Giving Up General Conference: A Call to Prayer
In the last two weeks, I have given lectures at conferences and retreats and preached at churches in three different United Methodist Conferences. I have spoken with the General Secretary of one of our General Boards, with three district superintendents, and with dozens of clergy and laity. In all of these conversations, one theme occurred again and again, namely, the upcoming General Conference. Sadly, no one expressed anything approaching optimism or enthusiasm about what many believe is the most important gathering of the people called United Methodists. On the contrary, most expressed something bordering on dread.
At this stage, I must confess that I am tempted to give up on General Conference. As a theologian, it is difficult not to fall back on the notion that the local church simply is the church; that what happens at General Conference is theologically and sacramentally meaningless. I am tempted to believe that the body that will gather in Tampa is not a divine body, but a merely human body bound together by what may well be the most telling sign of our sinful condition – our need for enemies.
I am also tempted to give up on General Conference on pragmatic grounds. Why not simply split into two or three churches based on theological and political sensibilities? Amid the seemingly endless number of Protestant denominations in America, what would a few more hurt? Besides, when it comes to the issues that divide us most deeply, I simply don’t anticipate any solutions that will satisfy everyone. Would we not get more done for the Kingdom of God if we went our separate ways?
Despite how much I would like to give up on General Conference, I cannot do so. As a Trinitarian theologian, I am especially fond of Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John. It is here that Jesus promises that he will send the Holy Spirit. It is here that Jesus speaks of his unity with God the Father. And it is here that Jesus prays for his disciples and for those who will come after them.
What does this have to do with not giving up on General Conference? In Jesus’ prayer in John 17, he asks his heavenly Father to make us one, even as the Father and the Son are one. Indeed, no theme is more prominent in Jesus’ prayer than the theme of unity, both God’s unity and ours.
Under the weight of this passage, I simply cannot regard “amicable separation” as a serious option. On the contrary, I believe that we should not settle for anything less than the unity about which our Lord speaks. At the same time, my doctrine of sin is sufficiently robust that I have very low expectations that anything resembling the unity that Jesus has with God the Father will result from the upcoming General Conference. If anything, like so many people I have spoken with in recent weeks, I will not be surprised in the least if we leave Tampa more deeply divided than when we arrived.
What, then, should we do? I suggest that we should not so much give up on General Conference as we should give up General Conference to God in prayer. In other words, I think that the time has come not solely for a Call to Action but also for a Call to Prayer. More specifically, I believe that we should pray that God would help us to follow our Lord in making unity our first priority. Having said this, I have no illusions about how deep our divisions are. But I also believe that Jesus has not left us to our own devices, political or otherwise. I believe that he has made good on his promise. I believe that, with the Father, he has sent the Holy Spirit into the world precisely so that we might be one, even as they are one. Even so, come, Holy Spirit. Make us one.