The Leap Quadrennium?

As I wrote in a blog titled Methodist Misnomers, United Methodist church culture has a very bad habit of using language in misleading and manipulative ways. (For example, the term “missional purposes” is used for institutional bias against an individual, and “protocol” was used to describe the weakening of protocols.)

Today, April 22, 2024, I visited the official website for the United Methodist General Conference, the supreme legislative assembly of the UMC. General Conference is currently meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

On the official website, I was surprised to find that every reference to this General Conference carries the label “2020.” The linguistic element “2020” is not an ordinal like XIV (this is the fourteenth UMC General Conference including 1968). The year, as a time reference, indicates when the General Conference is being held. The General Conference previously scheduled for 2020 was postponed to 2024, but that does not make 2024 = 2020.

Such backward labeling may arise from the recursive logic of church polity, but it makes absolutely no sense to the general public.

Are we so introverted that our words only need to make sense to ourselves? Are we so arrogant as to believe that time itself pauses when our government shuts down? Within the real world, the world of truthful speech, there is no such thing as a “Leap Quadrennium.” As moral and rational agents, we have a responsibility to use intelligible, honest language when communicating with others who share the same language.

The 2020 label also diminishes the authority of this General Conference. Like putting an expired date on a fresh loaf of bread, the 2020 label suggests that this body is already out of date and out of authority. Will the Book of Discipline also be published as a 2020 document, only to be replaced in 2026 by the “postponed 2024” General Conference? Once normalized, such a convention will further erode the authority of the legislative branch, rendering it out of sync with the world until it can “catch up” by having expensive and superfluous meetings.

A 2020 meeting is not what is happening. Our delegates are meeting now, in 2024. They are prayerfully and sacrificially engaged in a collective task of practical theology that will shape the order and future of our denomination. Their work should be honored and described with truthful language that respects the contemporary nature and authority of their work.

They are the 2024 General Conference revising a 2024 Book of Discipline.

If this is not acceptable, I suggest we use ordinals to label UMC General Conferences and years to label the Books of Discipline they publish.

Under such a convention, we would state that the XIV General Conference of the UMC is currently in session revising a 2024 Book of Discipline.


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