Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Holy Conferencing or Holy Chaos

Last week the Commission on General Conference proposed significant changes to the form of our United Methodist General Conference (GC), the international body of delegates that meets every four years to re-form our polity, theological commitments and order as articulated in the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. The Commission proposed three new changes to GC in an attempt to make the assembly more efficient, streamlined and functional including, decreasing delegation size, allowing for term limitation for delegates and restricting individual petitions that come from outside official church bodies.

The General Conference is our contemporary form of an age old tradition in the Methodist movement of "Holy Conferencing." John Wesley, our church's founder, instituted this tradition when the Methodist movement began to grow in England as a way to create unity in the emerging connection, to address questions of theology, polity and order and to set aside space and time to intentionally discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. The very first conference was held in 1744 with five sympathetic clergy and four invited lay persons.

From the outset the conferences were not concerned with orthodoxy or doctrine, but rather exploring the problematic aspects of their particular theology of salvation and refining the organizational structures of the movement to more effectively communicate their evangelical message to the nation. For Wesley, holy conferencing meant having honest and open dialogue about the nature of the Methodist movement that invited the presence of the Holy Spirit into the conversation so as to guide and instruct the group in their discernment and decision making. While there was an implicit understanding that Wesley would be guided by a clearly expressed majority of the conference, he refused to institute a straightforward government by the majority. Holy conferencing was not a democratic process for Wesley, but rather a holy time of discerning the will of the Spirit and surely the Spirit cannot be held down by votes.

This tradition has over time devolved into what I fear Wesley never intended. The nature and design of our modern day General Conference has reduced holy conferencing from a sacred time of spiritual discernment to a democratic functional process where the will of the Holy Spirit is determined by a count of votes with the majority ruling, no matter how slim that majority might be.

In fact, the Holy Spirit actually lost a vote in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference several years back. A motion was raised to "be open to the Holy Spirit" on the issue of homosexuality. There was no position taken one way or the other on the issue. There was no attempt to change the statements in the Book of Discipline. The motion simply asked annual conference delegates to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. One would imagine this would be an easy vote. But the Holy Spirit lost that day. The vote wasn't even close. Conferencing is no longer about discerning the will of the Spirit...it is about enforcing ideologically rigid positions regardless of the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

The reforms proposed by the Commission on the General Conference may be a way for us to begin to reform our polity and renew our Church by (re)discovering Wesleyan practices. The proposed reduction in delegation size is one way to de-politicize the voting process. Currently, each annual conference is allotted a particular number of delegates based on a complicated calculation of the number of United Methodists in each annual conference. This means that while some annual conferences have only 2 delegates to General Conference, others can have upwards of 30 delegates. The current system creates an imbalance where certain geographical areas have undue influence over the polity and theological commitments of our denomination.

The new proposal would limit all annual conferences to 2 or 4 delegates. In doing so, not only would this change create a more manageable body in which real holy conferencing could be done once again with careful discernment by all, but also it would institute a polity of inclusion and equality for all our annual conferences. No more would our denomination be at the will of certain geographical areas.

The question we as United Methodists must ask ourselves is whether we want holy conferencing or holy chaos? The choice will be up to us.

3 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Okay, this is the part where I play devil's advocate. The suggestion of "being open to the Holy Spirit" re: any given issue seems to me to clearly imply a suggestion of being open to changing the official stance, and if people believe that the current stance is firmly rooted in unambiguous Word of God, well then I wouldn't be at all surprised that they wouldn't want to open that stance up for discussion. Okay, this sounded more convincing in my head -- and it does sound like the result of the vote is contrary to Wesleyan tradition. I just couldn't help thinking, "Surely everyone has non-negotiables on which to suggest opening discussion would feel anathema and/or like an attack." /hobby-horse

-Elizabeth Sweeny

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

You're right....what I mean about being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit can lead us to new interpretations of old texts and traditions. This means that religious truth is not static and unchanging, but rather open to the unfolding revelation of the Divine in our midst.

So, for example, we once supported slavery using the "unambiguous Word of God" and silenced women in church using the same Word. Yet, today, most in the mainline would agree that such interpretations of texts that clearly support slavery and the subordination of women are not to be understood in the same way....that God has revealed to us a new way that is more consistent with the overall vision of the kin-dom where there is no slave nor free, male nor female.

You should check out Faith In America...it's a new project that looks at the history of religious bigotry using some of the examples above.

As for Wesley, the topics of the first conversations at early conferences were about his particular understanding of salvation and grace...things we celebrate today as central or disctinctive parts of being Methodist. Yet, Wesley opened the floor to discuss these tenets that he held most dear and most true. Why? Because he understood the importance of an examined and critical faith...something I think we have lost in the tradition over time.

Anonymous said...

Tiffany,
Truth is not something that can be altered or evolve. Jesus said, "I am the way the truth and the light." The Book of James says that God does not change. God does not change nor does he give contradicting revelations.

I very seriously doubt Wesley, having read of his life, would have considered homosexuality to be open for discussion. HE would have no more allowed this than he would have allowed holy conferencing on the subject of whether God was real or imaginary. Their are some things that cannot be argued.

Almost all the authors of the New Testament warned that many would come into the churches with strange and damnable teachings. They said that such people should not be tolerated and should not be given a place at the Lord's table until they repented and were restored.

One a last note, the Bible does not "support" slavery or encourage it. In fact, we have a book in the New Testament wherein Paul implores a believer to release another believer from slavery and give him his freedom. So-called "progressive theology" and feminist theology distort the Word of God to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16).

God allows many things to happen in this fallen world, including slavery. Worldly people (people who love this life) put great emphasis on "social justice" as if through social justice, people are saved.

God has already condemned this world. Jesus did not come to redeem this present world or give people a higher status in this world. He did not come to lift people out of slavery or give women equal rights per say; He came to redeem people for all eternity.
-Fred