General Conference always includes – at the beginning – speeches by a bishop (the Episcopal Address) and by a chosen lay leader (Laity Address). For the first time in the history of United Methodism, a Young People’s Address was added. So, until mid-afternoon today, we listened to representatives of the church share their assessment of United Methodism and their vision of the future.
For starters – the tone and style of these addresses. Denominational leaders tend to be understated most of the time in their formal addresses. Some pointed comments were made, but always in that…what tone is it? Guarded. Careful. Even when we’re making some sort of prophetic statement, we have to watch how we say it. Even when we “get spontaneous,” we do it in a planned, controlled way. It leaves one dissatisfied, maybe even a little cranky, like going to the soft drink machine and getting a class full of very flat root beer; no bubbles; no fizz.
The young people, on the other hand, were quite fizzy. They were, as one might imagine, much more forthright and strong in their assessments of our condition and bolder in their vision for the future. You know how young people are – all idealistic and such. They were well-organized and what they said had punch. They clearly called a denomination to set aside the old, tired, faultlines of Left and Right. We all cheered, of course, but do we really get what they are saying to us?
In some ways I was quite impressed with what our denominational leaders said today. We really do want to do things differently. We are all sick of business as usual. There was a powerful call to realize the abundant life we already have, rather than believing the myth of scarcity, thus being afraid to dream too big. At other moments during the day, my eyes welled with the tears of yearning. We use the term “United Methodist Church” far too often. It’s still about “Methodism” much too much; still too many assumptions about our denomination’s prominence.
One little rant: it bugs me the way we change hymn lyrics to reflect our concerns about “justice.” You know the old hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing?” One stanza says, “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim…” It was changed to “My gracious Savior…” “Master,” of course, is rendered unuseable because of its racist or imperialist connotation. Ugh. Sometimes we just do silly, even absurd, things, offending one value (the historical integrity of a hymn) for the sake of another (avoidance of sounding oppressive). There’s a hermeneutical issue here: the particular connotation that I choose to give a word means that you will be limited in what you can say. Changing words like this is an act of power that strikes me as, in a way, an abuse of power. It is maddeningly self-righteous. I really, really, really wish we wouldn’t do that.