Future Prospects - Part 1
A four-part series on how the 2016 General Conference has reshaped The United Methodist Church through 2020.
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
Future Prospects Part 1
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky bends forward at the waist as she asks delegates to "humble yourself before God" during her sermon May 20 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Her gesture represents an example of the different faith expressions that United Methodist delegates endorsed almost unanimously at General Conference.
As this year's annual conference sessions respond to results of the politically charged and openly divisive 2016 General Conference, a little-regarded yet potent theological statement -- adopted almost unanimously by delegates May 17 – instructs United Methodists to respond in “a spirit of openness and love" to "those whose Christian experiences differ from your own."
"Guidelines: The United Methodist Church and the Charismatic Renewal" was approved by the 2016 General Conference in a landslide vote 759 to 24 (a 97% majority vote), Submitted by the General Board of Discipleship, the petition garnered unanimous support in committee.
How could such unanimity occur virtually unnoticed in the midst of so much rancor at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore.? Perhaps the petition's language carried its own momentum:
“We believe the church needs to pray for a sensitivity to be aware of and to respond to manifestations of the Holy Spirit in our world today,” begins the resolution. United Methodists should not “permit our fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar to close our minds against being surprised by grace.” The resolution continues, “…we plead for a spirit of openness and love.”
A Gift of the Holy Spirit
Theologically, the resolution centers on the idea of charism. According to the World Council of Churches, charism “denotes the gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit on any member of the body of Christ for the building up of the community and fulfillment of its calling” (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, II.7a). While such things as "spiritual gifts assessments" have grown more popular in recent years, United Methodist congregations are typically unaware of the significant role they play in the assessment and affirmation of charism. The best example comes when a person declares to a local congregation that he or she senses a call from God to full-time religious vocation. It's then the congregation's responsibility to test and affirm the authenticity of such a perception.
In addition to traditional expressions of charism, the resolution's reaffirmation represents hope for United Methodists who have experienced a charism of radically inclusive love, expressed through affirming ministries with persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and same-sex or opposite-sex marital status. Radically inclusive agape within open and affirming congregations serves as evidence of the Holy Spirit building up the church.
The Test of Blessings, Not Hostility
“The criteria by which we understand another's religious experience must include its compatibility with the mind and the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, as revealed in the New Testament,” explains the resolution.
“If the consequence and quality of a reported encounter with the Holy Spirit leads to self-righteousness, hostility, and exaggerated claims of knowledge and power, then the experience is subject to serious question. However, when the experience clearly results in new dimensions of love, faith, joy, and blessings to others, we must conclude that this is 'what the Lord hath done' and offer God our praise. 'You shall know them by their fruits' (Matthew 7:20).”
Guidelines for All
"Guidelines" addresses all church members, laity and clergy, whether they have had a charismatic experience or not. The following specific guidelines are excerpted from the document:
- Be open and accepting of those whose Christian experiences differ from your own.
- Continually undergird and envelop all discussions, conferences, meetings, and persons in prayer.
- Be open to new ways in which God by the Spirit may be speaking to the church.
- Avoid the temptation to force your personal views and experiences on others. Seek to understand those whose spiritual experiences differ from your own.
- [For pastors:] Pray for the gifts of the Spirit essential for your ministry; continually examine your life for the fruits of the Spirit.
- [For pastors:] Seek firsthand knowledge of what the charismatic renewal means to those who have experienced it. Keep your mind open until this firsthand knowledge is obtained. Then observe and respond as a loving Christian, as a United Methodist minister, and as a sympathetic, conscientious pastor. Keep to scriptural teaching regarding all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
- [For laypersons:] Accept opportunities to become personally involved in the work and mission of your own congregation. Let the results of your experience be seen in the outstanding quality of your church membership and service to others. Be an obvious, enthusiastic supporter of your congregation, its pastor and its lay leadership and of your district, your annual conference, the General Conference, and mission of each. This may well be the most effective witness you can offer to the validity and vitality of your charismatic experience.
- Do not be disturbed if your experience is not the same as others. The work and mission of a healthy congregation calls for many gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14). Each Christian is a unique member of the body of Christ and should seek to discover his or her gifts and role.
- [For connectional administration:] Remember your pastoral responsibilities toward ordained persons and congregations within the connection, particularly toward those whose spiritual experience differ from your own.
- Pray continuously for sensitivity to the will and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In All Things Charity
No other resolution in the history of the UMC has been as longstanding, overwhelmingly supported, and grace-filled. “We commend to the attention of the church the affirmations of Paul on the importance of love in First Corinthians 13 and of Wesley-'In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity' (love that cares and understands). Without an active, calm, objective, and loving understanding of the religious experience of others, however different from one's own, harmony is impossible.”
The historic significance of this vote went unacknowledged by the plenary session as it renewed this longstanding resolution. The UMC first affirmed the document in 1976. The original task force included Don Cottrill and Maxie Dunnam, among others. General Conferences since 1976 have repeatedly upheld “Guidelines: The UMC and the Charismatic Movement,” the language of which has remained virtually unchanged during the past 40 years.
How did such a radical affirmation of spiritual generosity make it past the sharply polarized delegates of the 2016 General Conference? Perhaps its "under the radar" approval might itself be evidence of the Holy Spirit bringing a word of love in the midst of conflict. Proof may emerge over the next four years if more United Methodists turn to these guidelines for help in dealing with differences at all levels of the church.
Coming next in Part 2: Nine Referrals Seeking a Comprehensive Plan of Union.
The Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church's Witness (University of Tennessee Press, April 2016).