Delegates to the 2019 General Conference on Sunday established the order in which they want their Legislative Committee to take up plans and petitions addressing parts of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church involving human sexuality.
That committee, whose membership includes all of the delegates, got started Sunday on the heavy lifting work of considering 23 legislative packages – some of which are standalone petitions, while others bundle more than one petition.
After delegates adjourned as the General Conference and immediately reconvened as the Legislative Committee, they approved two petitions that deal with how pension liabilities of churches and accrued benefits of clergy would be handled in the event of departure from the UMC.
The remaining petitions will be taken up in Monday’s session of the Legislative Committee, starting with the Traditional Plan.
South Carolina delegates said observers should resist the temptation to read too much into Sunday’s prioritization votes.
“All of the legislation will be considered by the Legislative Committee, it’s just a matter of when,” said the Rev. Ken Nelson. “There could be some substitutions and change in legislation – that’s up to the body – but all that is before us will be considered one way or the other.”
Bishop L. Jonathan Holston appreciated the work accomplished by the delegates on Sunday
“We have to prioritize our work to be able to do it well,” said Bishop Holston, who, like all bishops, will not vote on the legislation at any level.
“We had a great morning, just being able to worship and to share together. We had a rousing sermon from Bishop Ken Carter, the president of the Council of Bishops, who reminded us that we all have a story, and that our story is not the only story, and that God has a story, too, and that we are part of something greater than ourselves.”
On the whole, South Carolina delegates remained upbeat about the work of the General Conference, in spite of the divisive nature of the issue they are in St. Louis, Missouri, to resolve.
“Today, you got the sense that people are going to engage, that this is an important matter to the delegates that are here and the people back home,” said Rev. Nelson, who is also the S.C. conference secretary, “so they are willing to engage in ways that are authentic, which means there will be a lot of energy in the room.
“But in the midst of that, having been undergirded by prayer, we’re figuring out the best way to treat each other like the body of Christ. So there will be some challenges ahead of us, but I think we’ll be able to move the legislation forward and do what we came to do.”
The Rev. Mel Arant, pastor of Pendleton United Methodist Church, said he was moved by how the Commission on a Way Forward presented its report to delegates on Sunday.
“They took their time explaining their process, explaining their history,” Rev. Arant said. “They made sure every part of the church knew that they had a voice at the table and that the table heard what their concerns were.”
Looking ahead to Monday, delegates are hopeful the debate won’t devolve into angry confrontation, as it did at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, and the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida.
“Everybody is being very cordial, and if we keep that attitude – no matter how we come out of here – I think we’re going to be fine,” said lay delegate Herman Lightsey. “Saturday’s Day of Prayer centered everybody, I’m hoping we’ll come out of here with a decision, and the church can move on.”
Rev. Arant said Monday’s debate will be “one of the biggest conversations we’ll have.”
“It will be where most of our divisions lie, and I expect it to be very emotional,” he said. “I expect expect everyone will debate and remember that we are all brothers and sisters and honor each other and respect each other. We will sense how deeply people feel about this on both sides pf the issue.
“I would remind everyone to stay faithful, to remember that God is in control and there’s nothing we can do that God can’t fix, so just trust God. The whole world is watching us, and I have every bit of confidence the United Methodist Church will step up and show the world what it means to be Christians.”
Bishop Holston asked all South Carolinians – those in St. Louis and those back home – to continue to pray for conference delegates and the church’s future.
“Know that what we do here is important to not just who we are in South Carolina, but to the church that we are a part of globally,” Bishop Holston said. “I want you to keep praying and know that God is with us every step of the way. Stay encouraged and be empowered, knowing that our Lord is with us each and every day.”