|Keynote speaker Michael Kinnamon told the Conference that "The church is called to be a demonstration project of what God intends for all of creation." - Photo by Rev. Armando Rodriguez|
As in years past, delegates from United Methodist churches all over Florida will vote on matters ranging from leadership and policy to the budget at the 2012 Annual Conference that opened Thursday at The Lakeland Center.
But keynote speaker Michael Kinnamon told the crowd gathered for the event’s opening service that the Book of Discipline does not allow a vote on at least one issue:
“Christian unity is not an option,” he said. “It is a gift to be received and expressed. … Everyone who has communion with Jesus Christ has communion with everyone else who has communion with Jesus Christ.”
Unity is central to God’s plan of salvation, Kinnamon said.
“This is not something we get to vote on in Annual Conference because it does not depend on our agreement – not an option, but a gift.”
Kinnamon is the recently retired head of the National Council of Churches of Christ and a longtime church leader on the international stage. Bishop Timothy Whitaker, who is presiding over his last Annual Conference before retiring this summer, said he invited Kinnamon to speak because he “is probably the most knowledgeable and the most respected voice for ecumenism in the United States.”
Kinnamon’s speech followed the traditional singing of the hymn “And We Are Yet Alive” and a performance by young dancers from Riviera UMC, St. Petersburg.
In a Conference where Methodists have been frequently reminded of the importance of including everyone in their church programs, Kinnamon reminded them of the need to include themselves in the programs of other Christian denominations.
He noted that the 2012 Annual Conference workbook shows little evidence that working as one with other Christian denominations is a valued goal.
He added that lean economic times and dwindling church membership in many mainstream religious denominations could prompt people of all Christian faiths to share resources as they try to recruit disciples.
“Or times like these can reinforce the tendency to turn inward, treating others as competitors in a predatory scramble for new members,” Kinnamon said.
He listed several recent “challenges,” such as the 2009 full communion agreement between United Methodists and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and asked how seriously Florida Methodists are taking it. He asked whether local mission projects or planning efforts will be taken on with the new full communion partners.
Kinnamon said membership in the Florida Council of Churches is “a covenant” taken with other organizations to work together in Christ.
“Do you think of the Florida Council of Churches as an integral part of you, the Annual Conference here in Florida?” he asked. “Do you make an effort to know the other churches in the council and to pray for them on a regular basis?”
“When you engage with other churches of the Florida Council in order to oppose the burning of the Koran or to oppose racial profiling, do you consider it a vital part of your mission as Methodist Christians, or merely as an add-on to the real work of the church?”
Kinnamon recalled the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, when the National Council of Churches invited representatives of various denominations with ministries there to meet to coordinate relief and restoration work, and the United Methodists signaled plans to work independently instead.
Kinnamon said Christians bear witness to the healing love of Christ by the way in which they live with one another.
“The church is called to be a demonstration project of what God intends for all of creation.”
During a question-and-answer session after his speech, Kinnamon revealed that he has scaled back travel because of health problems but agreed to put the Annual Conference on his speaking schedule because of the theme of “being united in Christ.”
He told the crowd, “I hope it speaks to my care for this church and my sense that you have named a theme that really is worthy of discussion.”