Even though the bishops have been trying to scoot us along, General Conference proceedings are not moving very quickly – and tomorrow is the last day. Why are there so many amendments being proposed? Why so many procedural, tactical moves? Two speculative answers.
First, almost half the delegates at this year’s General Conference are new. I’m not slamming new people (especially because some of them have made very insightful comments on our issues – and many of them have been young adults!), but I do think that many new people may not have a good sense of “pace” for getting through all the matters. And there have been lots of procedural questions and doubling back to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Probably more to the point, we are moving toward a new structure in United Methodism. As I’ve mentioned before, the UM Church is growing outside the USA and we’re trying to free them to build the structures they need (e.g. new bishops for new conferences). Whenever you start messing with the structures of a big, bureaucratic organization, you run into resistance. This matter is intensified by the anxiety on the part of some that moving to regional conferences will mean that United States United Methodism will finally remove all language from the Book of Discipline having to do with homosexual practice. And others hope that this very change will finally come to pass.
How would that happen? If the USA United Methodism became a regional conference like the African United Methodists would be a regional conference (or conferences), then we would each have our regional conference meetings. There would be a “super” General Conference that would meet to cover matters pertaining to all of United Methodism, but then regional conferences would have the flexibility to deal with matters pertaining only to them. Some people believe that, since African United Methodists generally see sexuality in more traditional Biblical terms, if they were not voting on American matters (this view assumes that rulings on sexuality would be limited to the American church, which is not a foregone assumption), then the vote would go the other way.
One of my friends did some quick math. Removing the African vote yesterday on the question of removing the “incompatibility” language regarding homosexual practice, the vote would have been roughly 2/3 in favor of removing the language to 1/3 against. In other words, the majority report would have passed and we would be changing some language in the Book of Discipline. Of course, this little hypothetical scenario assumes that Africans all voted the same way. Who knows?
So, General Conference 2008 has been crawling toward the finish line. The agenda committee today made plans to go a third session tomorrow, which means going into the evening. We were supposed to be finished by mid-afternoon.
Since I’ll be on the road some time tomorrow, this post will be my last from General Conference (I like talking to you. Please keep sending your comments), so some final mullings. United Methodists who come to General Conference are deeply committed people. They are committed to their understanding and particular expression of the Christian faith.
Our mission – as we heard times infinitum – is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This last part about world change is a new addition. Much, oh so very much, of the rhetoric (I don’t mean that term pejoratively) has been about transformation. I honestly think that many people who serve as delegates to General Conference (at least many American delegates) see our work as something like a cross between the United States Congress and a religious United Nations. We talk about “legislation” (the petitions) and we make motions and amendments and points of order and speeches for and against.
We’re also deeply activistic. We don’t have much patience for measured theological conversation. Certainly, there was much scrutiny given to petitions and amendments. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that we think such point-by-point theological interaction – with real questions and thoughtful, nuanced answers – needs to happen elsewhere, in a study committee or some other body. But then we turn around and make all kinds of theological claims (or refer to supposedly shared theological assumptions) during the conference. We listen to preachers make references to John Wesley and our Wesleyan or United Methodist tradition. We use the Methodist shibboleths – “grace” – and “If your heart is as my heart…” (this one really bugs me: have any of them actually read “Catholic Spirit?”) So, there are lots of assumptions about some kind of underlying unity of heart or mission or something.
I really want to believe that, if you dig down beneath all our diversity and divided opinions, you’ll find some ground of unity beside shared denominational name and organization. But I have to confess, I want more than assumptions. I think we have a lot of work to do. Maybe the new standing committee on faith and order will help us.
So, I’m preparing to leave General Conference with a deep sense of ambivalence. I’ve seen and chatted with some really great people – my fellow delegates included, but all across the connection. Besides, it’s just plain fun to see friends from other places and catch up with them on what’s happening in their lives. There’s abundant fellowship and affection at General Conference. Once again, that sense of the deep commitment that we all hold in common. And we’re pretty darn generous, too.
On the other hand, on certain issues (like sexuality), we are truly talking different languages. It’s surreal: we often use the same terms, but they seem to mean something different, because the desired outcome is so often diametrically opposed to the aims of other people. But it’s more than surreal. It’s nighmarish. And it’s not just about sexuality. I have the somewhat squeamish sense that even when we’re talking about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we mean vastly different (even contradictory) things.