Every four years, United Methodists from all over the world gather to make changes to our connection with one another. While we in the United States and throughout the West live in places that decreasingly emphasize denominationalism or institutionalism, this is still a big meeting. Thousands of United Methodists gather to pray, worship, debate, and seek a new way forward for over 11 million people who share in this community with one another. This is no small feat. Nor should it be easily dismissed. The fact that people in the Philippines, Africa, Europe, Asia, Central America, the United States, and elsewhere can belong to one community is astounding. Our cultural differences make us richer in many ways, but they also strain our ability to hold our community together. What happens at General Conference is an attempt to name the essential things in our community while allowing freedom in all other areas. This is no small task.
General Conference 2012 is beginning. This year it takes place in Tampa, Florida. While the delegate count is about 1,000, many more descend upon the area to lobby, pray, watch, and bear witness to the events.
There are hundreds of petitions that delegates must consider, but three areas of legislation bear the most consideration. There is the Call to Action, a sweeping change in the order of the denomination. It radically changes how our connectional work is accomplished, who holds power, how clergy are evaluated, and where money is spent. The Call to Action should not be misunderstood by the layperson in the pew as something irrelevant for their lives. It is a sweeping series of changes. Second, human sexuality and our diverse opinions about it will once again take center stage. As parts of Europe, Central and South America, Canada, and the United States begin to shift their laws regarding marriage and as homosexuality gains in acceptance in these places, more and more pressure is placed on the denomination to change as well. This pressure is met with equal force from those who want to maintain the current status quo. This force comes from the South – South in the United States and South of the Equator. Africa is a growing part in our denomination, and the African church is must more conservative on issues related to sexuality and gender. As our church grows more in these locations, the question looms: how does that affect freedom for dissent around issues like sexuality? Third is the Pan-Methodist vote. Once upon a time, Methodism was one movement. White racism and other factors splintered the church. Now, multiple denominations contain the moniker “Methodist.” This General Conference, the delegates vote on whether to enter into full communion with other Methodist denominations. The denominations that would enter into full communion are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, African Union Methodist Protestant Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church. The vote would, in effect, allow clergy to serve across denominational lines. And, full communion officially names our affirmation of one another’s Baptism and Eucharist.
Of course, all kinds of topics and issues will have their hearing in Tampa – peace, war, the ordination process, abortion, family planning, interfaith relations, worship and liturgy, adjudicatory issues, and so forth. It’s a time and place when United Methodists come together to sing, pray, and commune together.
The General Conferences that I have attended have displayed both the best and worst of organized religion. From beautiful liturgy and acts of mercy to graceless and hurtful actions – all are found in these gatherings. As disappointing as that can be for people, I always find that whenever people are gathered around issues of ultimate importance, their best and their worst are bound to shine through.
I ask Queen Anne to pray for our delegates and for our own Joan H. as she travels to Florida to play her part in events as they unfold. As tempting as it is to believe that our local church community stands largely apart from events taking place so far away, it isn’t true. We are bound together with these people, most of whom we will never meet, many of whom speak languages we will never understand. We sing the same songs. We pray the same prayers. We break bread in the same way. We are baptized in the same waters. We share the same heritage. We are formed by the same patterns of faith formation. As different as we may be, we are brothers and sisters in faith. Please pray for your brothers and sisters.
Above all, pray that justice and compassion will be the rules against which all decisions are measured. It is always better to be loving than correct.
Here is a good overview of issues under consideration.