United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
"The mark of intellectual and spiritual maturity is the ability not to just take sides in a debate, but to take responsibility for the way in which the debate itself is conducted."
-- The Rev. Frederick W. Schmidt, Perkins School of Theology, in his Patheos.com column "Facebook Prophets."
TAMPA – The real overriding issue for the 2012 General Conference may not be found in any "adaptive challenge" proposal for structure, ministry or budget, but whether its 988 delegates can meet the goal of "holy conferencing."
While rooted in Methodist history, "holy conferencing" has become a buzzword over the past three General Conferences. It denotes a method for peaceable decision-making that to date has been more of a dream than a reality in United Methodist deliberations. Through the final plenary and breakout session at the Pre-General Conference Briefing, delegates were asked again to make a concerted effort at the practice this year.
The denomination's past unsuccessful attempts at holy conferencing represent not mere theological exercise, but a visible symptom of what many believe is the true spiritual ailment afflicting the 12-million-member worldwide United Methodist Church: its failure to live and act as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ seeking God's will for the church and the world.
Polarized Language, Divisive Actions
Many have claimed special revelation of God's will since the denomination was founded in 1968. This claim to privileged perception has fueled a demoralizing trend toward polarized language and divisive actions at General Conference sessions. Observers found that rancor so infected the 2000, 2004 and 2008 General Conferences that the denomination came frighteningly close to breaking apart. All three previous sessions were marked by emotional demonstrations sometimes leading to arrests; sneaky if not outright unethical legislative maneuvers; and take-no-prisoners parliamentary battles.
Some actions at the 2008 session in Fort Worth went so far that the General Conference voted to form an ethics committee that will monitor the activities of delegates, church staff, unofficial special-interest groups and anyone else who tries to influence decision-making. Exactly how the committee will monitor actions, and what it will do if it finds someone acting unethically, remains to be seen.
Yet for all their flash, caucuses and coalitions remain sideshows to the main actors, the delegates themselves. As one who has observed the past six sessions, this writer can sadly affirm that election to General Conference does not automatically confer wisdom, civility, veracity or integrity upon some of the most impassioned delegates.
I regret to say that I have sat in proximity to prominent delegates who have stood before legislative committees and flat-out lied about the activities and motives of others. I knew they were lying because I had personally observed the events in question and seen none of the alleged actions or attitudes. However, not being a delegate myself, and being further restrained by journalistic ethics, I was unable to speak out against the falsehoods that laid a noxious pall over the proceedings.