Expecting a Great General Conference
General Conference is coming! I suspect that many of us approach General Conference with more anxiety than hope. We hope that we shall leave General Conference focused, unified and inspired. We are anxious that the General Conference do no harm so that we can stay together until a better day.
I am a realist about any General Conference. I do not put all of my hopes in the actions in any General Conference. A General Conference is a type of species called an ecclesiastical synod. In the history of the church synods have rarely been very satisfying. In the 4th century Gregory Nazianzen spoke for many when he wrote, "Synods and conventions I salute from afar since I have experienced that most of them (to speak moderately) are but sorry affairs." (Epistle 124). The most important work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church is not always manifest the most in its synods.
It is not that there cannot be a great General Conference. Surely, we need a great General Conference. We need to be able to say one day, "This was the great General Conference that marked the turning point in the history of The United Methodist Church."
Yet here is the truth: it is not what comes out of a General Conference that matters; it is what goes in. There can be a great General Conference if there is a movement of renewal that comes to expression in a General Conference at a critical moment in history.
I am not sure that we are ready yet for a great General Conference. I do think that we must begin to expect a great General Conference sometime in the near future, and we must begin to prepare for it.
In order to prepare for a great General Conference, we must overcome some of our habits we developed in the 20th century. We developed habits that were appropriate for an earlier time, but they are habits that no longer fit our society. The world has changed much over the last 50 years, but we havenít.
The habits that we need to change are of two species. We need to change some of our intellectual habits, and we also need to change some of our institutional habits.
I believe that we have developed certain intellectual habits that are inhibiting our effectiveness in mission. These habits include continuing to fight the same boring old battle between modernism and fundamentalism, denigrating doctrine, and neglecting the Great Tradition of the ecumenical church (in which the Wesleyan heritage is rooted).
The 20th century began with the battle between modernism and fundamentalism. It was not much of a battle in the Methodist churches. The great historian of American religion, Sydney E. Ahlstrom, said, "In Methodism, where religious experience rather than doctrine was the major concern, the liberal cause becameÖ.pervasive and in Northern Methodism as nowhere else in the nation it penetrated to the grassroots" (Yale University Press: A Religious History of the American People, 1972). This battle was about who was going to control Christendom in America, the modernists or the fundamentalists. I do not regret the outcome of this battle because modernism or Protestant Liberalism did rescue the church from the threat of intellectual obscurantism. Yet here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, and many people want to continue to fight the same old battle. The news is that Christendom doesnít exist anymore. The question is not who is going to control Christendom but how can our church evangelize the millions of people who are outside the church and who have no idea of what Christians believe and how Christians behave.
We are in a new missionary context, and it is time to make a correction of our theological habits. What we need to do today is to offer to people who are not Christians a compelling positive presentation of the basic beliefs of the Christian church. I think that often we are not doing that because we fear that a positive presentation of basic Christian beliefs will make us sound like fundamentalists. So we are letting the fears that we felt at the beginning of the 20th century blind us to the tasks that we must embrace at the beginning of the 21st century. Our past theological habits nurtured instincts within us that do not fit our current situation and that do not serve us well. If we are going to be effective in our mission in the 21st century then we must learn how to teach people what Christians believe in contradistinction to what others believe and how Christians behave in contradistinction to how others behave. Now I realize that Christian discipleship is "not what you know, itís Who you know" (Mark Nation in Abingdon Press: Theology Without Foundations, 1994). Our purpose is to enable people to get to know Jesus Christ. Yet the Jesus we know is the One who presents himself to us in the canon of the churchís Scriptures as attested in the ecumenical tradition of the church. Essential to introducing people to Jesus Christ is teaching them what Christians believe and how Christians behave. Thus the missionary task of the church requires us to care more about teaching doctrine than has been characteristic of us in the last 100 years.
How do we teach people the basic doctrines of the church without becoming fundamentalists? We do it by learning how to reappropriate the Great Tradition of the historic and global ecumenical church. This is the tradition of the apostolic and catholic faith. The apostolic and catholic faith is bigger and broader than either Protestant Liberalism or fundamentalism, and it provides the solid common ground upon which we can stand as we face the responsibilities of the church in the next century. As the great historian of the living Christian tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan, stated, "By drawing the boundary line of orthodoxy, the church has in effect declared the difference between a theological fair ball and a theological foul ball, but it has still left a vast space within which a ball is in play" (Harvard University Press: The Melody of Theology, 1988). If we develop a theological sensibility that enables us to be grounded upon the apostolic and catholic faith, then we will find enough room for responsible theological liberty and also the way to offer the substance of what the church believes to people who do not yet understand what it means to be a Christian.
We have also developed certain institutional habits that inhibit the effectiveness of the mission of the church. I will not attempt to enumerate all of the institutional habits we have developed. Isnít it sufficient just to point out that The United Methodist Church has hardly changed at all in its institutional form while the world around us has changed dramatically?
I am fully aware how difficult it is for institutions to change. As the great historian of Western culture, Jacques Barzun said, "Institutional self-reform is rare; the conscience is willing, but the culture is tough" (Harper Collins Publishers: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 2000).
Nevertheless, let me offer a few constructive suggestions for change.
First, we need to rebuild our connection from the ground up. One of the concerns that many of us have today is the emergence of congregationalism in The United Methodist Church. There is a strong feeling in many places that all that really matters is the local congregation. The rest of the life of the church is viewed as an expense the local congregation canít afford. I believe that the health of local congregations is of primary importance; yet I think the way of congregationalism is a mistake. For one thing, it is based upon our ecclesiology that is contrary to both the Methodist tradition and the larger ecumenical tradition. For another thing, it is beset by a blindness to the significant work of the church for the cause of Jesus Christ in the world beyond the local congregation. Still, there is something in this mood of congregationalism that we need to pay attention to. It is an expression of the real alienation that is felt by clergy and laity toward the rest of the connection of The United Methodist Church. This sense of alienation must be overcome. The way to overcome it is not by succumbing to congregationalism and thus violating our own ecclesiology, but by rebuilding the connection from the ground up.
There are two things we can do. One thing we can do is to rebuild the connection horizontally. Presently our connection exists as a vertical relationship between a local church and the rest of the church. What is needed is an effort to build the connection horizontally among all the churches in an annual conference. Every congregation ought to be in some kind of relationship with other congregations so that they can help one another to fulfill their mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and witness to the reign of God. In practical terms this would mean the creation of cooperative parishes in geographical locations, partnerships for mission between affluent congregations and congregations serving the poor, teaching-learning relationships between missional congregations and congregations needing transformation, and sharing of ideas and resources among congregations that share an affinity with one another. If we could rebuild the horizontal connection among congregations in annual conferences we shall experience a rebirth of the meaning of "connection." Connection would no longer mean merely some institutional organization but a web of relationships that exist for mutual support and accountability in fulfilling the mission of the church in the world.
Second, we need to develop a new vision of how to structure the connection beyond the annual conference. In 2000 the General Conference basically rejected the report of the Connectional Process Team. In 2004 the General Conference will vote on establishing a Connectional Table. It is my judgment that we have not yet developed a compelling vision of how we should order our life together to fulfill our mission in the world.
I speak only for myself, but I believe that the only way we shall develop a vision and a plan is if the Council of Bishops would be willing to embrace this task as part of the bishopís responsibility to provide temporal oversight to the whole church. As general superintendents bishops are in a unique position to see the life of the whole church. It would not be an easy task for the Council of Bishops, but it would be a great service to the church. I believe there is enough vision, experience and wisdom in the Council for it to step forward and embrace this task.
My first two suggestions, then, deal with rebuilding our connection. My third suggestion for institutional reform deals more directly with our witness in the world as a church. It is a suggestion appropriate for a church that understands its task as one of loving God and loving our neighbors, of integrating personal and social holiness, of practicing both evangelism and social justice. We need a new global social creed.
At the beginning of the 20th century Methodists led the way in developing the first social creed. It was a vision of concrete objectives that needed to be realized in order to be faithful to the will of God who calls humanity to create a more just social order. After the objectives of the social creed were realized, we began to develop a long and sometimes vague set of social principles to guide our witness as a church. I believe that what we need now is a new social creed for the 21st century. It should contain concrete objectives for the creation of a more just social order today. It ought to be global in scope. Perhaps one way of beginning would be to collect the social statements of other Methodist and Christian bodies around the world so that we can learn from them. The global crises of environmental deterioration, poverty and hunger, war and terrorism, slavery, ethnic strife and genocide, and suppression of human freedoms (including religious freedom) require that the church try to develop a concise and compelling social creed that could guide our witness as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Well, what would a great General Conference look like? It would be a gathering of diverse people united by faith in Jesus Christ with a mature theology reflecting the Great Tradition of the ecumenical church expressed in liturgy, sermons, and statements. It would be a conference that embraced a renewed connection for the sake of an exciting mission as proposed by the bishops of the church. It would adopt a new global social creed to govern our public witness to the world. It would be a synod where the Holy Spirit had his say rather than caucuses, parties, regions; and everyone left focused, united and inspired.
Timothy W. Whitaker