United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
Delegates to the 2004 General Conference hold hands prior to a vote affirming unity in the church. The resolution on unity followed several days of contentious debate on the issue of homosexuality.
"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.
Nor am I the only United Methodist who has had such experiences in which church people have borne false witness against one another. During the Pre-General Conference Briefing's plenary on holy conferencing, Bishop Sally Dyck of Minnesota decried the extent of the church's "conspiracy theories," which she called "twenty times worse than the JFK assassination and 9/11 combined."
In light of our past, General Conference leaders' efforts to foster and maintain holy conferencing elicit a mixture of hope and skepticism.
It's encouraging to know many United Methodists are praying for the General Conference; each delegate will receive a prayer scarf to remind him or her of these prayers. It's heartening to know that there will be a consecrated space for prayer at the Tampa Convention Center where anyone attending General Conference may visit and use. It's intriguing that General Conference leaders plan to approach some of the hottest issues early in the session with times of face-to-face conversation rather than parliamentary debate.
It's Up to the Delegates
Ultimately, though, the success of holy conferencing for the 2012 General Conference will be up to each delegate. The obstacles they face are formidable.
- Will veteran crusaders on both sides of longstanding hot-button battles like homosexuality and abortion resist proposed rule changes and holy conferencing?
- Can a tide of prayer from all parts of the church soften hearts hardened by past inflammatory rhetoric and political tricks?
- Is it possible for clergy delegates to see beyond the perquisites of their professional careers to the church's missional needs?
- Can lay delegates, many of whom are over age 65, relinquish their power to younger people whose ways of being the church are so different from their own?
- Can the General Conference, the sole constitutional entity with the authority to speak for the worldwide United Methodist denomination, give up its control so that God's will for the church can break through?
In other words, will delegates to the 2012 General Conference accept the challenge of dying to inflammatory, harmful church politics and decide United Methodism's future through the loving ways taught by Jesus?
The church, indeed the world, waits to see.