This first full day (General Conference actually opened yesterday afternoon) of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference was greeted with a powerful call from Bishop Gregory Palmer not to surrender to our worst selves, but to be about the business of the church as stated in our Mission Statement. He reminded all those present and watching that we already have all we need: the promise of Christ’s presence as we go forth making disciples for the transformation of the world. He called out those who would dehumanize and banish from communion those with whom they disagree; he noted our current animosities are tearing the soul from the Church. His wasn’t a plea; his Word was a demand that we be the People Called Methodist for the 21st century.
After the Episcopal Address, most things would pale in comparison. When the morning plenary was called to order, after some other preliminary business was attended to, the Rules Committee once again brought forward Rule 44, a different discernment process in the midst of difficult and important matters, forcing people to face one another and speak honestly about the matters before the body. Only after a sense of the House has been determined would Roberts Rules be reinstated and proper consideration continue. This offers an opportunity for far more people to have their voices heard and considered than is allowed under standard Robert’s Rules.
After some back and forth over this, that, and the other thing, a motion to table Rule 44 was offered and passed by 8 votes. All the hullabaloo was over; despite the fact that, technically, a tabled motion could be brought forward, for all practical purposes tabling Rule 44 was done.
Then a gentleman from Europe stood and spoke for many who are not North Americans: They misunderstood what “to table” meant. In Europe, “to table” means “to discuss” rather than to remove from consideration until it might be brought forward again. He therefore asked for a reconsideration of the previous vote.
Now, Rule 44 is not the be-all and end-all of hope for something new to happen at General Conference. It is a procedural change that transfers power from a select few speakers and those who understand the intricacies of parliamentary procedure to any and all voices. It gathers people of diverse languages, cultures, local traditions, theological outlooks and makes them sit around a table and talk, face to face, openly and candidly. Some critics insist defenders of Rule 44 claim it is part of “holy conferencing” as John Wesley understood it. Except last evening’s presiding Bishop, Warner Brown, made clear Rule 44 is not and never has been considered “Holy Conferencing”. It is what it is, an opportunity for more voices to be heard, to move power to the whole body, to all voices, forced to face those with whom they might disagree and consider important matters before the whole body not as abstract pieces of legislation but as actions that will impact people around the world.
The chair ruled that, indeed, it was in order to vote to return consideration of Rule 44 was proper and in order. It passed by thirty votes.
This doesn’t mean Rule 44 is now in play. After being brought back for consideration, several amendments were offered that need to be addressed by the Rules Committee, and tomorrow morning the process begins again. There will be the opportunity to further amend – and therefore further delay – Rule 44. There will be a challenge to the chair’s ruling that Rule 44 needs to pass by a simple majority vote rather than a 2/3 majority; there will be a challenge to the chair’s actions recalling the Rule for consideration. And should it pass, Rule 44 can only be implemented with a majority vote of the whole body prior to its actual use. And Rule 44 hardly changes the world and universe and church as we know it.
What it does, however, is offer hope. By offering those who have not had a voice in previous years the opportunity to be heard by others; by offering the whole Body a sense of direction in which the body might yet move; by being different and new it offers a change from the way we have always done things; for these reasons alone, Rule 44 offers a chance not so much of change of outcome as change of process, the chance, perhaps, to face those with whom we disagree and see them, in the words of Bishop Palmer, as children of God. For this reason alone, taking Rule 44 off the table and offering it yet another chance for consideration might yet be that most difficult and invisible thing – a resurrection, a resurrection that brings hope, a resurrection that offers new life. That is, after all, what we preach, isn’t it? That Jesus rose from the dead, the first fruits of the New Creation, promising to take us with him?
Resurrection is the most implausible, impossible thing. Yet, just as will happen to us one day, Rule 44 was brought back to life, different indeed than it had been (but that, too, is part of our faith; it is part of St. Paul’s discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15), yet still bearing the marks of its prior life. Let us take this opportunity we have been given and embrace this moment of resurrection hope that we may yet do things differently than we have before in order that we may yet be more faithful than we have been before.