Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part II

In his post-General Conference briefings, my own Bishop Frank Beard urged us to trust in the process–not merely the United Methodist process, but God’s process with us on this discipleship journey, however long and winding and painful it may be. For him that means that we prayed for years for the work of General Conference 2019, so the fact that we might not like its outcome is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss its conclusions and legislation. To put words in his mouth, “Did we pray or not? Does God answer prayer or not?”

I don’t dismiss General Conference 2019’s work. This was our 2019 step on our journey with God as a global United Methodist Church. It was neither our first nor our last step on our journey with God, even if some of us decide to part ways with this particular institutional form of God’s one Church.

The reason I write this is because you might get the wrong idea from my last post on the relative importance of General Conferences, that I am flippant about the conclusions of church councils. I’m not. Rather, the Christian Tradition itself is what teaches me to receive the Tradition itself critically. That’s how all living traditions work, as wide rivers with many currents rather than tiny capillaries with single currents.

I have known people who claim to aim to be “first five hundred year Christians” (meaning, the stuff the Church agreed about for the first 500 years is what they will name as essential doctrine, and everything that cannot be connected to that is adiaphora). I was once ordained in a denomination which claimed the first seven ecumenical councils were its theological core, but I’ve only ever met one person who I believe actually knows those councils intimately. (She died several years ago and was Roman Catholic, not this other denomination, anyway.) Either of those frameworks seem nice, but what they really are are “fragments [we] have shored against [our] ruin,” our sense that things are falling apart, and we are the ones who must save the Church. Those two examples in particular are entirely modernist attempts to create something stable and lasting in an uncertain world, which is in the end the attempt to create a foundation other than Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). (Alternate Old Testament reference: Genesis 11.)

I myself am temperamentally conservative. That is, I want to live a traditioned life. I am convinced that human beings over time have learned to live life well, to ask and to answer important questions well. I am convinced that to ignore those human voices of the past is the definition of foolishness. When I read a book about any topic at all, I want to go back and read the primary sources. When I listen to music, I want to plot where parts of a band’s or a composition’s sound comes from. And when I do theology I want to dig all the way to the tips of the roots. In fact, when doing theology, I am convinced that ignoring human beings and their thoughts and actions and lives over time is not just foolishness. This is truly for one part of the living, eternal body of Christ to say to another, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Conservative in the sense in which I describe myself does not have to do with a particular political party, especially not a US political party. Traditioned in this sense also doesn’t mean I pretend that there is some single Tradition to be formed by. That’s utopia (sentimental nonsense literally meaning “nowhere”). For my greatest interest–the Church–I don’t believe there is some single faithful Methodist, or Protestant, or Western Christian, or universal Christian tradition. Instead I mean that I am always going to be suspicious when a “new” theology seems to have no roots, or makes no claim to roots, or claims to need no roots in the Christian past. The Tradition may be a massive river with many currents, but rivers still have banks.

All that is a long-winded way to say, yes, I believe church councils have proclaimed the Gospel, but I still believe they have erred. Yes, I believe General Conferences have both proclaimed the Gospel and have erred. Finally, no, I don’t dismiss their workings easily. The Tradition I value is what teaches me to question the Tradition and to know it is certainly not infallible.

That’s the real point: the life of faith–whether for global denominations or for the individual Christian–must be lived in uncertainty (“the conviction of things not seen,” says Hebrews 11:1), because faith lives in the world, and the world is uncertain. Faith which is certainty is not faith at all. God keeps speaking through people (councils, conferences), people sometimes faithfully proclaim and sometimes mangle the message we’ve been given, and the Church’s life and our individual lives are lived in that uncertainty and on that journey. We live in our uncertainty, because God is the only one who is certain. We live without the foundations we lust after, because Christ is our one foundation. Thank God that God’s grip on us is infinitely stronger than our ability to grasp God.

Or if you prefer less Kierkegaard and more Wesley in your tea, the church has not yet been perfected in grace, but it is on the way. Even if you find yourself among those United Methodists who believe that in St. Louis you witnessed the death of your beloved denomination, still you must know: best of all, God is with us.

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Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part I

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.]

“Our hopes…have got to be supernatural.”

Body of Christ

On October 2, 1962, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal,

Today, the community begins the novena for the II Vatican Council…The Council is certainly a most momentous event. Much more than we realize, although we keep telling ourselves how important it is. Important not at all as window dressing or public relations, but as a supernatural event. I have no patience with the thesis that the main purpose of the Council is to show the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is united, coherent; articulate (indeed, there is talk of struggle and conflict)…Our hopes for the Council have got to be supernatural. What matters now is prayer.

I am a United Methodist pastor (a Provisional Elder, in UMCspeak, if you’re fluent). We too are in the midst of major church-changing events. As one official source frames it (more cordially than many of us are actually experiencing it), “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

Like Merton said of Vatican II, we’re in the midst of “a momentous event…more than we realize, even though we keep telling ourselves how important it is.” The biggest pieces right now are cases before our Judicial Council (with the majority of its April docket relating to human sexuality), The Commission on a Way Forward, and the presumptive special General Conference in 2019.

Perhaps especially if you understand all that church jargon above, it’s easy to lose sight of this main point: despite all the human trappings, this is a supernatural event. God is at work here. (Actually, if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then we shouldn’t be surprised at supernatural human events being the normal way God works.) And if it’s a supernatural event, then indeed “What matters now is prayer.”

The whole UMC has been called to pray, my bishop has called my Conference to pray, my District Superintendent has called me to pray, and I know I ought to be praying, but I rarely have. Merton’s clear-eyed diagnosis gives me the emotional shove I need (and perhaps channels the Holy Spirit’s shove) truly to commit to prayer in the midst of all this. I hope you’ll join me, that even if we United Methodists are not your tribe, you’ll recognize our connection to you within God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

——
Bonus: this is what a novena is.