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General Conference ‘more unified’ in 2008, bishop says

General Conference ‘more unified’ in 2008, bishop says

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

General Conference ‘more unified’ in 2008, bishop says

May 5, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0846}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

FORT WORTH, Texas — The 2008 General Conference was “more unified” than the 2004 gathering, according to Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker.

Speaking with reporters on the final day of the 10-day assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, Whitaker credits cooperation between church leaders as having had a positive impact.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker recognizes a speaker during deliberations on whether to retain the current language on homosexuality in The United Methodist Social Principles. Whitaker presided over the three-hour debate, which took place during the afternoon plenary session April 30 of the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0837.

“I believe the contribution of the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table and the general agencies in presenting the theme of ‘making disciples for the transformation of the world’ has had a very positive effect,” the bishop said. “As I expected, we still have divisive issues that confront us. And those divisive issues have gotten our attention and raised anxieties, but this time the controversies have occurred not in a vacuum, but in a context of a constructive agenda.”

Whitaker chaired General Conference during deliberations on one of the most hotly debated issues: homosexuality. It was his first time to chair a plenary session of General Conference.

At times, it appeared he was frustrated with parliamentary tactics and maneuvers that were undertaken during the three-hour debate.

“I was not particularly frustrated with what was going on,” he said. “It’s a heavy-duty task to preside, and I was given the most contentious issue over which to preside. If I’m frustrated, I’m frustrated, as the delegates are, that they have to have their debate in the context of a most arcane procedure that is difficult for anybody to keep straight, including the presider.”

That “arcane procedure” is Roberts’ Rules of Order, under which the General Conference operates in full plenary session. In addition, the assembly also utilizes its own rules, adopted by the body, on how it will conduct business.

One confusing aspect of debate is the presentation of both a “minority” and “majority” report from the same legislative committee on a particular issue. There were 13 legislative committees composed of 60-80 delegates each at this General Conference, with each committee responsible for petitions to a particular area of the Book of Discipline. A minimum of 10 delegates are needed to create, sign and submit a “minority report.”

Observers hug each other as they stand to protest an April 30 vote regarding homosexual rights in the church during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey. Photo #08-0838.

In the debate on homosexuality, the majority report sought to change the current language in the Book of Discipline, while the minority report sought to retain it.

“I’m aware that those who supported the majority report … felt frustrated that they never had a chance to have the debate on it,” Whitaker said. “We did not have the debate because the body approved a suspension of rules to stop debate. It did appear to me, though, the majority of the people felt like, in an oblique way, we had had the debate.”

Overall, however, the bishop felt people were trying their very best to be respectful, while articulating their views.

“I think all synods such as the General Conference are contentious affairs,” Whitaker said. “You study church history and you can expect whenever people come together from their various regions there will be a lot of different perspective and values, so that’s why they’re always contentious.

“But you have to accept a certain level of contentiousness. Given that historical fact, I think, relatively speaking, this has been a more unified General Conference.”

That said, the bishop does think there might be a better way to handle the decision-making processes of a General Conference. “I felt like we were wearing everybody down, dealing with amendments to perfect the majority report and then the minority report,” he said near the close of the conference.

“What we need to do is to have plenary sessions in which we discuss a prioritized agenda without parliamentary procedure,” he said. “I don’t think people will use parliamentary procedure to make their points if they have an opportunity to have real conferencing without parliamentary procedure in plenary sessions. I hope the people who are doing the planning of the agenda would take that into consideration.”

That would not take away the legislative committee’s function, Whitaker noted. On certain topics, he said, legislative committees would be used, “and we have to go into parliamentary procedure to do that.”

On May 1, the day after Whitaker chaired the plenary session on homosexuality, the bishop was one of a dozen bishops who met with representatives of gay advocacy groups who had held a “witness” during a recess that morning. Whitaker said he participated because he was asked to do so.

“It was necessary for the presiding officer over that debate to be present for that conversation,” he said. “It was good that I did, because this gave them a chance to express their dissatisfaction with me.”

That dissatisfaction, he said, stemmed from the parliamentary procedures used by the assembly that never allowed the majority report to be debated.

Whitaker and 11 other bishops met twice with gay rights advocates. It was a time, he said, for people to express their various perspectives and feelings.

The Rev. Debbie McLeod (center), a member of the Florida Conference delegation and superintendent of the conference’s South East District, prays amidst the sea of delegates and gay rights advocates calmly protesting the April 30 vote to retain the current language on homosexuality in The United Methodist Social Principles. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0839.

“It was an attempt to try and create an attitude of unity in the midst of difference,” the bishop said. “I think that there will be some ongoing conversations. I don’t think that I will be involved in that because I have other responsibilities.”

The protest held Thursday morning was pre-arranged and negotiated, the bishop said, to prevent a disruption of the conference business. Unlike previous General Conferences, no arrests were made.

“To have the conversation was an agreement to avoid persons making the protest violating our requirements that the protest end at the recess,” Whitaker said. “Some of them said that they weren’t going to abide by the agreement that it would happen only in the recess, that they would be arrested. In the course of trying to figure out how we could move through that, we had an agreement that 12 people from that group and 12 bishops would meet.”

Whitaker noted that the Council of Bishops — in effect, all the active and retired bishops in The United Methodist Church — is really on the spot.

“We did have an agreement within the Council that we would not impose on the body an interruption of their agenda without their permission,” he said.

The Council did discuss whether to seek the assembly’s permission, but decided doing so would put the conference in a bind, in effect forcing them to vote on the issue of homosexuality by voting on whether or not to go into recess to receive the protestors.

In the end, the Council invoked its authority to have the presiding bishop call a recess. Thus, the protest took place in the arena, but during a recess.

“The concern is that precedence has been set for allowing this,” Whitaker said. “What do you do when the next three groups appear in 2012 and want to put on a significant demonstration?

“Unfortunately, you can’t accommodate all of these advocacy groups. We kind of feel that we’ve backed ourselves in to a corner. But the reason we’ve done it is because we felt it was better for them to make a witness rather than make a scene and disrupt the conference.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.