Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Wrap Up, General Conference

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.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Down to the Wire

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.

Oh well...