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Women bishops pray over Bishop Hope Morgan Ward during a recess in the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Ward presided over an emotional debate on proposed Rule 44, which would place deliberations over sensitive issues into small discussion groups. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

Women bishops pray over Bishop Hope Morgan Ward during a recess in the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Ward presided over an emotional debate on proposed Rule 44, which would place deliberations over sensitive issues into small discussion groups.

GC2016 delegates say no to Rule 44

By Heather Hahn
May 12, 2016 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

After a roller coaster of “will-they-or-won’t-they” episodes usually reserved for love interests in sitcoms, delegates finally decided their relationship with Rule 44: They won’t. 

Over the past three days, the United Methodist General Conference also has offered a live demonstration of just how difficult following its rules of order can be.

The final tally on the much-debated Rule 44 — a proposed Group Discernment Process — was 355 “yes” and 477 “no.”

The Commission on General Conference recommended Rule 44 at the request of the 2012 General Conference, which sought an alternative process to Robert’s Rules of Order for dealing with particularly complicated and contentious legislation.

The commission’s aim was to use small groups to give all delegates a chance to weigh in on selected petitions.

 

 

 

Last year the commission, in announcing its outline for the proposal, also announced it would recommend setting aside legislation related to human sexuality for possible consideration using the new process.The proposal became known as Rule 44 simply because it was the last of 44 rules the commission proposed for conference business. General Conference delegates approved the first 43 rules, after their own ups and downs, late on May 10.

Thus, an arcane procedural debate became, for many United Methodists, mainly about long-simmering differences regarding ministry with gay and lesbian individuals. A new rule aimed at fostering trust among church decision-makers ended up facing considerable distrust and pushback.

Judi Kenaston, the commission’s chair, on May 12 reminded the delegates that Rule 44 was a process separate from any slate of legislation.

“I ask you not to vote against Rule 44 because you don’t want to use it with the legislation that’s proposed,” she told those assembled. “This is the time to approve a tool for our General Conference process.”

In the end, her speech was to no avail. Delegates showed they just weren’t that into Rule 44.

However, even getting to that simple up-or-down vote took the delegates most of their morning.

In fact the conversation grew so convoluted that Margie Briggs — a delegate from the Missouri Conference — asked for prayer, saying "I believe we're confusing God at this point."

Majority or two-thirds vote?

The first question delegates faced was just how many votes the rule needed to win approval.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who leads the North Carolina Conference, served as the plenary’s presiding officer (a role that rotates among active bishops). She opened discussion of the proposal with the announcement that she believed the rule only needed a majority — that is, more than 50 percent — to pass.

 

 

“In studying the rules, praying over this, consulting with others and thinking this through, it seems to me that the way to best move forward is to consider Rule 44 as part f the rules for the conference,” she said. “It is not an amendment to the rules. It was separated from the rules to be considered later.”

Immediately, the Rev. Kyle “Ed” Tomlinson — a delegate from the North Georgia Conference — appealed Ward’s ruling. He argued that the rule should count as an amendment and thus under General Conference’s previously approved Rule 42, it needed a two-thirds vote.

By a narrow vote, the delegates agreed with Tomlinson.

It was just a small indication of the lengthy discussion to come, among a multinational body beset by language differences, confusion about parliamentary procedure and distrust of the new electronic queuing system presiding officers use to identify potential speakers.

At one point, the Rev. Eric Park of the Western Pennsylvania Conference asked General Conference to abandon the new queuing system and return to the color-coded cards delegates used to request to speak at previous General Conference gatherings. That proposed rule amendment failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote.

Vote against referral

Delegates also, by a vote of 597 to 234, denied a motion to refer Rule 44 back to the commission to improve it for use by the 2020 General Conference.

Support for that motion came at least in part from United Methodists who were nominated to help lead the process in Rule 44.

“I want us to be ready, but we’re not,” said Pat Luna of Alabama-West Florida Conference, one of those delegates. “If we have any chance of Rule 44 working, we’re going to need to dot every i and cross every t, and quite frankly we don’t know where the i’s and t’s are yet.”

Ultimately, delegates also heard two speeches each in favor and against the proposed rule.

Jill Wondel, a delegate from the Missouri Conference, said the commission faithfully sacrificed time and effort to develop the rule.

“Change is hard and change is uncertain and change is scary,” she said. “It’s easy for us to vote ‘no.’ … But God does not give us a spirit of fear.”

The Rev. Jerry Kulah, a delegate of the Liberia Conference, said he objected because no annual conferences in the central conferences (church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe) had ever used such a process. He also objected because he felt it didn’t offer enough space for expressing disagreement.

“You have a few people who will be deciding for us,” said Kulah, who was a nominee for the Facilitation Group that would have tried to synthesize the small groups' work. “I believe the Bible remains our final authority for faith and practice. As I read through the rule, I see no place where the Bible is mentioned.”

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