Following past conferences of heated debates and protests, delegates from the largest mainline denomination open their quadrennial meeting today in Fort Worth, Texas, with a commitment to civil and "holy conferencing."
Concerns that the United Methodist General Conference, the highest governing body of the 8 million-member denomination, has resembled the conduct by secular political bodies rather than that by a faith-focused group has led to a call for a change in the tone of conversation and debate.
"In much of the Western world, results are measured in terms of winners and losers," said Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who leads the Houston Area and is president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, according to the United Methodist News Service. "Holy Conferencing does not work that way. It focuses on discerning where God is leading us. It focuses on prayer, rational and respectful conversation, and a belief that with God, all things are possible."
She released a set a guidelines, including "always speak respectfully" and "be open to the possibility that God can change the views of any or all parties in the discussion," for delegates to follow during the 10-day legislative meeting.
Some are optimistic the 2008 meeting will be calmer.
"I think this General Conference could be the beginning of a more positive and constructive future for the United Methodist Church," Bishop Timothy Whitaker, who presides over the Florida Conference – the second largest United Methodist province in the United States – told The Ledger.
The call for respect and calm debates comes as the nearly 1,000 lay and clergy delegates are expected to vote on highly contentious issues such as homosexuality as well as revisions that will significantly restructure the United Methodist body.
The General Conference is the only body that can change church policy and United Methodist Church members are allowed to petition to change the policies. This year, about 1,600 petitions are being placed before the conference.
While another heated debate on whether the denomination should change its official position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and withdraw its ban on noncelibate gay pastors is expected, some predict there will be no changes on the church's position on homosexuality.
"The majority of Methodists wish we could put it to rest," said the Rev. Mouzon Biggs of the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, who has been a clergy delegate to the convention seven times, according to Tulsa World newspaper.
Other issues that will be on the table include divestment from Israel and the relationship between the U.S. body of the global United Methodist Church and the international churches.
Delegates are set to vote on constitutional revisions that would place American churches into their own national body, as reported by Christianity Today.
Some overseas church leaders have complained that the general conference too often deals with matters irrelevant to churches abroad, said Bishop Scott Jones of Kansas who recommended the move. Delegates to the general conference are mainly from the United States but also include 285 overseas delegates, up from 180 when the general conference last met four years ago.
The restructuring, however, has raised concerns among conservatives who say the change would allow the American United Methodist body to take liberal actions.
"The only hope for the liberal side of the church is to separate the U.S. church from the international," said Mark Tooley, director of United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, according to Christianity Today. "Otherwise the votes are not there for them. The overseas church is theologically conservative."
James Heidinger, president and publisher of Good News, a conservative United Methodist magazine, opposes the move but doesn't believe the proposed change is a ploy to get around the input of overseas conferences.
Heidinger does, however, see the need for the denomination to takes steps to reflect the United Methodist Church's global identity.
Nearly 8 million United Methodists are in the United States and another 3.5 million are overseas. But U.S. membership has been shrinking over the past decades while membership outside the U.S., particularly in Africa, has more than tripled.