Saturday, May 03, 2008

general conference: everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics

I came away from my first General Conference, four years ago, disillusioned. I entered into this one, admittedly, with low expectations. Two factors contributed to this very human posture on my part: the polarization of the culture and the church on key moral issues (gay/lesbian identity and practices and abortion), and the very method of General Conference itself.

A word about the latter first. We use Robert's Rules of Order, which is a very good process if you wish to divide people into winners and losers. In virtually every action taken at General Conference (hereafter GC), and there were thousands of them, there were winners and losers. Sometimes the vote was 52%-48% (as with a key vote on abortion); at another point it was 55%-45% (the confession that we are divided on the issue of homosexuality, the vote itself proving the point); on other matters 67%-33% (several consitutional amendments, which needed a two-thirds majority, passed by one-half of one percent). Robert's Rules of Order lends itself to the gifts of persons trained in the law, and indeed some of the more effective speakers were in fact attorneys (the more prominent being from New York and New Mexico, but there were others, and across regions). It does not lend itself to spiritual discernment, or to the practice of listening in general. Again and again I heard, around the edges, that there has to be a better way to do all of this. Indeed, a clergywoman proposed the exploration of this idea, but it was "defeated" by the house (I use the word intentionally, for this was in fact the case).

And so, a first tentative sense is that the outcome we arrived at was shaped by our method. If we use the same method again, in four years, we will arrive at the same destination.

The method does more, however, than divide us into winners and losers. It seems to create insiders and outsiders. The two most inflammatory areas of debate were human sexuality and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And, of course, opposing political orientations are prone to create insiders and outsiders, through the use and abuse of power. No one, really, has the high ground here.

There are profound moral ambiguities surrounding homosexuality and abortion. The moral ambiguity on the gay/lesbian question has led the church to stay with the received interpretation of scripture and tradition; some see this as an injustice, others a matter of faith. The moral perplexity related to abortion has led some to call for hospitality toward the unborn, others choice in the life of the woman. At present, the United Methodist Church is much more sensitive to those who disagree with our position on the gay/lesbian question than the abortion question. If you were at the GC, or watching it on the web, this was obvious.

So we are divided, and we want to legislate where the will of God is to be found: among gays and lesbians and those who support them, or among those who in conscience read the scriptures and stand with the tradition? among the Palestians, unjustly treated, or among the Jews, victims of anti-semitism?

What if the radical grace of God, so prominent in the Wesley hymns, and in the gospels, were extended to gays and lesbians, and to the unborn, and to the Jews and the Greeks? Indeed, I think in most United Methodist congregations this is in fact the case. And why does such a question, which cuts across our preconceived political divides, seem so odd?

Beyond all of this, we said very little about the war, or immigration, or global warming, or the local church. We adopted a budget of $642 million. We did some new and different things related to ordained ministry, not all of them good, in my mind (I know, however, that it is not all about me), but some will help; I will comment on all of that at a later time. I left feeling like a great deal had been accomplished, not entirely happy with every vote that had been taken, seeking to live in peace, as much as was humanly possible, with all of those who were present, finally trusting the church again to the providence of God (this was Bishop Palmer's comment at the end of GC, I think). It all seemed rather surreal, a slowly shrinking church spending a day on constitutional amendments and a day and half on homosexuality, the gathered body obviously more African, more non-English speaking, all of us in denial about where we will be, in the U.S., in ten years (a vivid exception to this seems to me the work of Bishop Schnase). It also seemed odd, to me, that my favorite sermon of the ten days was preached by a Lutheran Bishop. And that we kept talking about three simple rules, and yet spent hours, ad infinitum, amending, bending and commenting on the rules that filled three very thick books.

There has to be a better way to do all of this.

I am very tired, so a better, more measured comment will appear here in a few days. In closing I recall the wisdom of the poet Charles Peguy:

"Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics".

It is true.


Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

Interesting comments. Thanks for posting them.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Jeff Reed said...


5:46 AM  

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