Nearly 50 years ago, as a young pastor, I preached a sermon titled “The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue.” My scriptural text was taken from the little-read book of James, chapter 2:1-12, a passage that describes the power of speech for good or ill. In my sermon, I mostly focused on the value of sometimes holding back on one’s speech, especially if it had the potential to do more harm than good.
The long-awaited General Conference has arrived. Almost a thousand delegates from across the United States and around the world will be in session April 24-May 4 to determine the future direction, structure and mission of the United Methodist Church. For the most part, it is not a time of holding one’s tongue. The General Conference is more about discourse than silence. But not everyone will be moved to speak; careful listening is often as important as careful speech.
We United Methodists, more and more these days, call our gathered discourse Holy Conferencing. Frankly, I am not always altogether clear what is meant by the term. I suppose there are as many definitions as there are people who use it. My definition is simple: Holy Conferencing is a gathering of Christians who seek to know and express God’s will for the Church and its mission through prayerful, civil discourse and decision making.
I am privileged in retirement to serve as bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, where one of the two courses I teach is titled “The Methodist Church and Race.” Before moving into a historical review of Methodism and race, the class spends the first several sessions discussing how to speak thoughtfully, honestly and carefully about race. The purpose is to enhance communication and create a safe place for candid and respectful discourse.
Stephen L. Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, in 1998 wrote a very insightful book titled Civility. It is his offering to what he considers a need for greater civility in personal discourse and in the public square, at a time of seemingly increased incivility in our society. He suggests 15 rules that he says “should guide us in reconstructing our civility.”
In my class we use five of those rules as a framework to guide our course discussion of race in American society and the United Methodist Church:
1. Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.
2. Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.
3. Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.
4. Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.
5. Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it; but the criticism should always be civil.
These rules of engagement might be helpful for the delegates at General Conference to keep in mind during their Holy Conferencing. However, it should be clear that Holy Conferencing is not just what takes place in legislative committees and plenary sessions. It is also the discourse that occurs in hotel suites, caucus meetings, strategy sessions and sidewalk conversation. Holy Conferencing is what takes place in all the venues of the 10-day gathering, not just during the formal sessions.
Dr. Thomas E. Frank, a former faculty member at Candler and now a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., in his recent article “What Difference Does Our Polity Make? A Framework for Considering Structural Change,” challenges the General Conference delegates to do their work “in a framework of critical questioning and careful judgment.” (The article is available online at www.gbhem.org).
In preparing that sermon long ago, I came across a little poem written in 1855 by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold.” She cautions that before we speak, our words should pass through three “narrow gates.”
First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?”
And finally, ”Is it kind?”
Let the Holy Conferencing begin!
Retired Bishop Woodie W. White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.