I am preparing for Portland and ten days of “reporting” from General Conference. I have intentionally not weighed in on so many of the topics generating dialogue, discussion and debate. I made a commitment to listen and observe in preparation. This gives me lots to talk about in the next two weeks…
The good news is that General Conference 2016 will not merely pick up where General Conference 2012 left off. By God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (and the judicial council) GC 2012 did not adopt the short-sighted and ill-advised restructuring “Plan White Good Ol’ Boys Network” for the UMC. Having forgotten that form does indeed follow function, we could have tied our hands and limited our options as we evolve into a truly global church.
And that is where the real focus of GC 2016 needs to be. Not on Rule 44. Not on divestiture. Not on a Global Book of Discipline. Not on Episcopal term limits. This General Conference promises to be historic in that it very well may be the last General Conference where the majority of delegates come from the northern hemisphere. The continued growth on the African continent and the emerging United Methodist populations throughout the global south mean that we are at a tipping point. We are on the verge of an Afro-Centric global Methodism. This changes everything. For some, this is excellent news — a perfect witness to God’s continued work in the world. For others, there is deep fear (and some loathing) that the United States will lose control and no longer call the shots. Becoming a worldwide inter-cultural body of Christ is something we have paid lip-service to for years. As the playing field levels, we are now forced to explore precisely what this will mean.
Economic justice, education, human rights, acts of violence, drugs and other addictions, human sexual morality and ethics will no longer be defined and driven from a USA perspective. Here is an opportunity to engage in biblical interpretation and the authority of scripture on a completely new level. Our competing theologies can be given equal respect and careful analysis. The rich tapestry of beliefs, behaviors, and belongings can be appreciated, not in terms of right/wrong, good/bad, enlightened/backwards, progressive/traditional, but in diversity, pluralism, and breadth.
Sexuality — LGBTQI — morality — respect for scripture — authority of Book of Discipline — the church as a uniquely human, flawed, imperfect, yet always evolving entity: this will undoubtedly occupy much of our time and energy. Ignore cultural, contextual, generational, theological, philosophical differences. Continue to reduce this complex and contemporary challenge to a simplistic, once and for all time, ultimate truth issue of modern moral judgment, and we can guarantee it will not, cannot, be resolved. Lock into a good/evil, right/wrong, moral/immoral debate and use it as excuse to destroy by human intolerance what God has consecrated and ordained. This ongoing dance merely points out how small and petty human beings are, especially in the face of God’s creation. There are so many struggles of life and death. There are depths of human suffering and unimaginable horror that the church has the power to do something about. There is such great need that can be addressed and there is such brokenness that needs healing. And United Methodists choose to give their attention to who deserves to be let in and who demands to be shut out. Jesus wept.
And for the next two weeks we will have opportunity to focus on the very best that we can be. Through worship, prayer, fellowship, hard, committed, faithful work, women and men from all over our planet will join together to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling — and try to honor both our God and our church through our efforts. The amount of love and goodwill is palpable. The adversarial encounters are unfortunate, but they are not the whole story. My experience of General Conference is that it is a process of flawed and imperfect people who, through love of God and commitment to Christ, seek to move on to perfection. It is no wonder that we struggle and battle as we do. This is the brilliance and blessing of God’s creation: we are not all the same. And yet, we can come together. Perhaps by the miracle of God’s Holy Spirit new seeds of tolerance, acceptance, mutual respect and admiration will arise. Perhaps we will leave Portland in eleven days better than we arrived. Perhaps we will awaken to the full potential of all we CAN be, and stop worrying so much about what we’re not. I can’t wait to see what happens.