Monday, May 7, 2012

There's a Lesson Here

Since I spent a good chunk of the last two weeks following the United Methodist Church General Conference online, through live streaming, twitter and blog posts, I have a lot I would like to blog about. The problem is, to have any of it make sense, I have to post a lot of background information to get people up to speed, and I don’t know how to make that information interesting.

That’s a shame, too, because the way the conference ended was quite dramatic. I know it wasn’t really funny, but it took me a few days to stop laughing. (Paging Dr. Schadenfreude!) One of the big items on the table at the conference was a revision of the church structure. A plan for revision was submitted by an agency of the church, the Connectional Table, via petition and included in the advance documents available to the delegates. 

Okay, the boring background stuff: Proposed and pending legislation at General Conference are called “petitions”. They’re like bills in Congress. Petitions must be presented before the start of the conference. The only way to introduce a new petition during the conference is as an amendment to another one. Petitions are first considered in committees. Those passed out of committee are considered in plenary sessions, usually as part of a bundle of similar petitions known as consent calendar items, but individual petitions can be placed on the calendar for discussion. Minority reports from committees can be brought up before the conference with a petition of at least twenty signatures.

The committee considering the item was ultimately presented with three plans, none of which made it out of committee. A group of people concerned about the possibility of failing to pass a plan at all came up with a new compromise plan, Plan UMC.  At that point, the only way to introduce this new plan was to obtain enough signatures on a petition to present the original plan before the general body, then introduce Plan UMC as an amendment. 

One of the outcomes of Plan UMC, carried over from the original plan CT/IOT, would be to combine the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) and General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) into one Committee on Inclusion, serving under the newly created General Council for Strategy and Oversight. That meant the new committee would have to report to the agency it was in charge of monitoring. There was a lot of spirited argument against that outcome, but plan UMC passed on May 1 by a large majority.

Then on the last afternoon of the conference, three days later, the UMC Judicial Committee, in a unanimous vote, declared the whole plan in violation of the church constitution. Their actual words were “unconstitutional and unsalvageable”. Since the newly passed budget was based on Plan UMC, the decision created an uproar. Eventually a set of existing petitions streamlining the boards and commissions that would have been eliminated under the new plan were brought before the conference and passed, which kept the budget total where it had been. Sigh of relief.

So now the General Conference is over with very little to show for it, and the Methodist blogverse is alive with convention summaries, all filled with finger pointing at the other guys and lessons that should be learned from the whole debacle.

Only nobody is actually learning any lessons. As far as I can tell, each blogger’s takeaway from the whole fiasco is pretty much in line with what that blogger thought to begin with. I can’t claim to have read every blog, of course, but I have yet to see one along the lines of, “This whole episode has taught me I was wrong about _________”, unless maybe in the form of “This whole episode taught me I was wrong to think it was possible to work with those other guys”. (Not a direct quote)

I don’t think this reaction is peculiar to Methodists. I can also lump myself in with that group of people who thinks somebody who is not me should have learned a lesson from our shared experiences.  So, of all the lessons that I think can be learned from this situation, the one I take away from it is that we haven’t learned a thing.

And by “we” I mean “they”.

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