Perhaps like you, I’m trying to figure out what General Conference meant. One question for me is the question of how faithfully the Church is able to listen, to hear, and then to proclaim the voice of the God who speaks in our midst.
Every Council of the Church (or General Conference of the United Methodist Church) has been an attempt to hear the voice of God speaking among the people of God. The whole work of theology is not only words about God but a humble (and sometimes not-so-humble) attempt to speak to God’s people on behalf of God. Every sermon is attempting to do this same work. That is to say, today I’m certainly on-board with God still speaking. A whole lot of major life decisions rest on that conviction. A whole lot of every week of my life rests on that conviction.
I also have experienced the troubles of God speaking, or at least the troubles of the way God has chosen to speak. It’s Biblical. Moses meets with God on top of a mountain which God’s presence makes look like a volcano, and not only do the people not hear what God is saying up there, but they are so unconvinced that God might be speaking in the midst of all that fire, cloud, and noise, that they decide Moses is dead.
In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It couldn’t be clearer! Unless you were an onlooker who heard no words, just thunder. Adding to these difficulties, in Christian communities I have experienced firsthand that sometimes people speak for God, and it is a way to short-circuit communal discernment. It’s a trump card, ending all possibility of conversation, whether or not the person had good intentions in sharing what they believe God has spoken.
Wesley and the rest of the early Methodists practiced “holy conferencing” in recognition that God speaks through people to other people, that our understanding of God is clarified and refined by relationship and conversation with one another. It’s a beautiful insight, but it doesn’t make things easier. Over time, “holy conferencing” became Annual Conference, General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference. Not only did a lot of the holy go, but a whole lot of the actual conferring with one another did too.
The 39 Articles of Religion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had a nifty Article XXI, which both the American Methodists, by Wesley’s own choice, and the Episcopal Church left behind:
“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”
I don’t know enough about Wesley’s theology or internal deliberations to know why he removed Article XXI as he slimmed the 39 Articles down into the 24 Articles of his Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784). I at least know that revolutionary American Methodists and prospective Methodists didn’t want to be told anything about princes. I wish I knew if Wesley was so much of the Tradition that he couldn’t bear to question the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils (the seven meetings of the Church before East and West excommunicated each another), which this Article does.
In the wake of our General Council a week ago, I wonder what was lost with Article XXI. Practically, this article reminded us that when people get together to hear God, we don’t stop being people. Yes, God calls us to listen, to love, to be holy. But God knows we are going to miss the message sometimes. And still God chooses this way to speak.
Article XXI reminds us that the Creeds came from humans wrangling with what they believed God was speaking in their midst. I believe every word of the Nicene Creed, and I believe that God spoke to us and still speaks to us through the work of the church councils which crafted those words. We say it every week at some of our churches, but we have no clue about and give no thought to what arguments went into it, what punches were thrown, what swords were drawn, what relationships were broken by those arguments, and who gave up on the Church or its Lord altogether, because they could not take the way that Christians were warring with one another any longer.
If I’m not careful, I can find myself assuming that the Nicene Creed (and other dogmatic declarations of the Church over time) descended from Heaven on a cloud attended by an angelic choir. But the Son of God didn’t come to us except by becoming a human being. Scripture didn’t come to us except by human hands. Likewise our Councils and Creeds are products of divine and human cooperation.
To return to the language of Article XXI…If the men who made up the General Councils of the Church were not all governed by the Spirit and the Word of God, then General Conference delegates are not all governed by the Spirit and Word of God. If General Councils may err, then General Conferences may err too. If General Councils have erred, then General Conferences have erred in the past and will continue to err in the future.
The difficult part is not to admit that the process is human or to admit that we will sometimes get it wrong. The difficult part is to continue to Conference with one another when we know we will sometimes be wrong, sometimes deeply wrong, sometimes hurtfully wrong.
For me, that makes me hopeful, because it means General Conferences and their decisions are not our hope. It is not just wrong but idolatrous on our part to have ever made General Conference our hope. God is the only one who will ever remain faithful, no matter how faithful or unfaithful we are. That, after all, has always been the whole of the Gospel. God’s love has always been about God’s eternal choice to close the distance between us, to turn even the enemies of God into friends, by the Son’s free offer of his own death on the cross.
If we know that General Conference (or Annual Conference or Jurisdictional Conference or Charge Conference, for us conference-mad Methodists) is not our hope, then we can come together not seeking to control the proceedings, or one another, or God. Rather we come together most of all to learn of the love of the God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ, to experience the Spirit who keeps speaking to a people who are hard of hearing, hard of heart, and slow to respond.
And for those who come to this idealized end thinking that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for General Conference 2020 to be truly holy and truly a confer-ence, you’re right. But nothing is impossible for God.
[3/14/19 edit: There’s now a Part II.]