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“So What Do You Think Will Happen at The General Conference?”

April 17, 2016

Nobody speaks for the entire United Methodist Church except a group that’s elected and gathers every four years. That group is called General Conference, and this is one of those years. Decisions will be made that will thrill some people but infuriate others.

I’ve been warning the people it’s my delight to serve, the Effingham Centenary United Methodist Church, that our denomination is going to be in the news frequently next month when General Conference convenes. Much of what will be reported will be inflammatory, unreliable, and finally unofficial.

Ken Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Area of The United Methodist Church. He wrote all that follows here today, but if you’re in a hurry I’ve highlighted some elements for you —

“So what do you think will happen at the General Conference?”

I’m often asked that question. Underneath are a variety of unspoken emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness, anticipation, excitement. It’s a question that’s voiced this year, perhaps with a greater sense of urgency, but it’s one we have asked before.

As we approach Portland, I’m thinking about two laypeople with whom I served in recent General Conference delegations. Neither is a United Methodist today. Both came to the General Conference with a singular focus: in one instance, legislation around human sexuality; in the other, abortion. Both left the conference deeply demoralized, even disillusioned.

Disillusionment is a good word for how we approach this task. We may go into the conference with the illusion that we are leaders and that our arguments will prevail. Sometimes they will. At other times, they will not. So if you’re going to conference with one issue on your mind, you are distorting the purposes of Christian conferencing.

But let’s return to the question: “What will happen at the General Conference in Portland?” One meaning of that question is whether the church will change its language about human sexuality; another meaning is whether we will stay together as a church.

Regarding the latter question, we have been here before. Bishop Francis Asbury was a genius when making disciples and spreading scriptural holiness across the land. And yet he was also concerned with persistent divisions in the Methodist movement, which were rooted in different perspectives about polity, doctrine, and the practice of slavery.

“The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions” first appeared in 1792 when there were disagreements about polity. When the church divided over slavery in 1844, it was recovered and published in 1849. And in God’s providence, it was rediscovered in the months leading to the 2016 General Conference, like treasure hidden in a field.

As we prepare for the General Conference, we acknowledge as leaders that we have contributed to the conditions that threaten to divide our church. And in Asbury’s abridged work we are called to confession:

It would be well if we were so innocent ourselves, so that our consciences need not call us to inquire whether this is not partly the fruit of our own miscarriages. The church’s peace lies chiefly in our hands, and if we miscarry, and won’t understand instruction, nor bear admonition, nor do our parts, how little hope will be left of our tranquility. The body languishes when the physician is as bad as the disease (pp. 64–65).

The “heart and church divisions” of which Asbury spoke are the bitter fruit of seeds planted by bishops and advocates, clergy and laity. The prophetic word—“the church’s peace lies chiefly in our hands”—carries the force of an eighth-century prophet.

The book also contains a sober reflection on the outcomes of division:

Our divisions hinder our strength. If you untwist a cable, how weak is it in the several parts of it! A threefold cord is not easily broken, but a single one is. Divide a strong current into several rivulets and how shallow and weak will the course of the water be! They hinder our doing good in public. . . . None are more crossed in their ends and designs than contentious people. We have not the mutual benefit of each other’s resources, houses, the many ways of accommodation and help for each other, as previously we had (p. 29).

Those who serve and lead in the church may over time take for granted the relationships, ministries, systems, and initiatives that have been cultivated by generations of our ancestors: strategically placed local churches, camping and campus ministries, institutions that serve the children and the aged, schools that train local pastors, deacons, and elders. Divisions in the church weaken these bonds of support and shared ministries. We call this the connection.

Our estrangement from each other originates in a disordered interior life. A disordered inner life takes visible shape in divisive and destructive practices that hinder the work of God. The cure for this condition is deeply rooted in the nature of God, who is love, and in the vision of a church that is one body. Separation from God, or the church of his Son Jesus Christ, is never God’s will.

George Santanaya observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The people called Methodist have experienced the pain of division in our scarred history. The cure awaiting our rediscovery, like treasure hidden in a field, is “a full and frequent explication of the nature, preeminence, and power of love” (p. 67).

So what will happen at the General Conference? Perhaps we will remember where we have been and, more importantly, who we are.

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3 Comments
  1. Thank you for mentioning Francis Asbury. If you interest, please visit the website for the book series about Francis Asbury. The Asbury Triptych Series opens with the book, Black Country. You can view numerous articles, podcasts, videos, and pictures about Francis Asbury and his amazing ministry at http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Enjoy.

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  2. I cringe when conferences, especially general, come up. It brings about my fuzziness on the organization of religion. I am not sure if that makes me a bad Methodist or not, but I feel like it makes me a more secure Christian. In all denominations the “rules/doctrines” are men’s interpretations (not the word I would choose) of Christ’s direction for us in micro-managed precision. In my mind, and in MUCH Bible study under various Methodist clergy, laity, clergy wives, etc. I find Christ’s lessons to be quite simple and their application to all of my brothers or all mankind (or in the political correctness I still chide from a conference, humankind). Hmmm, I feel a lay sermon coming on.

    Let’s just say, I am as nervous about the fallout as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!!

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