In researching background material for his episcopal address to the 2012 General Conference, Bishop Peter Weaver discovered a letter was sent to Methodist churches following the 1812 General Conference.
The letter–– to be read in local congregations––was signed by Bishop Francis Asbury, Bishop William McKendree, and Daniel Hitt, secretary of the 1812 General Conference.
Since this was the 200th anniversary of the first episcopal address, Bishop Weaver thought it would be appropriate to follow Asbury’s example and send a letter from the 2012 General Conference to United Methodist congregations around the world.
The Council of Bishops enthusiastically supported the idea.
The letter would be read May 4, the final evening of General Conference. Delegates would vote to send it to the churches or vote not to send it. The assembly would not be allowed to become a 988-member editing team.
The Agenda and Calendar Committee added the letter as the last agenda item on the May 4 session.
I was honored to be asked by United Methodist Communications to serve on the writing team.
Bishop Weaver and I were asked to prepare a first draft that would then be edited by Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops; Randall Miller, chair of Commission on the General Conference; Scott Johnson, president of the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders; and the Rev. Fitzgerald Reist, secretary of General Conference.
Bishop Weaver and I prepared a draft and e-mailed it to committee members.
As a result of several suggestions, I took three versions to a final May 3 meeting of the group. They selected one version and made several last-minute edits. Since Steve Furr was newly elected president of the lay leaders, Johnson suggested that his name be replaced with Furr’s.
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner entered suggested changes in her copy of the document, and she was prepared to read the letter for consideration by the full assembly.
A news release was prepared to accompany the letter, and the letter was translated into five languages. United Methodist Communications was prepared to post the information on the General Conference website.
After the Judicial Council issued its ruling and the agenda was revised, Bishop Wenner and the committee agreed the conference was not in the mood to send a letter to their home churches.
One of the concluding sentences of the letter read: “As we leave Tampa under the guidance of the risen Christ, we pray that when we meet again in Portland in 2016, the structures we have established, the principles we have adopted and the way in which we have ordered our ministries will serve God and the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
That sentence might have been celebrated prior to the Judicial Council ruling, but it seemed inappropriate when no new structure was created. Bishop Wenner may later revise and release the letter, but since delegates have returned to their homes, it can no longer be considered a letter from the General Conference.
I am disappointed.
I loved Bishop Weaver’s inspiration to repeat the 200-year-old practice of reading a letter from the General Conference to church members. It could have been healing and unifying to celebrate the accomplishments especially as they relate to the four areas of focus, but I agree with Bishop Wenner and the committee, the reading would have seemed out of place following the chaotic conclusion to the 2012 conference.
Perhaps the 2016 General Conference can renew the what-will-then-be the 204-year-old practice.
The Rev. Rich Peck is a veteran United Methodist communicator who has attended 12 General Conferences while working for the United Methodist Publishing House and United Methodist Communications. He was named to the unity letter drafting committee by United Methodist News Service.