Saturday, February 02, 2008

Imagine A Church Acting Like . . . A Church

Along with Presidential elections and summer Olympics, this year also brings the Quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The structure of the United Methodist Church, as spelled out in its Discipline (our Constitution and body of laws), is similar to the divided government of the United States, the land that gave this denomination birth. The General Conference is, in essence, our Congress. It is the law-making body, as well as, in some way, the executive, because it is the only body that speaks for the United Methodist Church on matters of faith, doctrine (our Articles of Religion are modeled on the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church), and practice. Delegates from all over the world gather and worship, discuss resolutions sent in from all over the world (I do believe we go a bit far in allowing consideration of any resolution that passes Disciplinary muster; some of them are just outside the bounds of seriousness, even if all the "i"'s are crossed and "t"'s are dotted), and set forth an agenda for ministry for the next four years. Of course, there are the ever-present commissions and study groups set up on everything from the ordination process to the sacraments - and they either report back in four years, or get extended until they seem to last forever.

United Methodist Communications held a press conference last week in which they outlined the agenda for the upcoming gathering, to be held in Fort Worth, TX. Part of a report on the news conference reads as follows:
Weary of decades of the church's top legislative meeting being consumed by debate over homosexuality and other hot-button issues, the Council of Bishops and other denominational leaders have shaped a new churchwide agenda with the overarching purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The agenda includes four areas of focus: developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world; creating "new places for new generations" by starting new churches and renewing existing ones; engaging in ministry with the poor; and fighting the killer diseases of poverty such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.(emphasis added)

Isn't it funny? The Great Commission says, "Go make of all disciples", not "Go make sure men aren't sleeping together", or "Go ensure that fetuses are safe from their murderous, sinful mothers". John Wesley famously quipped "The world is my parish", and went forth - and sent forth - people to preach the Gospel, to spend time in contemplation, and to acts of mercy and justice and compassion. He didn't send people out to make sure that our seminaries were packed with people who could recite doctrinal formulas and enforced them with iron rigor. And Bishop Coke and Bishop Asbury wanted the Methodist Church to be a vehicle for the work of Jesus Christ, not for the egos of the bishops.

I am sure there will be hollering from the right-wing, as they insist we need to deal with this or that issue. Yet, wedging General Conference is a bit played out, and creating media storms over non-issues exhausts the patience of those who believe the Church should be about the business for which God has called it, not enforcing narrow interpretations of doctrine, and skewed ethical practice. I am encouraged by this news conference, because it is clear that the insistence on a focus on the heart of true Methodist theology and practice means just that - there will be an enforced rigidity to the agenda. It is high time we made the decision to be the United Methodist Church again, not the Good News Church, or the Non-Creedal Church With a Confessional Lobby. Being a United Methodist is about living in ministry and mission to the whole world, and the General Conference seems to be waking from its lassitude and showing that "United" isn't a declaration of doctrinal rigidity, but about faith in Jesus Christ, and a dedication to his call to be in the world for its healing and restoration.

Virtual Tin Cup

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