Passionate advocates for causes great and small (there are a total of 1,044 pieces of proposed legislation) are praying, blogging, and lobbying. Agencies like the General Board of Global Ministries or The United Methodist Publishing House that are accountable to the General Conference have prepared updates and seek support for emphases and projects. Women and men from four continents who are lay and clergy, old and young, traditionalist and those pushing for dramatic changes all desire to be faithful Christian disciples, loyal UMs, and to do their jobs with integrity and fidelity.
Decisions taken or deferred can affect how we teach and interpret what it means to live faithfully; who may serve as ordained clergy; how much money we’ll plan to raise and spend for a host of missional efforts; and more. There will be rousing sermons, soaring music, debates over arcane points of church law, political maneuvers and sometimes, fiercely argued differences about policies and practices.
The biggest issues seem likely to center around how we view same-gender relationships and marriage, how UMs interpret and affirm the Christian faith, and how to handle governance and deploy resources as a global, rather than U.S.- centric, denomination. And as it is written, where two or three are gathered there will often be sharply divergent points-of-view.
Will this General Conference be marked by intense conflict, sharp-edged disagreements, and ultimate decisions that leave some discouraged and angry? Will the Portland gathering be known for serendipitous instances where there was unity, alignment, and renewed commitments to transcending purposes and plans?
Probably all of the above. But there is no question that the ways some issues have been defined, disagreements about analyses, the complexity of finding solutions that all find adequate, and the intensity of contrasting convictions will likely make this year’s event amply conflicted and stressful.
History shows frequent tensions and disputes in the church over what to teach and what to do. In 1792, one of our denomination’s founders, Bishop Francis Asbury published a collection of writings titled The Causes, Evils and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions explaining, “I saw so clearly the evil consequences of a division, and how good and pleasant a thing it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.” The book was updated and republished in 1849 as the church struggled over the practice of slavery in America.
For 2016, we decided to offer a new abridged version echoing Bishop Asbury’s entreaty that “it might be a great service to the church of Christ,” “. . . pleading with them to read it carefully and with much prayer that they may cultivate a spirit of unity.”
The world that needs transforming already knows quite well how to accentuate division, alienation, and conflict. The witness we can offer ought to show a better way. Why would we choose to mimic political and other disputes that misrepresent and disrespect those with different views and conclusions? Might United Methodists instead show the world alternative ways to engage in spirited discourse that is less about winning and more about joining our hearts with God’s as we search together for common ground?
“Our divisions hinder our strength,” says Bishop Asbury. “If you untwist a cable, how weak is it in the several parts of it! A threefold cord is not easily broken, but a single one is. Divide a strong current into several rivulets and how shallow and weak will the course of the water be! They hinder our doing good in public: that which concerns many must be done by many. But how can two, much less many, walk together, if they are not agreed? That which one does the other seeks to undo.”
Praying earnestly and humbly that we might first be transformed by God’s grace isn’t pining for an easy peace that substitutes sentimentality for fidelity. If we adopt practices of curiosity, appreciation, tolerance, and speaking truth in love in how we live together, the outcomes might be extraordinary. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at this General Conference, what is most apparent about the people called United Methodists is their hunger, filled by the Holy Spirit, to be transformed and transforming?
Neil M. Alexander serves as Publisher of The United Methodist Church.