I am currently attending the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. This is where United Methodists make decisions about the nature of their denomination and the priorities of its connectional ministry. We have the good sense to do this only once every four years rather than more frequently, like some other churches.
I have been trying to understand why it is such a difficult meeting, even in a church that is doing so much good around the globe. We have spent considerable time just establishing the rules we will use to manage the numerous conversations that will come before us in the days ahead. Where there is low trust and high anxiety there will be lengthy discussion of rules. It may be that the reason for this atmosphere is the nexus of three issues:
- Missiology. This is our understanding of how we do the work of mission and evangelism in the world. United Methodists have a desire to avoid colonialism. No matter where you come from, you are a full member, with all the rights, responsibilities and privileges involved. You get a vote. You get to share your opinion and your way of seeing things. When we gather, delegates come from all over the world and represent many countries and cultures. Some say that General Conference is like the U.S. Congress. It is much more like the United Nations. Delegates have to attend to outlook differences that come from racial and cultural backgrounds. Language translation takes time. We see the world very differently, and we often have to describe our ideas two or three times so that we can understand and be understood. Because every delegate from every part of the globe has been brought here by the church and is given an equal vote, patience and a desire to learn from others is the order of the day. That work is worthy and weary-making at the same time.
- Ideology. We are a broad tent denomination. Most United Methodists in the U.S. are centrists. We are Republicans and Democrats, and we include serious liberals and conservatives. We do not see all social issues the same but cling to the belief that the love of Christ is a sufficient bonding agent to keep us together when we disagree. And we disagree often on many things. We share a lot. So much sharing. So many opinions on so many things that General Conference delegates bring two large books of legislative proposals with them and work on them the whole time we are here.Embracing a broad ideology makes meeting together difficult in a time when citizens in the U.S., who are about 48 percent of the total delegates at this meeting, seem to have a growing intolerance with differing social views. It is, after all, an election year in America. Centrists are seen as impassive, even cowardly. Those on the far right or left are sometimes characterized as unreasonably angry. In our local churches we often handle this with polite silence. At General Conference we speak out loud. At microphones. On live stream. Adding to the calculus of this environment is the observation that most delegates from countries outside the U.S. are more conservative on many important issues than most U.S. delegates, and the math gets more and more complicated as the meeting progresses.
- Theology. My observation is that United Methodists have more agreement on the Christian faith as described by the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds than I have experienced in my lifetime. Those who see Jesus’ resurrection as a quaint metaphor are a tiny fraction of our clan. Our differences are often in the interpretation of scripture, especially in regards to how we see the LGBT community. For some, acceptance of any lifestyle or practice beyond heterosexuality is a denial of the Bible’s authority. For others, the changing interpretation of the Bible in light of current understanding of human identity, science, sociology and a host of other topics is seen as a historic norm. Those who hold this view are comfortable with this process, even if it is unsettling to initially experience a change in social norms, such as when women were ordained as clergy or different races were welcomed into the church.This theological difference around the way we see the Bible does not diminish the importance of the Scripture for any of us. But it is a very different way to apply it to your life and beliefs.
General Conference is the place where these three important issues meet. That is why it can be difficult to talk about a given piece of legislation in a committee or in the plenary session. This is to be expected. We have made a decision to relate to people who sometimes challenge our worldview even as we celebrate one faith and one Lord. The question most of us ask as we gratefully return to the silence of a hotel room at night is whether the blessed bind that ties us together in love can sustain itself in the months and years ahead. It seems increasingly frayed. It helps me to observe that what we are doing here is inherently challenging and countercultural. Extending love to and attempting to learn from the other always has been.