Worldwide assembly will address variety of issues over 9 days
From Staff and Wire Reports
After several hours of meetings and working their way through at least part of a mountain of paper, Mississippi Conference delegates are just about ready for the 2008 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.
The conference runs April 23-May 2 at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Some 992 delegates from around the world will gather at the event, held once every four years.
In addition to meeting to go over procedural matters, delegates must prepare to examine more than 1,500 petitions. Experienced delegates say it takes physical and spiritual preparation.
"I have been praying daily for the Lord to lead me in how he wants me to act and vote at General Conference," said Turner Arant of Sunflower, the Mississippi Conference delegation leader. "I have asked many of my Christian friends to pray for me that I will receive a clear direction from the Holy Spirit on how to act and vote at General Conference."
Clergy delegate the Rev. Ginger Holland of Pontotoc said she's increased her Bible study in preparation.
"I have taken extended periods of quiet time to listen to the Lord. I have read much more Scripture than I usually do," Holland said. "I have been meditating longer on the Scripture. I have been singing a lot! I have been praying especially for those that I may disagree with. I have been praying for a compassionate spirit as well as boldness to stand for truth."
In addition, Arant has been trying to learn as much as he can about the many petitions.
"I have studied the petitions thoroughly that have been assigned to Church and Society No. 2 Legislative Committee of which I am a member," Arant said. "I have talked to other members of the committee about their feeling and understandings of the petitions in (our committee). I have studied many of the petitions in the other 12 Legislative Committees that maybe controversial in our church. It is impossible to remember all petitions that go to all 13 Legislative Committees."
Delegates received a 157-page Handbook for Delegates, which includes the proposed plan of organization and rules of order for the assembly and a listing of delegates and committee assignments. They also received the hefty two-volume Advance DCA, which includes reports from churchwide agencies and proposed legislation. The page count is 1,560, up from 1,411 in 2004 when the last assembly was held.
In addition to those official publications, delegates often receive dozens of books, position papers and videos from interest groups hoping to gain support for their causes.
Holland said she starts her study time with prayer.
"I pray before I read any of the mountain of letters that come in daily, the petitions sent in the Daily Christian Advocate and the DVDs that come. I ask the Holy Spirit to give me discernment and understanding as I read each one, especially with things that disturb my spirit, I pray for the people involved with sending the materials," she said. "I go to various sources to understand issues which may be controversial. I try to be as well prepared as possible on all issues."
Several petitions are expected to spark debate, but Holland said the conference really revolves around one key issue.
"All of the hot button issues, homosexuality, transgenderism, abortion, divesting Caterpillar stock because of the Middle East crisis, etc. are not the central issue," she said. "We must decide if we will follow hard after God and his word. If we will, these questions will be answered – it will be clear that all sins can be forgiven when there is repentance. God will hear us, extend grace, bless us and the young will be drawn once again to our churches. There can be freedom and joy in our churches, but only if we preach truth. If we do not choose to follow the Scriptures as final authority, we will encounter judgment."
While voting in both legislative committees and in plenary sessions are the primary focus of the gathering, other events take place. Worship opens each day's events, and some special worship services are held during the nine-day event. In addition, special addresses are given, including the Laity Address, the Episcopal Address and, for the first time ever, a Youth presentation. While some business will be conducted on April 27, an evening reception and program will take place that night with no legislative work scheduled.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the Mississippi Area will lead the worship at 8 a.m. May 2, the meeting's final day.
One of the most discussed issues of the conference is expected to be a plan that would change the structure of the denomination. The plan seeks to acknowledge the fact that the church is growing outside of the United States and that 30 percent of United Methodist members now live outside the United States.
Proponents say the structural changes would make the church more effective and equitably organized for worldwide ministry. Opponents say the changes may actually serve to fragment the denomination into national entities, among other things.
A task force examining the issue has proposed four substantive changes to the denomination's constitution in an effort to make regional and jurisdictional structures similar worldwide. Task force members say the current structure gives the U.S. church too much influence and marginalizes United Methodists in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The constitutional changes would pave the way so that legislation could be proposed to the 2012 assembly that would eliminate U.S. concerns from General Conference. Those concerns instead would become the business of a U.S. regional conference.
Specifically, the legislation would make the church's five jurisdictions in the United States a regional body, similar to the church's central conferences that currently exist outside of the United States.
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote of General Conference delegates and must be ratified by two-thirds of the aggregate annual conference voting members.
Homosexuality – the issue that seems to grab most of the headlines – received the highest number of petitions, a total of 942. Petitions from 616 groups or individuals ask General Conference to make no change in the existing statements on homosexuality within the church's Social Principles. That statement declares homosexuals to be "individuals of sacred worth," but declares the practice of homosexuality to be "incompatible with Christian teaching."