Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reflections on General Conference

I served as an alternate delegate from the North Alabama Conference to General Conference.

A Dangerous Prayer

Some prayers are dangerous indeed. They are prayers because they express the deepest yearnings of our hearts. They are dangerous because they just might change us.

As I reflect on my first General Conference, I am drawn back to the visual design of the delegates’ seating area. The space itself was a prayer. The basic cruciform design created by open aisles was the first thing I noticed. Suspended in the center was a round communion table, made from wood salvaged from Gulfside Assembly (destroyed by Katrina). I doubt everyone was aware of it, but for me this was a silent, persistent prayer undergirding everything.

And it has become my prayer. I pray that our work as a denomination takes the shape of the cross, and we find a way to humbly offer our very heart to Christ. This cruciform prayer is a prayer of hope, because I believe our declining denomination will not be saved by working harder or doing more, and certainly not by endless legislative maneuvering over hot topics. This is a dangerous prayer, because transformation that is uniquely Christian only comes through cross and resurrection. Being transformed will mean letting die some aspects of institutional life we hold dear. I hope that transformation is just around the corner for this church I love. I’m not sure what that will mean, but I know that it will be painful though it leads to new life. It scares me and it enlivens me at the same time. Taking up the cross could mean some kind of division, or it could mean some unimagined change in direction. But it can’t mean doing more of what we already do at General Conference and expecting the results to change.

A Mind-Boggling Experience

My first trip to General Conference was one of the most mind-boggling experiences of my life. It was wonderful, though some aspects were troubling, and it was exhausting. Simply put, it was … BIG. I learned that the legislative process is extensive and complex. I discerned that the fundamental division we have over one major social issue is deeper than I realized. And yes, I was overwhelmed by the incredible things that unite us, for they are correspondingly huge. I’ll save that good news for last. Make sure you keep reading.

We are a people who are regionally conflicted about issues around homosexuality. I knew this. What I didn’t know was how extensively this division plays into legislative process. There were numerous times when subtle regional control issues related to this issue were beneath the surface in debates over various matters, like the meaning of membership and the number of bishops. It was like suddenly being a member of congress for two weeks and discovering the politics underneath everything. I found myself asking, “What is their dog in this fight?”

Our beliefs are the deepest things about us. It was difficult for me as a person who doesn’t fit into labels like liberal or conservative, who would rather be known as a radical Christian than even the term “moderate,” to feel that I have a voice. I suppose this is because of the natural dualism of legislative process. But it felt as if 10% of us are way over on one side of the universe, screaming not only for acceptance but pushing the entire gay rights agenda (marriage, ordination, etc.). And it felt as if 10% were way over on the other side of the universe, not understanding why we are even talking about this (I recall the African delegate who said homosexuality was “of the devil”). The extremists work in caucuses, support demonstrations, and hand out literature. They fire legislative missiles at each other and it felt like the other 80% are caught in the middle. Language becomes more inflammatory than reasonable. A viewpoint that attempts to strike a balance might be compared to slavery and labeled as “spiritually violent” by some, and called “unscriptural” or “demonic” by others. It’s as if we can’t talk, we can only legislate.

I am one of the 80% in the middle. We are not all the same, of course, because there are many shades of gray that seem obscured by all the polarizing. But I just want to move through this and focus on missions and evangelism. I believe what Bishop Hee Soo Jung articulated in his sermon. We need to hold our commitment to social justice in one hand, and our commitment to personal holiness in the other, in creative tension.

Almost all the votes that involve issues related to homosexuality came out with the typical two thirds or three fourths majority, except for one. The closest vote was on the very language itself, that though God’s grace is available to all, the practice of homosexuality is considered “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The alternative petition was simply a statement saying we are “not of one mind”. I imagine that’s why the language was retained by a margin of only 55% to 45%, because it’s obviously true that we are not of one mind. I was looking down on the assembly as the energy built for this vote, as the debate gathered steam, and as the SoulForce protesters in the balcony prepared to put on their black veils and sing “Jesus Loves Me.” You could cut the anxiety in the room with a knife.

I found myself asking how I would vote since I essentially believe both petitions. I might reword it in a more balanced way, but I essentially believe the language in the Discipline. On the other hand, I also believe we are “not of one mind”. How do you decide between two petitions if you believe both? I concluded that if I were voting, I would vote not on what the petition says, but on what it does.

The positive way of saying it is that I would vote to preserve the historic integrity of the church, though I deeply desire to be as inclusive as possible (we passed a resolution strongly against homophobia and prejudice, which delights me). The negative way of saying it is that I am afraid. It scares me to think of what would happen if we took one step down what could become a long, slippery slope. I doubt seriously that those who would ask us to say “we are not of one mind” would simply thank everybody and go home satisfied if we did.

The next day, I walked by protestors lying on the sidewalks as if wounded. I sat in for a delegate on the floor when we voted to maintain the stance against the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. The bishops announced that during the 15 minute break, witnesses would be allowed to come to the floor. The SoulForce demonstration commenced and protestors wearing black with rainbow stoles came in and sang. They placed black cloth on the altar and spoke words of protest. A few delegates quietly left, most remained seated, but some stood in support. It was both deeply troubling and strangely beautiful. My understanding is that this was much calmer than the last two General Conferences, when proceedings were interrupted, arrests were made, and a chalice was shattered.

Just in front of me, one of the protesters started crying. I could feel her pain. A delegate seated behind me handed her a handkerchief and returned to her seat. The woman accepted it with grace. We can love each other even as disagree over what our beliefs are and what our boundaries should be.

A Future With Hope

I’m glad you kept reading, because having said all that, equally mind-boggling was that which inspired me. That which unites us was threaded through everything. There is hope.

Worship was amazing, as there were people in the room who were United Methodists from 50 countries all worshipping one Lord. The arts brought worship to life, as we had choirs and instrumentalists from all over the world, a deaf choir, a drum choir, and the “Strangely Warmed Players” doing a drama of a ship with a captain and crew arguing over whether to leave shore.
It was overwhelming to hear the Africa University choir, with young Christian leaders sharing rhythm and song. We voted on another $20 million to support this mission that has now trained 2,000 young leaders. It was amazing to see the “Hope for Africa” children’s choir sing and dance, and be reminded that many of the children in the group were saved by Methodist mission homes.

It was overwhelming to vote on a $330 million World Service budget (part of the $642 million total) and know that God is transforming the world through our missionaries. It was inspiring to acknowledge that we are becoming a global church, moving away from being a U.S. dominated church. Though the church in the U.S. is declining numerically in each Jurisdiction except the Southeastern Jurisdiction, the church is growing like crazy in places like Africa, the Philippines, and Korea.

It was an incredible experience to hear the president of Liberia speak. She is the first woman to have been elected president of any African nation. She is not only United Methodist, but was raised in a Methodist school built by missionaries. It is mind-boggling to realize that missions can change the trajectory of the world.

Hearing Bill Gates, Sr. (the father of the Microsoft founder and director of the Gates Foundation) speak to us about Wesley’s vision that “the world is our parish,” and pledge to join the United Methodist Church in our fight to wipe out malaria with a $5 million gift, was inspiring. He promised to match the bid of the delegation that won the bishop’s basketball, which delegations spontaneously began bidding on after a bishop dribbled it in a report on “Nothing But Nets” to wipe out malaria. We raised $480,000 to save lives during the conference in a serendipitous movement of the Spirit.

Bishop Hope Young Ward of Mississippi shared amazing stories and testimonies about Katrina and we celebrated a wonderful United Methodist response to this terrible disaster.

Important Decisions Made

Having said all that, many important decisions were made. Here are some highlights:

  • Generally speaking, the church stayed on course concerning major social issues (abortion, peace in the Middle East, war, immigration reform, etc.)
  • We added a phrase to the mission statement of our church. It is now “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.”
  • We voted to begin a Hymnal Revision Committee. Our bishop is nominating me to serve on this, and I’m honored though I know there are only a few at-large members so it’s a long shot.
  • We added to the vows of membership, so that now new members promise to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
  • We adopted the bishop’s initiative to focus on four major areas in all ministries, including focused budgeting around these goals. They are poverty, global health, starting new churches, and developing leadership. I wholeheartedly agree and believe if we can focus on what unites us we can transform the world!
  • We created a new litany for worship that is a companion for our Social Creed.
  • We now give deacons sacramental authority when granted it by the bishop for specific ministry situations.
  • We changed constitutional language to recognize our global, and less U.S.-dominated, nature. If ratified by Annual Conferences, “Central Conferences” will now be called Regional Conferences and the U.S. will be a Regional Conference.
  • If ratified by Annual Conferences, our constitution will now clarify that all persons shall be eligible to be members if willing to take the vows. I think this will be controversial in Annual Conferences. For some this is about the nature of church membership and the responsibility of the pastor to discern readiness, not just about its relationship to a controversial case concerning homosexuality.
  • We passed a strong resolution against homophobia and related violence and prejudice.
  • The conference took more steps toward fair representation, making sure growing regions of the church (such as the Southeast) are fairly represented by vote.
  • The right to vote on clergy delegates was given to licensed lay pastors who have completed Course of Study and have been appointed two years prior.
  • Our Women’s Division and Church and Society have membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and efforts to remove them were narrowly defeated.
  • We set up a study committee to recommend a new Regional Conference structure for global Methodism and a Commission on Faith and Order to clarify theology.
  • There was a “first ever” Young People’s Address, and there seemed to be many younger delegates due to the church’s efforts to bring a new generation into delegations.
  • We reduced the number of bishops in the United States, where the church has been declining, in order to free up funds to add to the number of bishops in Africa, where we are growing and need bishops desperately.

The Bishops’ “Non-Anxious Presence”

Experienced delegates say that though we are divided on a few key issues, it seemed to be a calmer and more unified conference than in the past. I am a student of Family Systems Theory and was fascinated to watch with an eye for how groups function in the emotional system, given that there is a huge amount of anxiety related to these issues. Processes such as triangulation, cutoff, poor differentiation, “either/or” and “black/white” thinking, and labeling were at work all week.

But I saw great hope in the bishops’ presence. They encouraged a spirit of “holy conferencing” which helped us focus on things of the Spirit even when talking about controversial issues. They were truly pastoral. They were clear about boundaries (such as clarifying during the protest that some would be maintaining the role of presiding and others would be moving around to perform pastoral functions). They maintained a non-anxious presence, acknowledging differences but casting a vision for the four priorities, which we can all get excited about. With one exception during the protest, they did not speak in inflammatory ways. They stayed connected. They negotiated with protesters, and about a dozen of them committed to holy conferencing with them between now and four years from now. I find this presence incredibly promising. We will likely remain divided, and might even eventually separate, but the bishops made me feel that whatever happens, we are in God’s hands.

Choosing to Live in Hope

It would be easy to fall into despair about the fundamental division in our denomination over sexuality with regional complexities most local church folks are unaware of. It is easier to live in despair than hope. If we live in despair, we don’t have to do anything. But if we choose to live in hope, we do. Recalling the “cruciform prayer” I began this reflection with, our hope is in taking up the cross. This church belongs to God and God is not finished with us. Despite our division God is using us in amazing ways.

I am still processing things and I’m still exhausted. But I’m honored to serve and appreciate the trust members of the conference have placed in me. As an alternate, I kept up with legislation in order to vote responsibly if called on. I “sat in” four times (once in legislative committee and three times on the floor) for several hour blocks each time, sometimes during very important votes, and it was an honor to represent North Alabama.