Tree of Life Closeup
"On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." – Revelation 22:2b
A United Methodist Insight Exclusive
What does the proposed alternative discernment process for the 2016 General Conference have to do with a spiritual concept from Jewish mysticism? Perhaps more than we might suspect.
For weeks I've been struggling with the furor over the proposed alternative discernment process known by the nickname Rule 44 for its designation in the standing rules. The idea has drawn considerable fire – as well as support – of late from individuals and movements around The United Methodist Church. (For a superb report on the matter, see Heather Hahn's comprehensive article for United Methodist News Service, "The debate about how to debate sexuality").
For the record, I participated in the practice sessions for the alternative process during the Pre-General Conference Briefing in Portland in January. I say, "participated," because I sat at a table with 10 other people in a pretend session of consultation and discernment. I asked a couple of questions, but mostly I listened to others. The process was a little confusing and awkward, as are all new things when participants are hyper-aware of their conscious incompetence. But our group, and probably most others, stuck with the conversation to the end and turned in our suggestions for its improvement.
In hindsight, it might have been better to introduce the alternative discernment process without tying it to the continuing struggle over the acceptance of homosexual practice.
Since January, I've read and listened to commentaries that have labeled Rule 44 as everything from a glimmer of hope to a cabalistic conspiracy to practically a sign of the Apocalypse, or at least an effort to "game the system." I've pondered sadly, sometimes with unchristian disgust, how such strong emotions have arisen around a proposal that on its face seemed to be more a kind of family conversation than a legislative process. Yet it wasn't until I read a recent column about legalism in religion by a Baptist ethicist, David Gushee, that the pieces came together:
- Rule 44 has proven so threatening to the established order not because it concentrates power as some allege, but because it breaks open General Conference to greater potential for God's Holy Spirit to move through its decision-making. Rather than the mock warfare of parliamentary procedure, the process sets up conditions whereby delegates are required to engage in person-to-person conversation, to try to see another as an individual beloved of God. They are to listen and understand others' thinking as well as their own, and come to some mutual discernment about the matter at hand.
In other words, making church rules through a legislative process represents a dualistic either/or concept that many people find comfortable, even though (or perhaps because) it creates clear winners and losers. A discernment process such as Rule 44 offers a much more uncertain procedure requiring engagement at a level that some people find awkward and threatening – including the prospect that God's Holy Spirit may take over the whole show and inspire something that is nothing like what we humans desire.
This understanding led me to another revelation about Rule 44: from a spiritual perspective, it mirrors the interactions of a Jewish mystical concept known as the Ten Sefirot (emanations), also called the Tree of Life.
Without going into too much esoteric detail, the Tree of Life attempts to symbolize how an infinite Divine could interact with finite humans. As the accompanying illustration shows, human thoughts, emotions and actions are inspired by divine emanations, and must always balance for life to exist as God intends. My favorite example, one that I think applies aptly to The United Methodist Church, involves the tension between strength/law (Geburah in Hebrew) and mercy/love (Chesed). Too much Geburah leads to oppression; too much Chesed leads to chaos. Balanced together along with other spiritual aspects, they produce Tipereth (Beauty).
Couldn't we do with more Beauty and less bloodshed from General Conference?
Imperfect as initially it is, Rule 44 represents an honest attempt to bring the forces of law and grace into spiritual balance for The United Methodist Church, so it can better discern God's will for its future. Seen from this perspective, the arguments against it on both sides become spurious.
- Whether Rule 44 meets past definitions of Christian conferencing is irrelevant, both as a justification for it and opposition to it. That was then; this is now. We're Christians; we hold conference in ways appropriate to our time, as did our ancestors in faith. Ergo, Christian conferencing in the 21st century.
- Whether Rule 44 concentrates power into one committee, the facilitation group, is a red herring, for nothing gets into the Book of Discipline unless voted by General Conference. With Rule 44, everything discerned to go forward must be approved by the delegates.
- Whether it discards the "hard work" of those who send petitions to General Conference is a smokescreen, because legislative committees already dispose of petitions. That's what the consent calendar is for, to take swift, bulk action on rejected petitions.
- Whether it sidelines the voices of LGBTQ delegates and their allies is also a misunderstanding, because adopting Rule 44 would make discernment a central process of the General Conference. Those who favor graceful inclusion and those who favor continuing legal exclusion will have to face one another on a personal level and explain the rationales for the positions they hold without subjecting one another to harm.
Indeed, Rule 44 attempts boldly to bring spiritual practice to the rough-and-tumble world of General Conference politics. Its fate – and perhaps even the fate of the entire 2016 General Conference – will be decided at the first business session on May 10.
A veteran of seven General Conferences, United Methodist Insight Editor Cynthia B. Astle will report from the 2016 General Conference May 10-20 in Portland, Ore.