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The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a clergy delegate from the West Zimbabwe annual conference, speaks to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore., on May 11. Matonga spoke in opposition to proposed Rule 44, which would allow small discussion groups to be used to handle sensitive themes. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a clergy delegate from the West Zimbabwe annual conference, speaks to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore., on May 11. Matonga spoke in opposition to proposed Rule 44, which would allow small discussion groups to be used to handle sensitive themes.

The Rev. Joy Barrett, a clergy delegate from the Detroit Conference, speaks on May 10 to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore.  Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

The Rev. Joy Barrett, a clergy delegate from the Detroit Conference, speaks on May 10 to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore.

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At GC2016, Rule 44 still a question mark

UPDATES with Rule 44 still a question
By Heather Hahn

May 11, 2016 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

Whether General Conference delegates adopt a new way of dealing with tough issues remains to be seen.

For a second time, a vote on the much-debated Rule 44 — a proposed Group Discernment Process — has been deferred a day.

The delay this time is to allow the lawmaking assembly’s Rules Committee to make recommendations regarding five amendments that came from the floor.

The Rules Committee met the evening of May 11. The committee is set to bring its recommendations back to the delegates as part of its report May 12.

Behind this seemingly arcane procedural debate is concern about how United Methodists discuss what many consider the most contentious issue before the multinational church: How it should minister with gay and lesbian individuals

“I urge concurrence with Rule 44 that we might have access to ways to speak with one another and not just talk about how to do church, but be the church,” said the Rev. Mary Huycke, a delegate from the Pacific Northwest Conference.

Simon Mafunda, delegate from the East Zimbabwe Conference, offered a different view. He noted that thousands of United Methodists — far more than just the 864 delegates — already have weighed in on various petitions. He saw no reason to use a new way of making decisions.

“The fairest thing to me is for all issues to be dealt with by this room in this plenary,” he said.

What the fuss is about

Each General Conference usually has some wrangling regarding how it orders its business. But the rules debate this time has been an unusually lengthy process, according to multiple longtime General Conference observers.

Much of the conversation has centered on Rule 44, so called because it is the last of the 44 rules that the Commission on General Conference recommended. Ironically, a proposed process that the commission hoped might foster more trust among delegates  faces a great deal of distrust. 

The rule received significant pushback long before the big meeting opened May 10. (The proposal is available online as part of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, pages 93-95.)

Rule 44 outlines a new procedure the commission recommends for dealing with any group of particularly complicated or contentious pieces of legislation. The procedure first uses small groups to discuss the legislation and then a Facilitation Group to try to synthesize the small groups’ recommendations. The Facilitation Group’s work then goes back to the whole body for debate.

The commission has set aside a slate of 56 pieces of legislation dealing with sexuality that could be considered under the rule at this gathering.

If delegates adopt Rule 44, they still will need to take a second vote on whether they want to use it for any legislation in 2016 or wait to use it at a future General Conference.

At one point during the May 11 morning plenary, delegates voted narrowly to table discussion of the rule — and then only minutes later voted to un-table it.

The confusing set of votes points to another challenge faced by the multinational denomination. In some parts of the world, "to table" something means to bring it up for discussion, while in the United States and other parts of the world, the idiom has the exact opposite meaning. 

Judi M. Kenaston, the chair of the Commission on General Conference, said she thinks many in the body remain confused about the connection between Rule 44 and human sexuality.

“Rule 44’s passage does not require we use it at this General Conference,” she said. And it is not intended solely for discussions of human sexuality.

The Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of the General Conference, at earlier meetings has suggested the process might be used with some complex legislation already being planned for the 2020 General Conference.

The proposed amendments

Nevertheless, two of the amendments going before the Rules Committee make the point that any demographic affected by the legislation (Read: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals) should have representation in monitoring discussion and serving on the Facilitation Group.

Dorothee Benz, a delegate for the New York Conference, offered another  amendment to prevent personal information shared in a small group from being used “to disparage or bring complaints or charges against other members of the group.”

Under church law, approved by previous General Conference gatherings, it is a chargeable offense for clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings or to be “self-avowed practicing” gay individuals.

The six-member Rules Committee turned down all five amendments when it met, including these three in part because they dealt with a proposed slate of legislation rather than the process outlned in Rule 44. Committee members also noted that any legislation considered under the rule had the potential to affect all United Methodist, not just a certain demographic. 

The committee also turned down an amendment that would have replaced the entire rule with a simple call to treat fellow United Methodists with respect. Likewise, the committee did not accept the exact wording of an amendment that called for "viewing area" for the Facilitation Group's work.

However, the committee did decide to clarify that the entire process is to be open, in the spirit of  the denomination's open-meetings law found in Paragraph 722 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

How many votes required?

Just how many votes are needed for Rule 44’s adoption remains unclear. General Conference typically adopts rules by a simple majority vote, but a higher threshold of a two-thirds vote is needed for any amendments to the rules.

Whether the decision on Rule 44 counts as part of the normal rule-adoption process or counts as an amendment to rules adopted on May 10 will be up to the presiding officer to decide, Kenaston said.

The role of presiding officer rotates among the active bishops. In less than two days of plenaries, delegates already have seen presiding officers reverse decisions more than once. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who leads the North Carolina Conference, is set to be the next presiding officer.

Late May 10, delegates adopted all but one rule recommended by the commission that plans The United Methodist Church’s legislative gathering. The vote was 518 to 258.

The new rules include:

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.