Is a global gathering of thousands of “members” for a two week legislative meeting a community? General Conference does not feel to me like community. It could be. We are baptized to the same faith, confessing the same God and Savior, believing in the Spirit of God to be present in our midst. We all connect to the Cross and Flame, talk fluent Methospeak and Wesleyanisms, and proudly support the work of UMCOR. We have many things in common and even agree on about 65% of the Holy Bible. Sounds like the foundation for a promising community.
But healthy community is much more than holding common beliefs and practices in common, and employing common logos and language. Community demands rapport, respect, empathy and profound regard for others. Community demands a commitment to a common good that supersedes and transcends any individual agenda, or the interests of only one segment. This is what is missing at General Conference. Everything that makes for communal health is absent from our gathering. Instead of real rapport, we have a tenuous tolerance for members of our spiritual family with whom we disagree. Respect is reserved only for those who agree with us, or, rarely, for those who disagree with us in an unthreatening way. True empathy — the ability to place yourself in not only another’s shoes, but even in the shoes of someone you don’t care for — is replaced by a superficial sympathy. We are sorry for people who aren’t smart enough to agree with us. In cases of our deep divide over human sexuality, not only is our regard not profound, it is disguised as thinly veiled contempt. I cannot fathom a way to defend any of our modes and methods of disagreement as “Christian.” It is disturbing to read comments from observers outside our denomination. “Hypocrisy,” “judgmentalism,” and “hate” come up very frequently on the feeds of people analyzing our process so far. Yes, sure, it’s not the whole story, but does it really matter? People around the globe are describing our behavior as a body with these terms. Like it or not, it is our witness through the law of unintended consequences.
Not that anyone would pay much attention, but I have three proposals for The United Methodist Church between the end of General Conference 2016 and the beginning of General Conference 2020. These proposals would be assignments for practice and preparation in local churches and annual conferences in this four year period.
Proposal #1: We will make consensus conversation processes normative during the four years. We will learn how to have true Christian conference and civil engagement on a regular basis. We don’t improve from Annual Conference to Annual Conference, General Conference to General Conference because we don’t use such processes regularly. Every time we come together and try to use consensus processes and interactive small groups, we do them poorly because they are so foreign to us. To make interactive engagement practices normative means we will practice and get good at them in preparation for the next General Conference.
Proposal #2: We will formalize positions and document the various positions and perspectives, giving fair and equal opportunity to explain and defend our respective beliefs. We will allow people to express their feelings as well as their thoughts and we will encourage our congregational leaders to share the full panorama of perspectives through learning opportunities. Most people still confess to being ignorant of the full range of arguments and perspectives. Of course, this would focus on human sexuality, since this is such a critical issue, but it would be a process to apply to any key issue or disagreement. We would use a formational approach to information, leading to transformation and radical Christian education.
Proposal #3: We will develop a prioritized Haustafel — a German word meaning “New Testament Household Code.”. In German scholarship, it was discerned that there were formal structures and expectations for family and household in the Mediterranean context during Paul’s ministry. What we can learn from such organization is that healthy household differentiate essentials from non-essentials. What are the absolute most important rules and expectations to keep a family healthy and strong. What things are less important? If we can arrive at a short-list of “house rules” we all agree are vital, then this is where we focus, and we simply let go of the things that are least important. In dozens of forced-choice exercises, prayer, healing, serving, mercy, justice, and compassion head the values lists; specific behaviors and beliefs still make the list, but way down out of the top ten. Our baptismal covenant is to work toward the vision and will of God for creation and humankind. Working for has power to transform, working against keeps us in bondage.
I am not saying this is THE answer or that it will fix anything. However, it is a proactive, intentional and strategic approach to bringing us into meaningful engagement. I disagree with people who say we have tried everything and now is the time to separate. I don’t believe we have ever made this our priority, and I do not believe we have made a decisive and sustained attempt to transform our divisions. We keep doing the same badly designed and poorly executed exercises and believe they will get us where we need to be. Amateur hour is over. It is time for us to get serious and actually prove whether we want reconciliation and healing within our part of the body of Christ or not.