Is there anyone who is satisfied with General Conference?
I spent much of those 10 days watching, either in person or by live streaming, and I feel as if I was witnessing the rise of a disappointing new dance: The Backslide. Akin to the Moonwalk, it seems to slide endlessly backward, all the while going nowhere.
Those who know Wesleyan theology recognize backsliding as the condition of sin in which believers forget to rely on grace (and the Means of Grace), failing to listen for and respond to the gentle leading of the Spirit, moving not toward perfection in love, but away from that desired state.
In a real sense, we could not agree on anything: restructuring, sexuality, how to be a global church. We couldn’t even agree to disagree, which is thoroughly Wesleyan (yes, I know, unless it’s an “essential”). Like the U.S. society—and perhaps the global village—we are polarized. Or that’s how it appears.
Most everyone comes to General Conference with an agenda—both literally and figuratively. Delegates and interested or invested bystanders have studied the legislation in depth and are ready to decide, to move their position forward. Many delegates arrive exhausted, amid the whirlwind of busyness, consumed by the details of this great event. Many come tied to their iPhones, Blackberries, iPads, laptops, constantly checking in with their lives beyond the convention center walls or letting the rest of the world know their every thought, sometimes unfiltered by common sense or civility (UM Communications: Please, I beg you, no more Twitter streams next to the live streaming.) Many come with plans for petitions, protest or principled pronouncements. We’ve got to get this thing right! The church is dying! The church is dying!
Theologically, of course, the institution may be in its death throes, but the church which is the Body of Christ will continue to participate in God’s mission in the world, with or without the United Methodist Church. Indeed, it’s possible that the church as a spiritual reality has already left the building. I don’t really think so, but my point is that we spend far too much time worrying about the institutional church and its demise. And, of course, we debate who is the right person or group with the right program to provide CPR (Church Preliminary Resuscitation).
Yet, those of us who study the writings and practices of John Wesley can’t help but be reminded of those prophetic words near the end of his life: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (“Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786.) Have we, the United Methodist Church, officially become Wesley’s Church of England? Or is it the UMC in the United States that is fulfilling Wesley’s prophetic concern, worrying endlessly about the form of our religion, while neglecting the power of Grace? Have we, indeed, let loose of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our tradition? (And I don’t mean the Wesleyan tradition as projected by one side or the other in this debate or that one, but the whole lot in all its messiness; both personal and social holiness, social holiness and personal holiness. Nor do I suggest that somehow we can go backward and reclaim the original movement. We can’t.)
Yet, I suspect, there are many United Methodists who, like me, find themselves among the muddled middle. Don’t get me wrong, I can be as polarizing as the next person. Anyone who knows me, knows that I can be opinionated and often passionately obstinate. I confess my failure, in this regard. I seek to do better, by the leading of Grace. Even so, as I watched General Conference (thankfully not a delegate), I was keenly aware of both sides of most positions. I could see the value in both sides (and often the theological basis for both sides). What I couldn’t see very often was the willingness of the “poles”—or those who argued most vehemently for a position—to listen and, perhaps, even change their minds. Or at the very least, nuance their position.
Our lay leader here in Oklahoma (who served on the Connectional Table), Judy Benson, when asked by the United Methodist News Service about the Call to Action and restructuring, said this: “My opinion is the problem is not with the size of the general boards. The problem is we haven’t been able to figure out a way to work together towards the common goal of making disciples.” Our church, as it currently exists, seems unwilling to compromise, to listen, to track the Spirit’s movement. We are in a rowboat on a turbulent sea, and find ourselves unwilling to row together toward a distant horizon. So we go in circles. Or drift backwards. Hopefully, Jesus is in prayer on the shore and will soon come walking toward us on these same waters.
I don’t have the answer to what ails us as a church. I’m not sure anyone does. But this semester, I have been teaching a course in John Wesley’s theology, specifically focused on sanctification and holy living. In the early annual conferences of the Methodist movement (well before any such gargantuan as General Conference emerged), they began the conference “after some time spent in prayer.” (See the Minutes of the First Annual Conference) We do have worship at General Conference, sometimes very meaningful worship. I wonder what might happen, though, if we spent the first 24 hours gathered in prayer, silent prayer especially, and listening for God? No politicking or maneuvering allowed! Can we expect holy conferencing to be holy if we haven’t quieted ourselves to listen for God?
But mostly I am concerned about how we learn to be a global church which respects vastly different cultural viewpoints. (Did anyone else notice that it was halfway through General Conference before the voting screen added other languages to “1- yes” and “2- no”?) Can we be one body? I think this may be the most urgent question we face, at least those of us in the muddled middle.
In the end, I believe the Spirit is still dancing and inviting us to join in, following some new steps that don’t fit anyone’s expectations. Especially mine.
Dr. Robinson is an ordained elder in the UMC and academic dean and associate professor of United Methodist studies and theology at Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University. firstname.lastname@example.org.