By C. Chappell Temple, Special Contributor…
With Hurricane Isaac now having passed, it appears that the Republicans weathered potential storms in Tampa better than the United Methodists did when we met in that city earlier this year.
So what went wrong when the Wesleyans wandered down by the waters?
First, ego and agenda often edged out genuine discourse. The most obvious illustration of this came in the failure of the reorganization plans to bring us into a leaner operating mode. Because conversation was couched from the outset in terms of “winners and losers,” the natural ebb and flow of the legislative process was suppressed before it could lead to an effective compromise. (“Plan UMC” did pass, but was presented after a committee failed to back a reorganization petition. And Plan UMC was declared by the Judicial Council to violate the church constitution.)
Part of the problem is that “representation” has become the new idol within Methodism. In Christ there may indeed be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but such is clearly not the case in the UMC today.
Indeed, we are more intentional than ever at counting heads according to the surface categories of gender, race, and geographical distribution (though seldom with respect to theological perspectives.) In short, we have mistaken the gift of diversity for the gospel itself at points, and that is to our peril.
The low point of the entire 2012 General Conference, in fact, may well have been when the call was made for the authors of Plan UMC to stand up on the convention floor, so that everyone could “see them.” Whenever we judge a proposal not on its own merits but by simply looking at who designed it, we’ve already fallen into an “us versus them” mentality that disserves the church and dishonors our covenant.
Second, the calendar was used to control not just the flow of information but the content of our conversation, too. As both the author and the presenter of a proposal coming out of the Faith and Order committee, I unfortunately saw this firsthand as I sat waiting on the platform to present a petition that subsequently was never allowed to come to the floor at all. For following the defeat of the Hamilton-Slaughter resolution on homosexuality, a deal was struck with the agenda committee that effectively tabled all further discussions dealing with that subject in any way from being considered.
To be sure, conservatives who were happy with no changes in our stance, and liberals, who didn’t want to see any further defeats on the issue, may have thought that to be best for everyone. But the tragedy was that a proposal offering a new and more positive conversation around the issue of sexuality and ordination was stillborn, even though it won strong majority support from those on all sides of the question in the committee that carefully had considered it.
Similarly, despite saying that strengthening vital congregations is job one for our church, the agenda never allowed for one single report to come out of the Local Church legislative committee. No time for such? When the presiding bishop on the night before the closing day announced at 8:10 that there were no further items on the calendar to be considered, ignoring the hours of hard work put in by many, it was obvious that the big stall to get to adjournment had begun.
Which brings us to the third problem that plagued the assembly: too often theater and production overshadowed the simple acts of corporate praise, as our worship became subject to the same issues of agenda and representation that characterized our legislation. More to the point, after long days in committees and plenary sessions, the evening services were simply too bloated sometimes to be effective at bringing the day to a peaceful conclusion.
So what should we do so that our next General Conference stands a chance of being more successful that the 2012 meeting? First, with respect to worship, insist to the planners that all that is really needed to close the days are brief vespers services of no more than half an hour. Likewise, ask them to remember that the real point of our corporate worship times is not to dazzle the delegates, or even to display our diversity, but to simply put us into communion with the far more important Audience of One.
Second, keep those who make the agenda and calendar free from any undue pressures by passing a rule on the first day of the 2016 meeting that each legislative committee will be asked to rank their proposals in the order of importance which they assign them, and then systematically rotate the presentations through each committee in the plenary sessions, one by one, so all have the chance to report on their most significant legislation.
And third, designate one of the existing Church and Society Committees as a new Faith and Sexuality Legislative Committee and assign all petitions dealing with those subjects to one group, rather than parcel them out among many. Likewise, just because it is such a significant source of controversy, put their report toward the beginning of plenary week, not at the end.
Hurricanes may seldom threaten Portland, our next General Conference location, as they do Tampa. But it is up to our leaders not to bring our own storm to that western city. Now is the time to begin thinking about how we can reclaim civility in our discourse, and to remember the higher calling of our church to embody the life and mission of the one we call Lord.
The Rev. Temple is pastor of Lakewood UMC in Houston and served as a delegate to the 2008 and 2012 General Conferences.