The big news at General Conference (which I was able to watch via the umc.org live stream) yesterday had to do with debating the standing rules of the Conference. If you have ever sat through a standing rules discussion/debate you know just how tedious this can be. This is an important part of parliamentary procedure where the body (the General Conference delegates) determine the rules that will govern their debate, deliberation, and decision making process. The debate tonight was VERY tedious, but also VERY important.
This year’s rules will allow an iPad at each table which will allow delegates to digitally raise their hand in order to make motions, speak/against motions, or raise points of order. The tricky part is that until the body adopts new standing rules, they are still operating under the current standing rules which were adopted in 2012. About half way through the debate about the standing rules (using the new devices) someone reminded the chair that the current standing rules call for using hand held placards, NOT electronic devices. The chair had to call a recess so that the delegates could grab dinner and so that they could distribute placards. There also seemed to be some technical problems with the iPads. Hopefully they will have that fixed by the morning.
A few motions were raised to either remove or defer consideration of some of the standing rules, ultimately all of the Standing Rules passed except for one, Standing Rule #44. This standing rule would allow certain legislation to be discussed in small groups instead of being dealt with in legislative committees as is typical. The hope for rule #44 is that some of the most sensitive, hot-button issues could be handled through a more personal discussion based format instead of the formal committee process. One of the challenges of Rule #44 is that it would require a small group to compile the discussions of all the groups and then put together written legislation that reflects the general understanding of the discussions.
I appreciate the desire and spirit of Standing Rule #44, however, I’m not sure it will work as intended. We’ve learned in recent years about the ability and inability of different kinds of groups to function effectively. Legislative groups, like the gathering of 864 General Conference delegates, don’t function well as adaptive groups. Effective adaptive groups meet often, meet regularly, and have a high degree of trust built over time. I’m afraid the level of time and trust needed for a process like Rule #44 to work isn’t possible in the two weeks that General Conference typically lasts. Furthermore, Rule #44 may give a small group of persons a great deal of influence over some of our most divisive issue. Even though any legislation coming from this process would still have to be voted upon by the whole body, circumventing the typical legislative process may prevent a full vetting of legislation.
Robert’s Rule of order is a terrible way to lead a church, but it is pretty effective at managing conflict and trying to ensure fairness. Unfortunately these are two things the United Methodist Church needs today: effective ways of managing conflict and ensuring fairness. Winston Churchill, quoting another great thinker, once said, “…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” I feel that way about how we run the United Methodist Church, it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others people have tried. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.