by Chris Ritter
After three posts on the topic, I thought I had said everything I wanted about Rule #44, the new Group Discernment Process proposed by the Commission on the General Conference for next month’s quadrennial global gathering of United Methodists. After reading a thought-provoking blog by Professor Ted Campbell that asked, “Do Extroverts Dominate General Conference?”, I feel I need to offer one further point.
Professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology, Dr. Campbell expressed concern that a hegemonic “extrovert paradigm” is playing out in the church just as it has in secular politics. Quieter voices tend to go unheard. He hopes that more introverted people will be heard in Portland next month and not just “the loud mouths.”
The Group Discernment Process, it seems to me, is ideally suited to disenfranchise introverts. After all, we are now doing something more akin to recording comments than counting votes. Scribes in each small group will faithfully capture the remarks that people make in each group, but they cannot record silence. The facilitation team will be using data sheets collected from each group to craft legislation. One would hope that group leaders would seek to draw out comments from the reluctant. But it is not difficult to see that each comment made will be recorded as a “vote” of sorts, and the loud-mouths will get most of them.
It is not just the introverts who could be disenfranchised by Rule #44. Think also of the central conference delegates, a group that the Commission says should be helped by the new process. I try to consider my friends from Africa and how they experience General Conference. Imagine travelling to the other side the globe where the customs, language, and traditions are very different from your own. For some African delegates, Portland is probably one of the most culturally dissimilar places you could visit. Is it unfair to say that some delegates may feel like they are visiting another planet?
African delegates pore over hundreds of pages of legislation that comes mostly from ministry contexts foreign to their own. There are many pages of guidelines giving rules for conversation that are different from the customs used in their home conferences. Past comments by outspoken African delegates at General Conference (particularly on the subject of homosexuality) have been met with disapproving grumbles from the otherwise open-minded. Add to this the fact that everything spoken to and from many central conference delegates must pass through translators.
When placed in a foreign environment, the human tendency is often to become rather reserved and cautious. Rather than risk saying something inappropriate or offensive, central conference delegates might tend to remain quiet and listen to make informed votes later. In the traditional legislative committees, those who choose to simply listen still retain the power of vote. Remaining silent during the Group Discernment Process, however, neutralizes ones ability to influence what will come to the floor of General Conference for final decision-making.
Beyond the loquacious getting the most ink on the small group reporting sheet, those with rhetorical acumen will have the potential to turn the tide of a small group conversation. A compelling or absolutist comment early in the small group discussion might serve to shut down those of differing opinions. The power of personality will have never been more profound than at General Conference 2016.
Rule #44 was obviously developed in good faith by the Commission on the General Conference in response to specific requests to bring an alternative process for discernment. They sincerely believe that Rule #44 will increase participation by central conference delegates (see informational video) and make discussions more participatory. That having been said, I feel one could hardly invent a more effective tool for neutralizing the input of both the central conference delegates and introverts than the proposed Group Discernment Process.
Let’s weigh seriously the implications of moving from counting votes to recording comments. The most relevant voices in the room might not be the loudest.