For nearly 200 years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have been viewed as the religious mirror of American society. The way the church governs itself bears out this image.
Just as the U.S. Congress makes laws that govern all American citizens, the General Conference makes the rules that govern The United Methodist Church. Decisions made by the General Conference affect every United Methodist, from the most senior bishop to the newest member in the pew. General Conference is the only church body empowered to speak on behalf of the entire denomination, and thus wields enormous (though not absolute) power over the fate of The United Methodist Church.
Section 2, Article 2 of the church's constitution provides that General Conference is to be composed of not less than 600 nor more than 1,000 delegates, half ordained clergy and half laypeople. Just as congressional representatives are elected from districts and states, delegates are chosen in open elections by regional bodies known as annual conferences. Delegates are elected during sessions held the year preceding the scheduled conclave.
Why Bother About This Body?
As with Americans' general ignorance of the hundreds of laws passed by the U.S. Congress, few rank-and-file church members pay much attention to the proceedings of General Conference except on certain hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality. What's more, most United Methodists would be hard pressed to say who the General Conference delegates from their region are, let alone contact them on matters of concern as many Americans now contact their federal representatives through websites.
Yet knowing the delegates from one's annual conference and their perspectives on various issues can be important to local congregations. That's because delegates determine the shape and function of United Methodism for the four years following each General Conference session. Pastors and lay leaders alike in each United Methodist congregation are bound by the rules that General Conference sets. These rules, along with the church's constitution and statements of faith, are contained in a document known as the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
Once again mirroring the U.S. Congress, General Conference's legislative work occurs in various committees, which review thousands of petitions and recommend them for action by the full body. Committees are organized according to the sections of the Book of Discipline that petitions would affect. For the 2012 session, there will be 13 legislative committees, plus the Standing Committee on Central Conferences, which deals with all petitions related to areas outside the United States. Petitions come from the committees to the full body of General Conference, which then votes them up or down.
The 2012 General Conference will have 988 delegates. For the first time, nearly 40 percent of the legislative body will be composed of delegates from outside U.S. boundaries, evidence of both the growth of the church in the Global South and its decline in the United States. Central Conferences will have 372 delegates, up 96 from the 2008 assembly and up 186 from the gathering in 2004.
Two hundred eighty-two of the Central Conference delegates will be from Africa, up 90 from 2008. The 24 annual conferences in the Philippines will have 48 delegates. An additional 10 delegates will come from international churches with which the denomination has a special covenant relationship: four from Great Britain and two each from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Caribbean and the Americas.
What Can General Conference Do?
When they gather, delegates to the 2012 General Conference will have authority to act on all church aspects outlined in the following excerpt from the 2008 Book of Discipline:
¶ Article IV.—The General Conference shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional, and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows:
1. To define and fix the conditions, privileges, and duties of Church membership, which shall in every case be without reference to race or status.
2. To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.
3. To define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences, provisional annual conferences, missionary conferences and missions, and of central conferences, district conferences, charge conferences, and congregational meetings.
4. To provide for the organization, promotion, and administration of the work of the Church outside the United States of America.
5. To define and fix the powers, duties, and privileges of the episcopacy, to adopt a plan for the support of the bishops, to provide a uniform rule for their retirement, and to provide for the discontinuance of a bishop because of inefficiency or unacceptability.
6. To provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship, subject to the limitations of the first and second Restrictive Rules.
7. To provide a judicial system and a method of judicial procedure for the Church, except as herein otherwise prescribed.
8. To initiate and to direct all connectional enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.
9. To determine and provide for raising and distributing funds necessary to carry on the work of the Church.
10. To fix a uniform basis upon which bishops shall be elected by the jurisdictional conferences and to determine the number of bishops that may be elected by central conferences.
11. To select its presiding officers from the bishops, through a committee, provided that the bishops shall select from their own number the presiding officer of the opening session.
12. To change the number and the boundaries of jurisdictional conferences upon the consent of a majority of the annual conferences in each jurisdictional conference involved.
13. To establish such commissions for the general work of the Church as may be deemed advisable.
14. To secure the rights and privileges of membership in all agencies, programs, and institutions in The United Methodist Church regardless of race or status.
15. To allow the annual conferences to utilize structures unique to their mission, other mandated structures notwithstanding.
16. To enact such other legislation as may be necessary, subject to the limitations and restrictions of the Constitution of the Church.
What Can't General Conference Do?
As mentioned previously, General Conference doesn't have absolute power. The Judicial Council can review any General Conference decision and strike it down if found to violate the church's constitution.
In particular, General Conference decisions are constrained by what's known as the Restrictive Rules. According to the Book of Discipline, these are:
¶ 17. Article I.—The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.
¶ 18. Article II.—The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Confession of Faith.
¶ 19. Article III.—The General Conference shall not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.
¶ 20. Article IV.—The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal; neither shall it do away with the privileges of our members of right to trial before the church, or by a committee, and of an appeal.
¶ 21. Article V.—The General Conference shall not revoke or change the General Rules of Our United Societies.
¶ 22. Article VI.—The General Conference shall not appropriate the net income of the publishing houses, the book concerns, or the Chartered Fund to any purpose other than for the benefit of retired or disabled preachers, their spouses, widows, or widowers, and children or other beneficiaries of the ministerial pension systems.
Clearly, paying attention to what happens at the 2012 General Conference can be important to anyone concerned with the future of The United Methodist Church.
Cynthia B. Astle is project coordinator for United Methodist Insight.