Reflections on the work of the global church at General Conference

Romans 8, selected verses

Hebrews 10: 23 - 25

 

Melissa began her letter to us reflecting on Wesleyan theologian Albert Outler’s assertion that Methodists were a people who were always becoming.

 

Indeed – what a season of becoming we are in.

 

Another Wesleyan theologian, Theodore Runyon, articulated a related idea that suggests the necessary ingredients for transformation. Drawing from Wesley’s preaching, he observed that there is a relationship between right belief (orthodoxy), right practice (orthopraxy), and right experience (orthopathy).  This is some Metho-nerd stuff, but indulge me.

 

John Wesley’s attention to a “method” of Christian growth specifically sought to

introduce people to solid scriptural teaching, to regular participation in worship and the

sacraments, to small group experiences that held them accountable to one another for personal growth, to attention to generosity as a response to God’s love, and to works of justice and mercy that demonstrated God’s presence in the world, and ultimately to a transforming personal experience with God. Wesley sought to combine a right understanding with the right outward works and right response to those works, which could then result in the right ongoing experience of God. Theodore Runyon identifies this trinity of understanding, acting, and then experiencing or feeling as orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy.

 

As United Methodists, we have been in a season of protracted wrestling about right belief and right practice – and for many of us, that has resulted in an experience of dissonance. For some it has even been a season of rejection and deep hurt.

 

…we have been part of how the whole of creation is groaning as it suffers the pains of labor to birth the new thing that God is doing in the world…

 

My deep prayer is that we have actually returned to our “big tent” where we have not called OUT one specific group of people as somehow incompatible. God’s love and God’s grace is at the core of our orthodoxy.  Now it is reflected in our practice and hopefully over time will be more universally part of the gathered church’s experience.

 

I am still processing a lot – and my responsibility in this moment is to de-center my own reactions and my own experience in order to help us here in our little corner of the world to live into what God is doing.

 

So what happened?

Let’s start with the hard stuff, although I think of it more as complicated than hard:

 

1)      Approving the departure of four conferences in Eurasia.  If we have to say goodbye, Bishop Edward Khegay demonstrated grace in separation. I am grateful for the work that Faith was involved in to support churches and theological education in Russia under the leadership of Rev. Ken Jones.  We will continue to pray for our Methodist siblings who struggle to practice their traditional faith amidst political oppression.

 

2)      Facing the realities of the post-disaffiliation UMC.  25% of membership has left in the US.  This means that the quadrennial budget for the general church is significantly smaller – mor than 40% smaller than the budget that was passed at the 2016 General Conference.

 

3)      Which brings me to another thought about what is hard – as a church, we struggle with scarcity. We spend more time talking (arguing) about money than we do about the mission we are called to. My hope and prayer is that we here at Faith will continue to build our muscles for faith in God’s abundance so that we are just one small part of a movement that conveys that in the larger church. The world is telling us that when one person gets more pie, someone else will receive less. It’s not pie. It’s God’s abundance and there is plenty. Amen?

 

4)      Not all of the African delegates were in attendance. There are LOTS of reasons why this is true. It has been especially difficult to secure visas. There were irregularities in delegate elections from conference to conference making it difficult to confirm who was officially elected. There were reported delays in the issuing of required travel documents from the General Conference.  It is estimated that as many as 70 African delegates were not seated. To be the global church, we must do better. We must also not succumb to name calling, finger pointing and rumor mills.

 

5)      Finally, doing business in five languages is a BEAR. Everything printed is available in four languages: English, French, Portuguese and Kiswahili.  But additional translation work is done in ASL, Russian, Tagalog, Korean, German and Spanish. There were 180 translators needed the first week to support the 15 legislative committees, and 70 during the plenary sessions the second week. Even the best translation complicates understanding of sensitive topics. In a conversation about the number of Bishops needed in Africa, there was much confusion between concepts like sharing, combining, and merging.  The power of Pentecost is understanding across wildly different contexts, and that miracle is far bigger than merely language translation. May we continue to strive for understanding across our global connection.

 

 

 

 

Now….let’s celebrate the good stuff – or perhaps more specifically the liberating stuff:

 

No matter what the church says, decisions, pronouncements about me, I am a child of God.

 

Mark Miller, choral composer and professor of sacred music at Yale Divinity School and Drew University, wrote the song Child of God in late 2013 after United Methodist elder Frank Schaefer was defrocked by church trial for conducting a same sex wedding for his own son.

 

The delegates voted overwhelmingly to remove language about the incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, ending a ban on the ordination and appointment of LGBTQIA clergy.

 

They also voted to support revised social principles – which lay out our theological understanding on a wild range of issues – so that we are better able to operate in our different contexts. This included a rich conversation on the last day of general conference about the definition of marriage. It was ultimately a delegate from Zimbabwe that offered “a third way,” a dual definition of marriage that allows for the global reality of different legal definitions of marriage. The revised language is this:

 

Within the church, we affirm marriage as a sacred lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith, an adult man and woman of consenting age, or two adult persons of consenting age into union with one another…

 

The revision of the social principles also removes final references to homosexuality as incompatible.

 

Beloved, no being – because every being is created in God’s image – is beyond God’s love, grace, call.

 

The delegates recognized that there are issues best addressed in our local contexts.  We heard compelling reasons for there to be more Bishops in Africa and fewer Bishops in the United States. There was also hope expressed for more generosity and financial self-sufficiency among the African conferences. The church in Africa is growing – thanks be to God. And that work needs our support.

 

All of the petitions related to regionalization were approved.

 

“Regionalization represents an effort to put the church’s different geographical regions on equal footing and to make the General Conference less US – centric.  The current central conferences and the US would become regional conferences, with the same authority to pass legislation for greater missional impact.

 

This work requires a modification of our constitution – an effort that must be supported by a 2/3 aggregate majority of all voting members of annual conferences across the world.  There is work to be done to maximize the understanding of how regionalization will work…expect to keep hearing about this for the next year. I expect the Baltimore-Washington conference will address this matter at the 2025 annual conference.

 

Time and time again, the delegates worked with the presiding Bishops to find a way forward toward consensus of the body.  There was almost NO rancorous debate. Having watched the church fight in public for the last 5 general conferences, there was an amazing difference. There was a reaching TOWARD one another, listening for understanding, testing language and compromises and third ways. It was beautiful even when tedious.

 

Deacons – the order of clergy that connect the church to the world – were granted sacramental authority (the ability to preside at baptisms and communion) in their appointed contexts. Again – this is Metho-nerd inside baseball stuff, but it recognizes the gifting and call of our deacons.

 

The delegates also approved a proposed constitutional amendment addressing the denomination’s commitment to eradicating racism. If you have thought anti-racism a trendy topic or the concern du jour of a specific bishop, please think again. Back to that concept of right belief shaping right practice and right experience - if we truly believe that all are beloved of God then we as a church will strive toward God’s kin-dom where:

 

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3: 28 -  29)

 

Eradicating racism involves setting our sights on a better world and committing our time, talent, and treasure to that work.

 

There was so much more – 

Copies of the legislative recap printed in Narthex. We will also send out a link to a great recap video early this week.

 

As I mentioned earlier, I am still working on my own understanding of all that has happened.

 

But here is what I know – you all have been doing good work to be the fully inclusive church. You here at Faith have been living into the understanding that God’s grace is so much bigger than our human hearts can fathom or reflect.

 

There is work to be done and we need bread for the journey, and so today, we will gather at the table with those who have gone before us, those who are working with us now across the globe and those who will follow because they have heard the good news of Jesus, the Risen Christ.

 

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

 

 


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