When I left Tampa on May 6, 2012 at the conclusion of that year’s General Conference, I had a bad taste in my mouth and a sense of gloom in my soul. The Conference had been costly – both in terms of the dollars spent, and in the divisiveness created across the denomination.
As General Conference 2016 came to an end on May 20 I was hopeful – and so, too, was the atmosphere among most of the delegates inside the convention center.
I have to admit that this hopeful feeling surprised me.
For four years I had felt, and countless people had told me, that General Conference 2016 would be no different than General Conference 2012 – costly and unproductive.
Countless hours had been spent over nearly four years to improve the delegate experience at this year’s Conference. But when business sessions began in Portland we – the United Methodist denomination – did not put our best foot forward.
We began the session using an i-Pad at each table to get the attention of the presiding bishop, even though the rules in place when we left Tampa called for a placard to be used.
After delegates voted to allow the use of the i-Pads, the system didn’t always work and the delegates and presiding bishops had trouble using them.
At the times that a presiding bishop misspoke, some delegates pounced on the opportunity and questioned our Episcopal leaders’ knowledge of parliamentary procedure. There was even a request from one delegate for a presiding bishop to step down – the first time that had happened in the history of The United Methodist Church.
Sadly, my worst fears were being realized: the atmosphere in the plenary sessions was contentious and social media was abuzz with talk of an imminent schism in the Church.
My mood lightened on Tuesday when the Council of Bishops was asked to meet that day and to return on Wednesday with a plan for moving forward. The subsequently proposed plan was accepted by the body. With it came the creation of a yet-to-be-named special commission that will examine “every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
The decision did not please everyone but it seemed to accomplish three things: it tabled debate of human sexuality language in The Discipline – debate that has often been divisive; it offered the possibility of a special General Conference before 2020 to discuss such legislation; and it created time on the agenda to debate and decide other legislation.
We, again this year, spent more than $10 million on General Conference, and were unable to get to each of the proposed items on the legislative calendar – but I leave Portland hopeful. And I am not alone.
In her morning sermon on the last day of Conference Bishop Elaine Stanovsky of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area reminded all of us that “we will not leave divided because God is not finished with us yet!”
That’s great news, thankful news, hopeful news.
By Rick Wolcott, East Ohio Conference director of Communiations