The last day of General Conference, May 2, was a doozy for ram-rodding business through the system. It always happens that people start leaving that last day, particualrly international delegates who have to start their long journeys home.
As I drove away from Ft. Worth Friday afternoon, I felt a little sheepish leaving my delegates in a lurch, but I had to return to Winfield. Saturday and Sunday were full of college convocation and graduation activities and since I was a reserve delegate, and since I had college responsibilities, I thought I probably should go ahead and leave.
In terms of the amount of work yet to be done, it was not pretty for the last day of General Conference. As the day began, there were still almost 90 petitions that needed action. (As Nathan Stanton and I crossed the border into Kansas at about 6:00pm that evening, he called one of our delegates. They still had 50 petitions to work through.) They somehow managed to wrap it all up and close the books on yet another conference.
My view of the combined highlights of the final day and General Conference in toto:
1. From the beginning to the end (when the budget was considered), we talked of four missional priorites:
– Developing principled Christian leaders;
– Creating new places for new people by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones;
– Engaging in ministries with the poor; and
– Improving global health, especially attacking the killer diseases of poverty.
They’re huge. I’m especially interested in the first one, but all are critically important. And we’re trying to marshal our human and financial resources to address them. This move is evidence of the very encouraging attempts of a large, bureaucratic denomination to get our numerous agencies together to pull for common concerns. May God bless and optimize these efforts and this vision!
2. Some change in the Book of Discipline language related to abortion. I’ve been a supporter of our stance on this question, but, I admit, I take a “pro-life” reading of it and some do not. It says that we recognize the “tragic conflicts of life with life.” We condemn birth control abortions (most of them done in this country). We also decry gender selection abortions. As with homosexual practice, abortion is a political football in the church, one of those topics that mires us in political debate. Thus, I find the additions to the language encouraging because it helps us get to actual ministry rather than mere rhetoric: We will support ““ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies” and we will support those ministries which help women “find feasible alternatives to abortion.” I like these statements because, regardless of how we feel about the rights of women and fetuses (or babies, if you prefer), we can surely work to reduce the need for abortions by engaging in these aims.
3. Because I’m a bishop candidate, I find this next item intriguing, though it actually passed earlier in the conference: we raised the mandatory retirement age for bishops from 66 to 68. I think it’s a good move. If a bishop is in good health and still has passion and gifts for ministry, why not make it so that she/he can serve? Surely a person of such venerable age also has wisdom!?
I’m not sure I ever have “final” thoughts, but let me try the following in response to General Conference 2008. First, there is a core United Methodism that is, I believe, firm, if not as vocal as some other parts of the church. I know some people who might read this comment will be offended, but I make this claim because, in my chats with people across the 10 days, I often heard a sentiment that matched mine. On many of the hot issues, there was another opinion that often went unvoiced. The people who go to the microphone at General Conference, most of the time, are pretty bold. The vast majority of delegates never approach the mic. I’m going to avoid using the word “middle” or “center” (there is nothing automatically virtuous about being there), but I do believe there is a core United Methodism that is strong.
On the other hand, the sheer range of ideas, commitments, beliefs and experiences that fit under the denominational label makes “United Methodist” as an identifier almost meaningless. There was a lot of talk (and I mean a lot) about “holy conferencing,” but in truth, some people were there to protect their interests, pure and simple. I think, in large part, our structure is to blame. I mentioned in an earlier blog that we act almost like a religious United Nations. I think our denomination has been shaped too much by American liberal (no pejorative intended) democratic principles. (Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon are marking more sense to me all the time.) In this framework, advocating for one’s one’s interests is expected. We may use the term “rights,” but often the issue is really “interests.” Some interests are diametrically opposed to other interersts. There is deep animosity in our church. Some United Methodists are enemies of others.
We try to make nice about this animosity by interpreting the hatred as just the emotional heat and pressure of General Conference. We’re kidding ourselves.
As I finish this blog, I’m keenly aware of the disaster in Myanmar. One of our students who graduated Sunday is from that country. Her father is a United Methodist bishop there. The latest count I’ve heard is that more than 20,000 are confirmed dead with more than twice that many missing and as many as a million people homeless. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has set up an account for the Myanmar Emergency. I just made a donation. If you wish to do the same – and I beg you to do – the reference number is UMCOR Advance #3019674.