General Conference Notebook, April 24
Ingredients: One thousand delegates and more than five thousand guests, a choir with 300 voices and a processional with 150 bishops, an orchestra, outstanding soloists and praise band, liturgical dancers, children and youth and adults of all ages, interpreters translating every word into nine languages, representatives from 129 annual conferences with 48,000 congregations with more than 11 million members from over fifty countries, and an outstanding preacher in the person of Bishop Janice Huie who is the President of the Council of Bishops. Put all these ingredients in a huge auditorium with excellent sound, media, visuals and music, and then mix together with a generous dose of the Holy Spirit and you have an outstanding, passionate, focused opening worship service at General Conference. Last night General Conference opened with the celebration of the Holy Sacrament and with preaching that focused on the passage from Matthew 28 that serves as the basis of the United Methodist mission statement: “Go, make disciples of all nationsÖ.” Bishop Huie reminded us all that the purpose of General Conference was to recommit to our mission, and to move forward into a future with hope. She reminded us through stories and scripture that resurrection hope transforms lives and transformed lives transform the world for the purposes of Christ. It was deeply moving service.
Along with all the Bishops, I helped serve communion. The experience is beyond words, a reliving of the day of Pentecost, to break bread with so many people from so many backgrounds, experiences, origins, contexts, and languages. The sixty-five hundred people represent millions of United Methodists in their hope for the church’s future and in their sharing in the body of Christ. I wish every United Methodist could experience what I saw and heard and felt during the serving of the sacrament.
Immediately after the worship service ended, the business of General Conference began with a lengthy session on the Standing Rules, and other necessary elements of our work life together. While it all went smoothly, the contrast could not have been more marked between our worship time and our business time. Sometimes I think we should just all gather for worship, and then go home! But we have much work to do together and this requires plodding through the details of rules with dozens of votes, debates, and decisions. We left the auditorium at about 11 p.m.
One can discern a noticeable rhythm to General Conference. Those present move from moments of profound communion to times of mundane business to moments of palpable mistrust. On the one hand, we use organic models for community to describe our relationship to one another–body of Christ, members, communion, bread, family, sisters, brothers. On the other hand, we use voting (with proposals winning or losing, accepted or defeated) and sometimes adversarial strategies for deciding much of our business, experiencing conference as a cauldron of competing self-interests, regional alliances, and caucus agendas. Sometimes our primary identity is found in our being part of the body of Christ, the United Methodist family. Other times our primary identity is found in being part of particular affinity group based on theology, board affiliation, race, gender, or cause. At our best, conference is a gathering of people to listen, discern, and decide together on goals that support the mission of the church. At our worst, conference seems to be a collection of people elected to win advantage in their effort to represent an idea, protect a project, or pursue an agenda with little regard for competing claims. Many groups depend upon the cohesive quality of fear to mobilize response.
Some compare General Conference to a political convention; however, conference is more like a meeting together of the Democratic and Republican conventions with the object of agreeing to common priorities. This places upon delegates and Bishops a great responsibility to foster the unifying elements of our life together in Christ, and Wednesday’s worship was a great and powerful good start.
Connectionalism is a spiritual reality that allows our purpose, task, and responsibility for Christ’s work to extend beyond our own locus and point of reference. Like communion in Christ, connection is at once persevering and resilient while also fragile and easily fragmented. An intensely political organization that aspires to communion requires intentionality and great prayer so that the members pursue their passions with humility and accept the limits to their will with grace. And aspiring to communion in Christ also requires a continual reminder of our mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The intermixing of communion and polity has marked our conferences from Wesley’s day to the present. At heart, what makes us distinctly United Methodist is this willingness “to confer together,” to trust the Spirit of Christ present in our preaching, prayer, and sacrament to also guide our deliberation, decision, and mission.
Yours in Christ,