Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Watchers of The United Methodist Church were set awhirl last Monday by the announcement that the Council of Bishops was canceling a call for a special May 8 General Conference, less than four weeks after the call had been issued. Certainly, the sudden about face reflects the difficulties of operating in the context of the pandemic, but it also offers larger insights about the current state of The United Methodist Church.
This post will attempt to use what I have previously written about the major issues and variety of actors presently in the UMC to attempt to make sense of the controversy over the now canceled May 8 General Conference and what that means for the next time the General Conference does meet.
The Controversy over the May 8 General Conference
In issuing the call for a May 8 special General Conference, the bishops were operating out of what I have labeled an Institutionalist perspective. The very limited purpose of the May 8 session was to obtain permission to vote by mail on a list of actions that the bishops saw as necessary for maintaining the institutions of the church in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bishops determined what counted as critical maintenance for the church, so the list emphasized bishop-related concerns, as other commentators have pointed out, but the outlook was generally Institutionalist.
But almost as soon as the call was issued, it became clear that rather than simply enabling a straightforward procedure of institutional maintenance, the May 8 General Conference would be a Pandora’s box that would bring out the concerns of other parties within the denomination.
US Traditionalists were immediately unhappy that the May 8 session did not include their top issue: separation from the denomination through the Protocol. Some commentators began suggesting that the May 8 agenda could be modified by a 2/3rds majority to include the Protocol on the list of issues up for consideration.
US Progressives, on the other hand, critiqued the call both on procedural grounds (they saw the move as episcopal overreach) but also because it did not address what is shaping up to be a main Progressive concern: election by the current, Progressive-majority jurisdictional conference delegates of new bishops to replace retirees and new agency board members.
Especially once it became clear that the May 8 session would be more than a straight up-or-down on mail ballots, the Africa Initiative, voicing a Regionalist perspective from Africa, critiqued the call because of its disenfranchisement of African delegates without access to reliable internet service.
Thus facing criticism from three major blocs in the denomination, the bishops reversed course and canceled the May 8 session, promising “deeper listening” and “a possible need for a new timeline leading up to” the next scheduled in-person meeting of General Conference, in August 2022.
The failed May 8 General Conference is an instance in which one bloc within The United Methodist Church (the Institutionalist bishops) tried to act to accomplish one of its goals without giving other blocs an opportunity to accomplish any of their goals at the same time and seemingly without significant prior consultation with other blocs.
The Institutionalist bloc, however, needed the cooperation of other blocs to accomplish that goal. In response to the Institutionalist bishops’ actions, members of other blocs criticized the Institutionalist bishops not so much for the validity of their goals (though there was some of that by Progressives), but for the process by which they sought to achieve their goals.
Acknowledging that they needed but did not have the cooperation of other blocs, the bishops admitted defeat and abandoned this attempt to achieve their goals. It remains to be seen how the bishops and all other actors will now try to pursue their ends.
What Does This Episode Mean for the Future?
The criticism of process and the unwillingness to allow another bloc to accomplish its goals without one’s own bloc accomplishing any goals speak to the dearth of trust in the denomination. Fights about process indicate a lack of trust, since process is seen as giving benefits to one group that other groups fear will be used against them.
Moreover, whereas in a healthy system, groups might be willing to allow others to accomplish goals that do not directly negatively impact them, trusting that others will eventually return the favor, in a system lacking trust, no one is willing to let others act without receiving an immediate benefit in return. There is no credit without trust; everything must be bartered into direct exchanges of benefits.
As many others have observed, a lack of trust is endemic within the system of United Methodism and has been for some time. This will not change because the May 8 General Conference has been canceled. Indeed, the whole episode will instead increase distrust, as some have already indicated.
Thus, the same consequences of lack of trust that arose in this case and have arisen repeatedly in the past decade will likely reoccur. When they next meet in person for General Conference 2022, and in the meantime, United Methodists can be expected to spend a lot of time fighting about process, and no group is likely to want to allow another group to achieve its goals without achieving some of its own at the same time.
The upshot of this situation is that there is a high chance that, despite all of the pressure for General Conference 2022 to make major decisions for the future of the denomination, nothing major will actually come out of GC2022. This fits with a pattern of recent General Conferences, one that is likely to get worse rather than better because the underlying causes have only increased.
As the debate of Rule 44 in 2016 showed, procedural debates can eat up days of a short General Conference, limiting the ability of the General Conference to actually consider legislation. And changed rules from 2016 that require all legislation to be voted on in committee represent another instance in which it will be easy for the General Conference to get bogged down in procedure and squabbles over it, with the result being that little makes it to the plenary for consideration.
Then, even if legislation does make it to the plenary, there are significant issues around sequencing of legislation, given that blocs are unwilling to allow each other to achieve their goals first. Traditionalists, Progressives, Internationalists, Institutionalists, and Regionalists may all want their priorities voted on first and be unwilling to allow another groups’ priority to be voted on before their own. Thus, the plenary could fail to pass legislation not because of disagreement on the merits of the legislation but because of disagreement on the sequencing of the legislation.
One solution to the sequencing problem would be to vote on issues at the same time, as in the Alaska Omnibus Proposal (AOP). But at this time, it is not clear how much buy-in the AOP has from various groups, as the consultation that went into writing it seems to have been limited, and the Alaska Delegation has had little success in the past in forwarding its legislative proposals.
Another possibility is that deep listening, as called for by the Council of Bishops, and active coalition building over the next year and a half could yield enough trust to build a consensus around procedure and sequencing that would allow for major legislation to be passed. Bishop John Yambasu and mediator Kenneth Feinberg were able to accomplish this in leading parties to negotiate the Protocol. But the difficulty of that process indicates the challenges involved, and the death of Bishop Yambasu makes it unclear who would take up his mantle and lead such an effort.
Thus, there remains a significant chance that General Conference 2022 will not pass any major legislation. My next post will look at what that would mean for the church if it comes to pass.