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Archive for May 2nd, 2019

2019 General Conference

Observations by The Reverend Andy Langford

2 May 2019

Andy Langford is a retired United Methodist pastor in North Carolina.

Contact: andy@concordcentral.org

 

John Wesley’s Fear

Near the end of his life, John Wesley wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” I echo, “Amen!”

My Father’s Wisdom

Daddy, The Reverend Dr. Thomas A. Langford, addressed the Council of Bishops in 2000. They asked him to reflect on the debate about sexuality from a Wesleyan theological perspective. He wrote:

We are all sinners, and, as sinners, none of us stands as final judge of other sinners. Consequently, we begin with humility. I emphasize this because both sides in this homosexual debate often claim the moral high ground . . . Let us for a moment, then, quiet down, recognize the awesomeness of God’s grace, and be humble.

A little humility would serve all of us well.

Why Write?

The United Methodist Church flows through my blood. I am a sixth-generation Methodist on both sides of my family. My father, Tom Langford, was Dean of Duke Divinity School and author of Practical Divinity, the definitive history of Wesleyan theology. He was a delegate to 5 General Conferences.

An ordained Deacon and Elder, I graduated from Duke Divinity School and Emory University. I married a United Methodist clergywoman and both our daughters (one clergy, one lay) are active in local UMC congregations. Having served on our UM Hymnal committee and edited our UM Book of Worship, my greatest joy has been serving UMC congregations for 31 years.

My ministry has included attending 8 General Conferences (2 as staff and 5 as a delegate). I sat on our general church Council on Ministries and Connectional Table for 16 years. I have visited UMC congregations throughout the US, the Philippines, Europe, and Africa.

I have blessed immeasurably by this denomination. Yet, I have watched for 50 years the slow but sure decline of this great community of faith. We are increasingly divided by age, region, race, sexual orientation, theology, and more. Instead of listening and learning from one another, we judge the other and build up walls. Every General Conference, from my perspective, has been more negative that the one before.

I was NOT a delegate to the 2016/2019 General Conference, and NOT part of any UMC caucus.

Today, I weep at what the UMC has become. Blame is on all sides, including my own, for not figuring out a way forward.

The following observations reflect my own views. Many thanks to my wife Sally and our daughters Ann and Sarah, and to Bishop Will Willimon for conversations that led to these observations.

Overall

General Conference 2019 is a tragedy of our own creation. The United Methodist Church [UMC] is fragmented, polarized, angry, sad, and remorseful. Some are satisfied. No one is happy. No one is jubilant.

A small but solid majority of delegates, many from Africa and US evangelicals, supported the Traditional Plan and are confident and hopeful about the next stages of the UMC. The UMC in the future will look more like the UMC of the past.

Other persons, primarily in the United States [US], who supported other plans, responded with these words: shameful, abusive, destructive, manipulative, crushing challenging, troubling, devastating, waiting, defeating, and draining. At least one retired bishop is calling on US members to “defy” the actions of the General Conference.

The divisions within this global denomination are wide. UMCs in the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Norway, California, Alabama, and Maine are vastly different. Most UMCs live in cultural and theological silos unaware of other UMC perspectives.

While most US congregations find themselves in the middle, with both progressives and conservatives warmly coexisting, that is not true of congregations throughout our global church. There is no discernable middle among all the global conferences.

The UMC is only fifty years old, created in a time when the US Methodists dictated the rules and saw global congregations as missions. The UMC was a leader among a still strong mainline church establishment.

The future UMC will be guided by the global south leaders while the US church will provide the finances. Major question: how long will the US UMC continue to pay 95% of the costs for an institutional system that it no longer controls?

At the 2019 General Conference, 40 delegates (mostly from Africa) were unable to attend due to visa/travel issues. Yet 53% of all delegates present voted for the Traditional Plan. The majority vote could have been wider. At the 2020 General Conference, with 18 more delegates from Africa and 2 more from the Philippines and 22 fewer delegates from the US, votes for the Traditional Plan will increase.

We are not “stuck” in the old fights. The fight is over (unless the progressives create a massive movement for change).

The new Traditional Plan direction has been set. Where the journey takes us is unknown.

As Will Willimon observed, there are people, left and right, progressive and conservative, who just say, “This is it. We’ve waited. We’ve watched. We’ve tried. And now we can’t stay.”

My Profound Sadness and Anger

I weep and am deeply angry that the human sexuality issue has become the single issue that will may end the UMC. The church I knew in the past will not be the denomination I see in the future.

We may well follow the lead of the Presbyterian Church, USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church in aligning with one faction and becoming significantly diminished in membership and financial strength. None of their break-away factions are strong either. The above denominations are shells of the original selves. The 2019 General Conference marks the end of the old, inclusive mainline denominations in the USA.

What Passed?

  1. Wespath (our Pensions Board) petitions passed. If churches do exit from the UMC, exiting churches must pay their fair share of past pension liability. Exiting clergy retain their pension but it is converted to limit further liability. The process of exiting is not yet certain, but should not affect the pension obligations of the denomination to retired persons or persons now under the pension program. The possible transitions should not be hurtful to clergy and professional lay.
  2. Current language around sexuality and restrictions on same-sex weddings. Pastors who perform weddings and are convicted by trial will have a one-year penalty without pay (1st offense) and surrender of credentials (2nd offense). Bishops can only dismiss complaints for reasons of law or fact. Just Resolutions must acknowledge all harm done and be agreed to by the person bringing the complaint.
  3. Although the Traditional Plan passed, there will be no required certification by annual conferences and bishops that they will follow the Discipline nor a method for annual conferences to leave the denomination. The policy cannot be enforced at the annual conference and episcopal level. This is the most troubling part of the Traditional Plan by its supporters. At the 2020 General Conference, traditional delegates will attempt to “add teeth” to the policy.
  4. The definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual now includes those who are in a same-sex marriage; the definitions, therefore, are clearer. Bishops cannot commission or ordain lesbian or gay pastors or consecrate them as bishops. Boards of Ministry must do a full examination of clergy candidates including whether they are a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
  5. The Traditional Plan requires that all members of Boards of Ministry certify they will follow the Discipline. This requirement was just rejected by the Judicial Council as to its constitutionality.
  6. An amended exit plan for churches passed (and affirmed by Judicial Council). The Gracious Exit Plan would allow for local churches to exit with their property and assets if two-third of the members vote to do so and they pay for pension liabilities and one year of apportionments. Gracious Exit may be the “big debate” at the 2020 General Conference.

As a result of all the above, traditionalists hope that the progressives will leave.

A Western North Carolina Conference Clergy Delegate Observation

“General Conference was comprised of good and faithful people who love the church and who made significant sacrifices for months and years to represent the church in St. Louis. And yet it seems to me that our process, our very way of being church, of making decisions, of ordering our life together is so very broken. I’m reminded of John Dyer’s insight that good, well-intentioned, competent leaders, working in a flawed and unhealthy process will likely yield flawed and unhealthy results. The UMC system sustains the very dysfunction and dis-ease it seeks to correct.” — David Hockett

Wesleyan?

Everyone on all sides claims to be an heir of John Wesley and the Wesleyan movement. Some leaders want to take on the mantle of restoring the Wesleyan movement. Are there any followers?

Yet, most people only envision John Wesley as a reflection of themselves from gracious liberal to biblical authoritarian. Everyone speaks of Wesley to their own advantage. Where was theology debated at General Conference?

The traditionalists are not fundamentalists but Wesleyans with a distinctive perspective.

The liberals are not secularists but Wesleyans with another distinctive perspective.

Both extremes believe themselves to be biblically correct and morally superior.

I never heard Wesley quoted on the floor of the conference.

Only a few Wesleyan hymns were sung.

Cultural Divide on Display

The global direction of Christianity was on full view.

The vibrant, evangelical global south (Philippines, Africa) showed passion and energy.

The graying, more secular global north (US and Western Europe) showed decline.

There was far too much staying in regional and cultural silos on the floor, in the hallways, and at meals.

Which Leaders Were Not Followed?

The Council of Bishops could not carry the debate.

The Presidents/Deans of our 13 UMC seminaries spoke for the One Church Plan to no avail. Once upon a time, many seminary Presidents/Deans would be in delegations. No more.

Senior Pastors (all white male) of some of our largest congregations – Church of the Resurrection (Kansas), Ginghamsburg (Ohio), Lovers Lane (Dallas), Myers Park (Charlotte), and more – could not persuade their colleagues to support other options.

Young people signed petitions and spoke, while not changing any votes.

The Role of the Council of Bishops

The entire scenario is further demonstration of the ineffectiveness of the COB. The bishops overreached and could not garner majority support.

What bishops do — or don’t do — is almost irrelevant.

The COB called for the creation of “A Way Forward” Committee at the 2016 General Conference, attempted to shape the discussion within delegations and annual conferences, promoted the One Church Plan over the others, and called together the denomination in St. Louis.

Even so, General Conference delegates rejected the vision cast for them by their bishops. The bishops, assuming that others would simply follow where they led, the bishops again showed that they are out-of-sync with the people they serve.

The General Conference continued united on one theme: We do not trust bishops.

The COB is filled with good people, yet they historically assume their office enables them to lead the church from the top. They always fall short. In 1996, the COB asked to reform the orders of ministry. The General Conference said no.

In 2012, the COB unanimously offered a new way of organizing the general church. The GC said no. I am unaware of any major proposal ever made by the COB has ever been adopted.

The UMC yearns for leadership. Conferences generally like their own local presiding bishops, but fundamentally does not trust the COB at large. We yearn for leadership yet fail over and over again to follow our elected leaders.

Representative Democracy in Action

On the General Conference floor, everyone had equal voice. The bishops, meanwhile, sat with the potted plants on the stage, where they are seen but not heard.

Leaders (by virtue of ordination, position, size of church, and more) stood on the same level as everyone else who got the microphone.

General Conferences is filled with over 800 people, elected to represent vastly different constituencies. Many of them love to speak and defer to no one. Roberts Rules of Order and arcane UMC rules shape the discussion. The organizational model itself simply prevents making good decisions.

What Will Larger Congregations Do?

Many urban/suburban congregations (predominately white) in the US are in distress after the decision.

Many of these US pastors spoke for the One Church Plan. Generally, these congregations are middle-of-the-road with significant numbers of LBGTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied) members and supporters.

Will the larger US churches stay in a more traditional UMC?

Will their financial support continue at the current level?

The financial stake of the entire institutional system is at stake.

A May meeting at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, organized by Adam Hamilton and other “big names” may chart the beginning of a new Methodist denomination.

What Will Small Membership Congregations Do?

Generally, smaller congregations do not feel connected to the larger institution. If they can withdraw with their property, cemeteries, and culture, why stay?

Will the UMC in the US Split Regionally?

I doubt it.

The US divide is not just north, south, east, and west. We have congregations in every region out-of-sync with the majority in their geographic area. Some churches in California would love to be part of an Alabama conference, and vice-versa.

We have conferences in the South more liberal and conferences in the North more conservative.

Watch for realignment based on theology not region.

Role of Bishops in Any Realignment?

Among the 100 Wesleyan denominations in the world, leaders come in many forms with vastly different responsibilities. Remember, Wesley never wanted Asbury to be a bishop. In the British Methodist Church, they have Presidents not bishops.

In any realignment, will the new forms have strong or weak episcopal roles? Will bishops be able to make appointments? Will we shift to a call system? If a hundred progressive congregations withdraw, will they want to work under one bishop or each go in their own way.

Watch for much confusion.

How Long Will the Realignment Take?

Years. Unlike some other denominations, which made big decisions that had to be accepted/rejected by local congregations quickly, the UMC realignment may take a decade or two. A slow bleed. It took 30 years, and a US Supreme Court decision, after the Methodist Episcopal Church and MEC, South split before the Civil War to resolve issues such as who owns the publishing house. Watch for many lawsuits.

Politics

Willimon observed that “the traditionalists did a bang-up job of political organizing and counting the votes. The progressives were all busy talking about unity and community and listening and loving. The conservatives were on the floor getting the votes.”

This was not a political takeover by the conservatives but a reflection of where UM live and serve. The denomination is simply being consistent with its traditional values. On human sexuality, there is fundamentally no change since 1972.

I am troubled that some delegates accused other UMC brothers and sisters of voting in a particular way because they “sold” their votes. The assumption is that if you disagree with me there must be a devious cause.

The UMC is now on course to become a more conservative, Bible-centric denomination.

The more liberal/inclusive/open UMs are demoralized and in decline. The 2019 General Conference could have been their last chance to change the direction of the church. The progressives may organize and learn how to organize like the conservatives, but the task will be steep mountain to climb.

While the UMC in the US is more progressive (maybe 60% of the US delegates voted for the One Church Plan), the UMC is global, and many of our members (especially in Africa, the Philippines, Eastern Europe) are more conservative.

Quite intentionally by our denomination’s leadership, there have been no serious polls among UMC laity and UMC clergy in the US to see where US UMCs really stand on these issues or any others of significance. Everyone assumes that most people are on their side. All numbers are simply speculation.

Demographics

The number of UMs in the US continue their fifty-year steep decline. The number of UMs outside the US are growing rapidly. Again, with 40 (mostly African) delegates unable to attend due to US visa/travel issues and the 2020 General Conference having 18 more delegates from Africa and 22 less from the US, votes will be wider in favor of the Traditional Plan.

Reflect on the strange way UMC assigns delegates. While Africa has 41% of the UMC lay membership, they currently get 32% of the delegates. The Africans are demanding to get their fair share of the votes at General Conference.

The reality of global Christianity in upon us. In 2020, 56% of the delegates will be from the US and 44% from outside the US. Global membership may be 50/50. The shift is clear.

Enforcement: The Central Issue

In its most severe expression (depending on Judicial Council decisions), the Traditional Plan could:

Augment the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual:” to say “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual.” No more equivocation.

Allow charges against current UMC clergy who are LGBTQIA+.

Complaints against clergy must be taken more seriously and any resolution must include the person making the complaint.

Candidates for ministry must be certified to in compliance with UMC standards.

Restrict the membership and role of Boards of Ministry. (voided by Judicial Council)

Bishops may not ordain persons not in compliance. If so, charges will be brought against the ordaining bishop.

Immediately remove clergy who perform a same-sex weddings for one-year without pay for a first offense. A second offense is loss of ordination.

Prohibit the consecration of LGBTQIA+ bishops.

Establish a process for the COB to remove an offending bishop from office. (voided by Judicial Council)

Offer a clear and easy path for congregations to exit the denomination.

As parts of the Traditional Plan have been overturned, supporters of the Traditional Plan have almost a year to work around the problems. The 2020 General Conference will consider and probably pass new, constitutional ways to enforce the Traditional Plan. The Traditionalists want strong enforcement.

Enforcement at its earliest won’t begin until after the 2020 General Conference.

Ecclesial Disobedience?

Some UMs are considering the option of protest – welcoming LBGTQIA+ clergy, same-sex weddings, election of bishops who are not celibate in singleness or faithful in heterosexual marriage. Persons certainly have a right and the moral obligation to stand against a system perceived as unjust. Disobedience is part of our religious tradition.

Many clergy and some congregations will disobey the UMC Discipline. Pastors and congregations in every region of the US have already announced their plans to defy the Traditional Plan.

But, are these same persons willing to pay the price? Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail many times and paid high fines. What price are the dissenters willing to pay?

An act of conscience may result in a loss of UMC vocation. Is one willing to leave guaranteed appointment with all its benefits for the sake of a theological belief? Are bishops?

Is Division a Bad Thing?

Willimon observed, “What has passed for church unity for the last 50 years in the UMC is a bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.”

Methodism has always been a movement more than an institution. Now the institution seeks to control the movement.

Willimon says to his seminarians, “Remember, the General Conference as it is now, the Book of Discipline as it is now and our notions of unity and connection — that’s only 50 years old. The Book of Discipline has grown by a third with additional rules and regulations. If that’s being dismantled, that’s not a bad thing.”

Clergy Appointments in 2019 and Beyond

Starting in 2019, when clergy are assigned to local congregations, a major, new dynamic will be the perspective of clergy and congregations to the actions of the General Conference. They will ask each other: “Where do you stand on the actions of General Conference?” Will progressive/conservative clergy go to conservative/progressive congregations? Will they be accepted?

A fascinating question is who will serve as pastor in congregations that exit? There is no episcopal appointment. Will every pastor whose congregation exits want to stay? Will a new “call system” begin? This will cause high stress among clergy who have always had “guaranteed appointments.”

Next Steps

What happens to Western, North Central, Northeast Jurisdictions, and Western Europe Central Conferences? Who votes for disassociation? Who are their bishops? What happens to the “liberal” conferences/churches in other areas that are predominately conservative?  May a church in Mississippi join a New England conference? Will dissenting clergy be allowed/encouraged to leave?

The 2019 Election of General Conference Delegates

This summer’s election of clergy and lay delegates will be absolutely crucial. Will conferences send back to the 2020 General Conference the same delegates to reach the same conclusions? There may well be more changes in delegations than usual.

Constitutional Review by Judicial Council

The Judicial Council [JC] is by its nature (and some political pressure) reluctant to allow major changes to the UMC.

The decision at the end of the 2012 General Conference to undo Plan UMC (approved by 60% of the General Conference) was shocking, both in timing and lack of clarity.

JC took similar actions again on the last day of the 2019 GC regarding the Traditional Plan.

The JC opinions are opaque. They offer limited time to debate. The conversations are private.

There is need for major reform to the Judicial Council.

Role of Judicial Council:

The new chair of the Judicial Council is an African woman who in a dissent ruling favored allowing congregations an exit option. All decisions by a JC can also be overturned by a future JC.

All the members of the Judicial Council will be elected anew in 2020.

It is possible that the traditional camp will seek a whole new slate of JC members to support their positions. Look at the US Supreme Court: new judges make a huge difference.

General Agencies

The General Agencies, especially a few, wanted to direct General Conference toward the One Church Plan. Instead of receiving direction from GC they wanted to direct GC. They failed. Some General Secretaries are directly condemning General Conference. The disconnect between the agencies and the global connection are wide.

As the Traditional Plan is established, general secretaries and staff may well see substantial changes.

The 2020 General Conference will receive a report to reduce the budget of most of the general agencies by over 20%. The role and reach of the general agencies will continue to be in decline.

The 2020 General Conference

In one year, the next GC can make any changes it wishes to the Traditional Plan. One General Conference cannot limit the extent of changes by any future General Conference.

The vote to undo the Traditional Plan will not be close:

20 more delegates from Africa and other Central Conferences

40 additional delegates from global church may finally receive travel visas and attend

22 fewer delegates from the United States

The Traditional Plan will be strengthened.

Floor fights/debates will continue but the outcome ordained.

Gracious Exit

The most progressive and most conservative congregations may well leave. We do have “congregational” pastors and congregations who never bought into the UMC version of connectionalism.

The option to take one’s property and assets at a minimal cost may well be attractive to many congregations. Bishops and clergy will be unable to stop it.

The earliest possible way for congregations to exit without lawsuits will be after the 2020 General Conference. It will take time to define who may leave and at what cost.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association may or may not lay the groundwork for a new, more conservative denomination. I do wonder if the WCA discussions about exiting prior to the 2019 General Conference was a political strategy rather than an actual plan.

In reality, members and local churches withdrew before the 2019 General Conference vote. And that includes both conservatives and progressives. The withdrawals will continue.

Decline of the UMC

The UMC will be diminished. In 1850, half of all Christians in the US were Methodist. Today we constitute less than 5% of the US population. The decline continues and will increase.

We will see fewer members, less money, and less connection with the institutions/agencies created by the church.

What happens in the 2020-2023 quadrennial general church budget and subsequent apportionment allocations when 44% of the delegates, who give less than 5% of the money control decision making?

Financial Implications

The immediate hit will be financial at local, district, conference, jurisdictional, and general church levels. Many congregations may withhold money until the future is clearer.

Young People

Young people in the US are significantly more open to LGBTQIA+ than older members in the US and certainly persons outside the US. Yet, because of our church demographics, they have only a small voice.

Younger clergy will be harder to find. What kind of young adults will commit themselves to serve as pastors of the emerging UMC? Already, some candidates for ministry are withdrawing from the ordination process.

Implications for our 13 seminaries?

Willimon wrote, “the average Methodist is 61 years old. We ought to be seeing what can we do to reach the generations we’ve lost? Our colleges are going to we still feel called to be connected to and in ministry with 19-year-olds. The UMC appears to have no interest in that.”

Denominational Change Not the End of the World

My former congregation, Central United Methodist Church in Concord, NC, has been part of four different denominations since 1836: The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church South, The Methodist Church, and The United Methodist Church.  It is entirely reasonable to think that within the decade this congregation may be part of a new denomination.

United Methodist schism or realignment is not an apocalyptic sign of the end of the world.  Communions of faithful people rise and fall.  Mr. Wesley never wanted any denomination independent of The Church of England.  We United Methodists have a full history of schisms and new alignments both in the US and globally.

The United Methodist Church as a denomination is just fifty years old.  Some United Methodists yearn for unity and want to maintain our current structure at almost any cost.  Yet, survival of the current form of The United Methodist Church should not be an idol to be worshiped.

At its foundation in 1968, the UMC set free a number of smaller Methodist churches (involuntarily from their perspective) in the Caribbean and Central America.  Two decades ago, we supported the disassociation of the Puerto Rican Methodist Church from the UMC.

The United Methodist Church is not the only global Methodist communion nor the only model of a Wesleyan denominational structure.  The World Methodist Council has over 100 Methodist denominations in 133 countries around the world containing about 75 million persons who claim the Wesleys as spiritual forbearers.  There are many ways of connecting with one another that are faithful to our Wesleyan tradition.

The Church universal, the living Body of Christ in the world, will last until the end of time.  The United Methodist Church?  Probably not.

We are in a time of flux and chaos, yet we should be confident that in the end God will be with us.

A Reminder

Fundamentally, nothing has changed on the ground among our pastors and in our congregations as the official policy of our denomination. Both before and now:

All persons are welcome in the UMC irrespective of sexual identity or orientation, age, sex, race, or any other thing that separates persons from one another.

All persons are of sacred worth. Period. All persons are of sacred worth.

LBGTQIA+ persons may be members and hold all positions in the UMC, with the exception of ordained clergy.

Persons ordained are only those committed to celibacy in singleness and fidelity in a heterosexual marriage

Same sex weddings may not be observed in our local congregations. Pastors may “bless” such weddings but not preside.

Charges of disobedience still carry consequences.

In the great majority of congregations and among most clergy nothing is different now from where we were a month ago.

Next Steps for US Clergy and Congregations

Prayer for the people in your congregation and for all clergy and laity throughout the UMC.

Pray for the UMC denomination in its way forward.

Stay calm. Much is in flux and the next year will be a time of turmoil and mixed reactions.

Keep your head on while everyone else seems to be losing their head.

It will take months and years for all the fallout to be understood.

Refuse to take any votes by anyone about sexuality or exiting.

Continue to serve all people in all congregations. Again, all people in all congregations.

Facilitate tough conversations among people who love God, one another, our mission to further the Kingdom of God, yet who share different opinions.

Seek to understand the perspectives of UMCs outside your own community, especially our global brothers and sisters.

Do not assume you understand why other people think differently from you.

Do not demonize the other. We are one in Jesus Christ.

Organize with like-minded colleagues and congregations to advance your perspective. The fight to include women in ministry and racial inclusiveness took centuries.

Watch carefully the movements before and during the 2020 General Conference. In 2020 we will learn more about the penalties of disobedience and the options for a gracious exit.

Again, stay calm.

Hope

I echo Willimon’s prayer: The hope is that Jesus Christ is Lord. There is a God, and our God is a redemptive God. I can’t decide if the Lord is saying now, “You created the structure and polity of the United Methodist Church. I didn’t. You wrote the Book of Discipline. I didn’t. If that’s being dismantled, that’s OK.”

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