I’m no expert on the United Methodist Church but I do know the UMC’s General Conference is happening in Tampa this week and next so I spent some time on its web site this morning learning about what is going on. Given that we share an interim ecumenical agreement with the UMC and we’re both mainline denominations in the United States, I figure Episcopalians have something to learn from what is going on.
As I understand it—and my advance apologies for being a neophyte on much of this—some of the following issues are under discussion:
- There’s a proposal to make the head of the UMC Council of Bishops a full-time position, much like (it seems to me) the Episcopal Presiding Bishop gives up her previous jurisdiction to take the role. The bishops just approved that idea. It’s unclear what the Conference will do. At least some Episcopalians are, I’ve read recently, urging a return to our old model, in which our Presiding Bishop kept a local jurisdiction in addition to the larger responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Council of Bishops has agreed it will only be meeting once a year. Some Episcopalians have suggested something similar for our own House of Bishops.
- Bishops have a much different role in UMC governance than in The Episcopal Church (as the name of our church alone should tell us). I love this line from an article about a speech by the outgoing president of the bishops: “Bishops do not get a vote at General Conference, and they cannot address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. Goodpaster acknowledged the bishops’ common lament that they often have nothing to do at General Conference ‘but sit around like wilting potted plants.'” Can you imagine that being said at a General Convention? Me neither.
- Meanwhile, there are “huge” proposals for restructuring on the table. We Episcopalians have been doing restructuring by emergency budget for the last several years, cutting programs left and right because there’s no money to fund them. The UMC, it seems, has taken a more systematic approach to the topic and will be voting on those proposals at this General Conference. (You can read about the original proposal from this article from 18-months ago. The recent letter from the UMC bishops is also helpful.)
- The UMC is looking at how it trains its future clergy, including doing away with the promise of job for all ordained clergy. I get the sense that many Episcopal dioceses around the country are having significant conversations about the future of ordained ministry. This doesn’t seem to have risen to the national level, however.
- And, of course, issues related to homosexuality in church are on the agenda, attracting some of the most attention outside the church.
Any other issues you see as being significant and relevant to Episcopalians that Methodists will be considering at this conference?
One interesting note is the global nature of the UMC and the way jurisdictions in other parts of the world are equal members of the church. This is a conversation for another time but it’s a contrast to our Anglican practice of raising up autocephalous churches.
Also, the General Conference web site is much better than that of General Convention. They’ve got podcasts and everything! If you tune into the live stream at the right time, you just might get to see Yale’s favourite Methodist musician, Mark Miller, leading worship.