General Conference (Slightly Proleptic) Postmortem
I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish. One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we? I think, pretty badly.
A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality. It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded. It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter. I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.
But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one. That’s true. We don’t. But what if we did? What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?
Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split? You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.? In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?
What if we voted on doctrinal standards? What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?” Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions. (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to. Let’s just try the thought experiment.)
How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…” Yea? Nay?
Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal? And why does it matter?
My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt. My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.
Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on. We intentionally made the group diverse. After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point. We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning. But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2. To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it. But some didn’t. In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”
We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.
I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications. Our theological convictions show us what we care about. If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.
I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.