By Patricia Farris, Special Contributor…
Is the glass half full or half empty? It’s a trick question, of course, because the answer is always “Yes.”
But in a win-lose paradigm, only one side can be right.
And so, there are those, including my friend and colleague, Claremont School of Theology Professor Jack Jackson, who see the glass following General Conference 2012, as half, or less, empty. (See Dr. Jackson’s essay, “Breaking up is hard, but right thing for UMC,” Reporter Oct. 19.) Echoing the proposed “amicable separation” solution of 2008, the only course seems to be one of separation, in which the Western Jurisdiction and others of like mind agree to walk away.
This interpretation sees the situation through the legislative frame that shapes the General Conference debates and votes: a win-lose frame. And given that the General Conference is hardly a level playing field, and that lots of money is spent every four years to direct the voting and the outcome, I would agree with him that nothing much is going to change on that front anytime soon. (Never mind that even some Central Conference delegates in Tampa were eager to talk with me quietly about how attitudes are changing at home. A gay son . . . a divided family . . . the devastation of AIDS. We’re changing, they told me, though the culture of silence is still so heavy that it prevents many from speaking up.)
Is the glass half full or half empty? This time, the Hamilton/Slaughter amendment offered the GC a way to answer “Yes.” But when it became clear that that vote had been shut down, too, something shifted deep in the body.
Having wrestled with the issues of inclusiveness over the last many sessions of the Western Jurisdictional Conference, a new frame has emerged from the bottom up or the inside out. It’s a frame that envisions a different cup. A cup overflowing.
It was Bishop Melvin Talbert who put it into words. He had come to General Conference, he said, anticipating ecclesial disobedience. But in that crucible of prayer and pain, he received a new vision, one of biblical obedience. Inspired by Bishop Talbert, we in the Western Jurisdiction coalesced nearly unanimously in our intention to simply show forth the God we know to be the God of love. This was the outcome of decades of struggling together around these issues while living into the truth of our lives. Biblical obedience will happen in many different ways across the congregations and ministries of the Western Jurisdiction. It’s about being the church within the church, witnessing to the bountiful and limitless love of God.
As a pastor, I know that it is long past time to openly and faithfully extend the full ministry of the church to those already in our pews, those who had been baptized and confirmed in our congregations, those who sing in the choir each week, those in the UMW . . . all the precious people whom God has created, gay and lesbian as well as straight. It is time to be clear that the bounty of God’s love and grace includes them all. It’s not about arguing over a few verses of Scripture. It’s about the incarnation. It’s about grace. It’s about the beloved community, the body of Christ. And it’s about witnessing to our faith to all those who have been hurt and cast aside by our narrow and punitive policies.
I’m firmly convinced that what we’re now experiencing is God creating a new way to bring forth new life in the church, making room for growth in the church, spiritually and numerically. It’s what theologian Jürgen Moltmann called “the inner renewal of the Church by the spirit of Christ,” and “the Church in the presence and power of the Spirit.” This is a new frame from which to look at where we are, a frame shaped by the work of the Holy Spirit, God present with us for guidance, for comfort and for strength. The Holy Spirit is continuing to bring new life to the church, empowering it for ministry in the world, bearing witness to God’s reconciliation, healing and transformation as a foretaste of the coming Reign of God.
Will there continue to be diverse views of all this among us as we go forward? Certainly. The work of the World Council of Churches on the Nature and Purpose of the Church is helpful here: “Diversity is not the same as division. Within the Church, divisions (heresies, schisms, political conflicts, expression of hatred, etc.) threaten God’s gift of communion. Christians are called to work untiringly to overcome divisions to prevent legitimate diversities from becoming causes of division, and to live a life of diversities reconciled.” We’ve still got a lot of work to do with one another.
We in the Western Jurisdiction aren’t going anywhere, despite repeated invitations from others to walk away. We are as committed United Methodists as we ever have been. Biblical obedience is not about threat, but gift; not so much a challenge as a joyful witness and invitation. We are living into God’s claim on our hearts and the call we feel, lay and clergy, to let God’s Kingdom shine forth. This new life is pastoral, confessional, scriptural, theological and missional. It’s about obeying the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. And it’s about doing so graciously, honestly, non-violently, hopefully, so that the dialogue, the prayer and the searching continue, in our various congregations and in the church at large.
Is the cup half full or half empty? Wrong question. The cup is overflowing with love and grace. Clearly God isn’t finished with any of us yet, nor with “the people called Methodist.”
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
The Rev. Farris is senior minister of First UMC of Santa Monica, Calif., and a veteran delegate to General Conference and Western Jurisdictional Conference.