After doing my entering routine Friday morning, the last day of General Conference, I hit the plenary hoping to find the Korean alternate with whom I’d spoken the day before. I learned later that he had left early that morning so I was not able to follow up on something I’d meant to discuss with him. On my way down to find him, the following happened:
(Written 5/4 and submitted to UM-Insight but not published)
I arrived a little late this morning. As I walked along the edge of the bar with my red jacket and pulling my travel case looking for a friend, one of the delegates jumped up from his seat and came over to me.
"Aw, Jerry, I wish you'd have been here just ten minutes ago. I was all set to introduce you to the plenary," he said.
I gave him my traditional ethnic (Norwegian) response: "Oh?"
"Yeah," he said. "The petition limiting individual petitions was brought up. One delegate complained about there being two people from Florida who put in 91 petitions. And I was all set to introduce you as one of them."
I was honored! Imagine being a poster child for seeking to provide ideas to the legislative body known as the General Conference!
In 2008, a delegate who knew me well said, "If it weren't for you, Jerry, we'd have been out of here two days ago!"
I enjoy such moments of recognition, because of their good humor.
Those of us who petition individually do so because we love the church and because we have had the democratic privilege of doing so. Up until this morning, similar attempts to get rid of individual petitions in the past have been voted down. It was a great surprise to me that democracy lost out this time.
Okay, so what are the implications of this turn from our long-held open tradition?
First, there will be fewer petitions, you know, the short ones, the one what provide one idea to change one paragraph, as the rules provide. Delegates will still receive the monstrosities that are pages long from official bodies of the church which are complicated and supposedly comprehensive. The little ones usually don't get attention nor get adopted because they are crowded out by the ones from the "much more important people."
Second, petitions are the raw materials that are needed for the legislative process to produce something for the good of the church. So the only raw materials that will be allowed will be those which are vetted by conferences or agencies which do not always have the time or the expertise to realize what is before them.
In my home conference, they are accustomed to my offering petitions. Whether I provide a very few or a whole lot, what invariably happens is that a committee not trained in the intricacies of the legalities I'm trying to address urge non-concurrence. Since mine are not the only ones before the annual conference, the bishop opens the floor to their consideration. Mine are usually about fourteenth or fifteenth. By the time the discussions of the first ten have occurred, the time allotted for the petitions by the agenda committee has been used up.
There is no time for me to explain anything and no patience among the conference members to sit through what would sound arcane. Few of those present have been through the processes I'm trying to improve with my petitions. There is little existential interest, believe me!
There was always one thing that could be said when individuals' petitions were turned down by the conference, "You can always send them in as individuals." Not any more.
Third, petitions provide a variety of ways to help the legislative process. Instead of simply offering an alternative that could be substituted for what is in the Discipline, a petition can do other things.
One, they can be a venue for showing the inconsistency of a point of view (see petition 20582-FO-P304).
Two, they can sometimes point out a painful truth (see petition 20550-JA-P2701-G).
Three, they can offer a chance for a legislative committee to have a way to accomplish something they cannot initiate (see petition 20598-JA-Non Dis). In 1988 a similar petition opened the door for the legislative committee and ultimately the General Conference to set up a study commission, not on the subject of the original petition, but a significant amending of it. That led to Fair Process and a major change in the handling of troubled pastors.
As I've observed General Conferences from close up through petitioning, I've seen how the legislative committees have been manipulated to avoid dealing with an individual's petitions. I've seen the rules tightened to restrict ideas not coming from "the important people." If the rules had allowed for individuals to write comprehensive petitions in the same way agencies are allowed to, I would have turned in only about five petitions this year.
So now the rules are changed again to diminish democracy.
I always wondered how the early church with loose egalitarian affiliations turned into a hierarchy with a Pope. I never would have guessed that in my lifetime I'd get a chance to see how that could have happened.
Update: On October 29, 2013, Jim Allen, former General Counsel (top lawyer) for the General Council on Finance and Administration, responded to an inquiry from me. Despite the clear intention of the votes taken that I describe above, there was no change in the 2012 Discipline. Paragraph 507 still allows individual petitions. Here is what he thinks happened:
"1. The text that begins on page 2761 had to do with a GCFA report. Lonnie Chafin offered an amendment to GCFA Report 6 (p.2761) that they/we/someone needs to study the system and look at it again in 2016. Debbie McLeod insulted you as wasting the church’s time and money because you offered many petitions, and then she moved to add the language of petition 20318 to Lonnie’s amendment. Her amendment passed (p. 2762), then Lonnie’s amendment (with Debbie’s additional verbiage) passed (p. 2764), then Reports 4,5,6, 7, and 9 were passed as a group (p. 2764). So that language is in a GCFA Report, which is very different from becoming church law and being in the Discipline.
"2. It looks to me like the petition itself was one of the gazillion that was not on a consent calendar (possible because of the 1 voting against) and therefore never made it to the floor and was never voted upon. http://calms2012.umc.org/Menu.aspx?type=Calendar&mode=Single&number=514
"So, it ended up as wasted verbiage tacked onto the end of a report that will probably never be read again, outside of GCFA."
Democracy survives another four years.