Praying before arguing, Or, a modest proposal for General Convention

Not long ago, I expressed the hope that the Episcopal Church’s conversation on the relationship between communion and baptism could be an example to the world of how the church argues with itself. I asked what would happen if opponents on this issue got together for prayer (first) instead of debate. These questions, I hope it is clear, apply to all kinds of issues facing the church at the moment, including church structure.

Now, there’s a very thoughtful post mortem from the United Methodist General Conference that is chock full of wisdom:

As I watched General Conference (thankfully not a delegate), I was keenly aware of both sides of most positions. I could see the value in both sides (and often the theological basis for both sides). What I couldn’t see very often was the willingness of the “poles”—or those who argued most vehemently for a position—to listen and, perhaps, even change their minds. Or at the very least, nuance their position.

…Our church, as it currently exists, seems unwilling to compromise, to listen, to track the Spirit’s movement. We are in a rowboat on a turbulent sea, and find ourselves unwilling to row together toward a distant horizon. So we go in circles. Or drift backwards. Hopefully, Jesus is in prayer on the shore and will soon come walking toward us on these same waters.

…We do have worship at General Conference, sometimes very meaningful worship. I wonder what might happen, though, if we spent the first 24 hours gathered in prayer, silent prayer especially, and listening for God? No politicking or maneuvering allowed! Can we expect holy conferencing to be holy if we haven’t quieted ourselves to listen for God?

Read the whole thing.

The author’s proposal, for a period of sustained prayer and reflection before the proceedings begin, echoes the structure of the 2008 Lambeth Conference, which had a multi-day retreat before the actual conference began. It’s much too late to suggest this, of course, but I’d like to heartily endorse the author’s proposal for a period of prayer and retreat before this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church. At a time when the church is only shaving days from its meetings to save dollars, it is unlikely, of course, that the idea will ever take off.

But I did find myself wondering: will this summer’s General Convention give rise to similar feelings as this author identifies? Are people already composing similar post mortem articles? One hopes not, but given the fever pitch which has already taken over, it seems, sadly, more likely than not.

More than leading worship

I mentioned that Yale’s favourite son, Mark Miller, would be involved in the worship at the ongoing United Methodist General Conference this week and next. It turns out he’s doing more than that.

You can read about Mark’s point of personal privilege last night or watch the whole thing here: Mark begins at 51:24 and goes for about three minutes. It’s well worth watching.

I know that Robert’s Rules must be followed but it is interesting that the General Conference will give Mark a microphone all he wants, so long as he is singing or leading music, but when he wants to actually talk about something, especially something this important, he’s asked to stop.

I’ve sung under Mark’s direction in the Gospel Choir these last few years and deeply admire, respect, and like him. What I am reminded of in listening to him speak is a) the deep difficulty in holding honest conversations across lines of difference and b) the deep importance of doing so nonetheless. These conversations don’t get easier but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to have them—in a way that is loving and truthful and opens a space for all voices to be heard in a safe place.

Lessons from our Methodist Siblings

I’m no expert on the United Methodist Church but I do know the UMC’s General Conference is happening in Tampa this week and next so I spent some time on its web site this morning learning about what is going on. Given that we share an interim ecumenical agreement with the UMC and we’re both mainline denominations in the United States, I figure Episcopalians have something to learn from what is going on.

As I understand it—and my advance apologies for being a neophyte on much of this—some of the following issues are under discussion:

  • There’s a proposal to make the head of the UMC Council of Bishops a full-time position, much like (it seems to me) the Episcopal Presiding Bishop gives up her previous jurisdiction to take the role. The bishops just approved that idea. It’s unclear what the Conference will do. At least some Episcopalians are, I’ve read recently, urging a return to our old model, in which our Presiding Bishop kept a local jurisdiction in addition to the larger responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Council of Bishops has agreed it will only be meeting once a year. Some Episcopalians have suggested something similar for our own House of Bishops.
  • Bishops have a much different role in UMC governance than in The Episcopal Church (as the name of our church alone should tell us). I love this line from an article about a speech by the outgoing president of the bishops: “Bishops do not get a vote at General Conference, and they cannot address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. Goodpaster acknowledged the bishops’ common lament that they often have nothing to do at General Conference ‘but sit around like wilting potted plants.'” Can you imagine that being said at a General Convention? Me neither.
  • Meanwhile, there are “huge” proposals for restructuring on the table. We Episcopalians have been doing restructuring by emergency budget for the last several years, cutting programs left and right because there’s no money to fund them. The UMC, it seems, has taken a more systematic approach to the topic and will be voting on those proposals at this General Conference. (You can read about the original proposal from this article from 18-months ago. The recent letter from the UMC bishops is also helpful.)
  • The UMC is looking at how it trains its future clergy, including doing away with the promise of job for all ordained clergy. I get the sense that many Episcopal dioceses around the country are having significant conversations about the future of ordained ministry. This doesn’t seem to have risen to the national level, however.
  • And, of course, issues related to homosexuality in church are on the agenda, attracting some of the most attention outside the church.

Any other issues you see as being significant and relevant to Episcopalians that Methodists will be considering at this conference?

One interesting note is the global nature of the UMC and the way jurisdictions in other parts of the world are equal members of the church. This is a conversation for another time but it’s a contrast to our Anglican practice of raising up autocephalous churches.

Also, the General Conference web site is much better than that of General Convention. They’ve got podcasts and everything! If you tune into the live stream at the right time, you just might get to see Yale’s favourite Methodist musician, Mark Miller, leading worship.

UPDATE: Mark is doing more than leading worship.