"So what do you think will happen at the General Conference?”
I’m often asked that question. Underneath are a variety of unspoken emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness, anticipation, excitement. It’s a question that’s voiced this year, perhaps with a greater sense of urgency, but it’s one we have asked before.
As we approach Portland, I’m thinking about two laypeople with whom I served in recent General Conference delegations. Neither is a United Methodist today. Both came to the General Conference with a singular focus: in one instance, legislation around human sexuality; in the other, abortion. Both left the conference deeply demoralized, even disillusioned.
Disillusionment is a good word for how we approach this task. We may go into the conference with the illusion that we are leaders and that our arguments will prevail. Sometimes they will. At other times, they will not. So if you’re going to conference with one issue on your mind, you are distorting the purposes of Christian conferencing.
But let’s return to the question: “What will happen at the General Conference in Portland?” One meaning of that question is whether the church will change its language about human sexuality; another meaning is whether we will stay together as a church.
Regarding the latter question, we have been here before. Bishop Francis Asbury was a genius when making disciples and spreading scriptural holiness across the land. And yet he was also concerned with persistent divisions in the Methodist movement, which were rooted in different perspectives about polity, doctrine, and the practice of slavery.
"The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions" first appeared in 1792 when there were disagreements about polity. When the church divided over slavery in 1844, it was recovered and published in 1849. And in God’s providence, it was rediscovered in the months leading to the 2016 General Conference, like treasure hidden in a field.
As we prepare for the General Conference, we acknowledge as leaders that we have contributed to the conditions that threaten to divide our church. And in Asbury’s abridged work we are called to confession:
It would be well if we were so innocent ourselves, so that our consciences need not call us to inquire whether this is not partly the fruit of our own miscarriages. The church’s peace lies chiefly in our hands, and if we miscarry, and won’t understand instruction, nor bear admonition, nor do our parts, how little hope will be left of our tranquility. The body languishes when the physician is as bad as
the disease (pp. 64–65).
The “heart and church divisions” of which Asbury spoke are the bitter fruit of seeds planted by bishops and advocates, clergy and laity. The prophetic word—“the church’s peace lies chiefly in our hands”—carries the force of an eighth-century prophet.
The book also contains a sober reflection on the outcomes of division:
Our divisions hinder our strength. If you untwist a cable, how weak is it in the several parts of it! A threefold cord is not easily broken, but a single one is. Divide a strong current into several rivulets and how shallow and weak will the course of the water be! They hinder our doing good in public. . . . None are more crossed in their ends and designs than contentious people. We have not the mutual benefit of each other’s resources, houses, the many ways of accommodation and help for each other, as previously we had (p. 29).
Those who serve and lead in the church may over time take for granted the relationships, ministries, systems, and initiatives that have been cultivated by generations of our ancestors: strategically placed local churches, camping and campus ministries, institutions that serve the children and the aged, schools that train local pastors, deacons, and elders. Divisions in the church weaken these bonds of support and shared ministries. We call this the connection.
Our estrangement from each other originates in a disordered interior life. A disordered inner life takes visible shape in divisive and destructive practices that hinder the work of God. The cure for this condition is deeply rooted in the nature of God, who is love, and in the vision of a church that is one body. Separation from God, or the church of his Son Jesus Christ, is never God’s will.
George Santanaya observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The people called Methodist have experienced the pain of division in our scarred history. The cure awaiting our rediscovery, like treasure hidden in a field, is “a full and frequent explication of the nature, preeminence, and power of love” (p. 67).
So what will happen at the General Conference? Perhaps we will remember where we have been and, more importantly, who we are.
This article is featured in the Missio Dei: The UMC as a Servant and Witness to the World (May/June/July 2016) issue of Circuit Rider.