host us because of what is involved in moving General Conference outside the United States,” he told the commission. “One of the changes that will probably need to be made is in the size of the delegation. I think it would be a mistake to move outside the United States and reduce the size of the delegation at the same time.”"
Holding General Conference outside the United States would send a clear signal that the UMC is serious about regarding all branches of the church as equal members of the body, rather than viewing everything other than the United States as a less-important hinterland.  Obviously, there would be financial and logistical challenges involved in holding the conference elsewhere and transporting US delegates to the conference, but as a sign of commitment to the global nature of the church, nothing else could be clearer.

The other way in which this decision is significant for the global nature of the UMC is that it tends to increase the relative significance of delegates from the central conferences.  Hahn writes, "Reist did note that a reduction in delegation size would increase the proportionate representation of smaller annual conferences as well as the central conferences — church areas in Africa, Asia and Europe."  All annual conferences are allocated at least one clergy and one lay delegate to General Conference.  All additional delegates beyond that total are divided up between the annual conferences proportionately according to membership size.  Since many annual conferences outside the US are small, especially in Europe, they do not receive any additional delegate through this process.  Therefore, their guaranteed two delegates become a larger percentage of a smaller total.  Wherever General Conference is, fewer delegates mean a greater proportional voice for those who are from outside the United States.  While American delegates will still be a majority, more voices from those around the world mean the church is more likely to tackle issues of global relevance rather than focusing only on the issues of the church in the United States.

This one change doesn't suddenly make the UMC a "global church," but in terms of further including non-US branches of the church in the decision-making and focus of the denomination, it's a step in the right direction.

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