General Conference (from the outside)

May 10th, 2016

On Sunday, I asked one of my parishioners whose brother is an ordained Methodist elder if he had mentioned anything about the upcoming General Conference and received only a blank stare in return. It’s possible that I have more of a connection to the United Methodist Church than some clergy outside of the denomination, having attended a divinity school with a sizeable Methodist presence and history, not to mention living in Nashville, spending my own spiritually-formative years attending a UMC congregation, or recognizing our common roots in the Anglican family tree.

And so I have watched and listened as my friends and fellow clergy prepared for these upcoming days in Portland. I have heard their anxiety and their preemptive grief. I have seen them engage in dialogue around important issues with varying degrees of friendliness. In the pages of this website, I have read impassioned pleas from a variety of perspectives. As a fellow Christian, I have prayed and will be praying throughout General Conference.

The Episcopal Church meets as a body every three years, most recently in July of 2015 in Salt Lake City. While I did not attend, I was thankful for social media and the diligent reporters who kept those of us at home apprised not only of the discussion and decisions but the general tenor of the conversation. By many accounts, there was a peaceful, Spirit-filled sense to the convention as a whole. Even when votes were taken on sensitive, painful issues, no one “took their ball and went home.”

In all likelihood, whatever mainstream media coverage there is will focus on issues of human sexuality. As much as I would like to see my United Methodist friends join other mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) in moving closer to inclusion, that is obviously a fraught discussion if the blogposts and social media arguments are any clue. Other decisions will be made about budgeting and resolutions; most likely, they will not get the same level of coverage as whatever happens around human sexuality. Some passionate Methodists and interested outside parties like myself might follow this more, but the broader world, the broader Church, will continue on.

As the more traditional sources of authority have lost power, one wonders if people are really listening when the Church gathers and speaks. Denominations have made statements on all kinds of issues from divestment in fossil fuels to gun control, and I often ponder if anyone in the pews is either aware or invested in denominational positions. When many people chose a congregation based on programming or worship-style rather than theology, denominational loyalty goes by the wayside.

At these denominational conferences and conventions, where we gather to do the business of the Church, perhaps the most important thing is how we do that business. The world around us has enough examples of division and anger, of refusal to compromise, of prioritizing being right over being in relationship. And the Church, being made up of sinful, messy people, frequently falls into that trap. The real witness of General Conference might be of Christians from around the world, of many different stripes, talking and praying together with a spirit of discernment. In a political season where whoever yells the loudest wins, that might be the most important thing the Church can teach the world.

comments powered by Disqus