Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reflections on Annual Conference

The most recent meeting of the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church wrapped up this past Tuesday. A few thoughts:

Conference occurred immediately after my ten year high school reunion, about which Jessica has blogged some interesting reflections. The reunion being back-to-back with Conference provided an interesting juxtaposition between my past and my future, a juxtaposition I'm still trying to wrap my head around. It will be the subject of a future post.

I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder at the Ordination Service on Sunday night. "Provisional" is the new language in the Discipline, replacing "Probationary". Oddly, enough, the certificate I received at the service said "Probationary". Read into that what you will. The UMC's language has been getting gradually more gracious. In Wesley's day, preachers were "on trial" during their first few years. We're still not where some other denominations are, in terms of language or practice (the Disciples call it "Under Care", for example), but it's progress.

Some have asked me how I felt about being commissioned since I was rejected two years ago. Does it mean more? Is it ruined for me? Do I feel vindicated? The truth is I have no idea. This past year during the process of applying for commissioning, I've felt very conflicted. Is my participation in this system an endorsement of it, even though I disagree with many of the things it has done to hurt people? But on the other hand, my participation grants me access, and thus the ability to influence the system in a positive way. 

I'm not 100% sure where I stand at the moment, but when I knelt in front of the Bishop and he laid his hands on me to pronounce the words of commissioning, I felt a tremendous sense of peace. And that's enough for now.

The next day we spent a marathon session debating and voting the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the UMC. Not surprisingly, Amendment 1 received the most attention. I think there were 25 speeches that addressed it, with a slight majority in favor of those who supported it. Although most of the amendments received a majority of "no" votes (I recorded TN's voting tallies here), there were more "yes" votes for Amendment 1 than I thought there would be. In a conference as conservative as TN, perhaps that is a victory in itself.

As an aside, here is an unofficial tally of how all Annual Conferences that have reported voting results thus far have voted, as reported by the Reconciling Ministries Network.

My friend and colleague Jay Vorhees blogged about considering Amendment 1 after the fact, and concluded  that the amendment addressed a very real problem, but painted with "too broad a legislative brush" and didn't address the real issue: the pastor's authority to determine a person's readiness for church membership. Although Jay supports the amendment, he suggests that the ambiguity on this issue could lead to problems in the future.

While I think Jay's analysis brings up some very good points, I can't help but wonder if Amendment 1 has become about much more than just Amendment 1.

Like so many other cultural milestones, Amendment 1 has come to represent much more than just itself. Rightly or wrongly, the voting on Amendment 1 has become a referendum on how inclusive the United Methodist Church really wants to be. Jay is correct in saying that the amendment is flawed because it is a reaction to a deeply flawed decision of the Judicial Council, but it has come to represent much more than that. For better or worse, the ultimate verdict on Amendment 1 will be statement by our church on our fundamental values as followers of Jesus.

I've blogged, preached, and podcasted about the larger issues at stake here, so I won't rehash all I've said there, except to say that the debate around Amendment 1 has quickly become about what we want inclusivity in the UMC to look like. Most of the speeches in support of and opposing Amendment 1 talked about these larger issues. 

One speech in particular has really stuck with me. The speaker, who opposed the amendment, cited the example of a 6-year-old girl who asked if she could become a member of the church. He told her she couldn't, and that she had to be older and go through confirmation. He concluded that if Amendment 1 passed, he couldn't tell that little girl "no", and that "we would have 8-year-olds being elected as delegates to General Conference and making policy for us" (those were his exact words).

I wanted to (and probably should have) gone to the microphone and told this pastor that if he didn't want that 6-year-old that my church would take her. In the UMC we have two different categories of membership- preparatory members and professing members. Preparatory membership is what that 6-year-old girl should have been offered, rather than being told she didn't know enough.

I cite this example not to insult a fellow pastor, but to show how much of the opposition to Amendment 1 has been rooted in fear based rhetoric. What would happen if we let just anybody in? Well, Jesus did that, and the early church did that. And it resulted in a worldwide movement where it became clear that God was in control, and that authority couldn't be contained within an institution or a small group of decision makers. Maybe that's the real fear: that we'd lose control. I, for one, am perfectly happy to give control over to the God whose grace is offered to all people.

This has been a rather long post, and I thank you for having read this far. I will revisit many of the events and issues of the past week as I have more time to reflect on them and try to wrap my head around them. These are my thoughts for now, and I welcome any feedback you have. God bless.

1 comment: said...

Thanks for your words of wisdom. Another thing to consider when the little girl asked to join is YES! When I was 8 years old, I asked my parents if I could join the church. It had been a vital part of my life all my life. My father asked the pastor to let me join saying that if I feel God's call now I should be allowed to join. Daddy feared that if rejected at 8 I might never want to join again. I grew in the church which was and continues to be a means of grace for my spiritual journey.
Also, Amendment 1 only states that a person shall be eligible. Eligible is the key word that many overlooked. I fear as you stated that this is about fear of being inclusive of all God's children.