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Petitions process could change for future General Conferences

10/23/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A sidebar, UMNS story #506, is available with this report.

A UMNS Report By J. Richard Peck*

The 2008 General Conference will receive fewer petitions if a proposal from the body planning that event is adopted.

Meeting Oct. 16-18 in Pittsburgh, the Commission on General Conference agreed to ask the 998-member assembly to end the practice of allowing individuals and local churches to directly petition the international legislative gathering.

If approved, all future efforts to change rules and standards of the denomination would first have to be submitted to an annual conference, a central conference (regional unit outside the United States), a jurisdictional conference (regional unit in the United States), the national youth organization or a general agency, council, commission or committee of the denomination. That process would begin with the 2008 conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

At the previous General Conference session in 2000, more than 12,000 groups and individuals filed nearly 2,000 different proposals (many of them identical). The commission wants to reduce that number in order to provide more time for delegates to work on petitions that have been carefully considered and refined by larger groups.

All petitions are first considered in one of 11 legislative committees before presentation to plenary sessions, and delegates traditionally have only four days to consider the proposals during the 10-day conference.

Members of the 16-member commission hope the proposed legislation will provide opportunities for more people to engage in discussions about changes in the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law, or the Book of Resolutions, the denomination's statements on social justice issues.

Gail Murphy-Geiss, a commission member from the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, reported that no other major denomination allows individuals to directly petition their respective legislative bodies.

Gary Bowen, business manager of General Conference, told United Methodist News Service that he is uncertain about when the denomination began allowing individuals to directly petition the assembly. He noted that the international gathering is composed of representatives from annual conferences and, as such, is a confederation of conferences.

"Although some have criticized this proposal as removing an individual's right to petition General Conference," said the Rev. James Perry, chairman of the commission, "United Methodist polity has always been representational in nature whether in the local church, annual conference or General Conference arena.

"Every petition of merit will not only be addressed by more people in the process, there is a greater chance that it will have been perfected along the way and thus have a better chance of passage by General Conference," he said.

"If you deal with fewer petitions, each one will receive more careful consideration," said Carolyn Marshall, secretary of the legislative assembly.

The planning group agreed to ask General Conference to assign a study of legislative processes to the commission during the 2005-08 period with the goal of reducing costs. The 2000 assembly cost $4.05 million, the 2004 gathering is expected to cost $4.84 million, and the projected cost of the 2008 meeting is $5.65 million.
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*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference, four-time editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and editor of the 2000 Book of Resolutions.

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