21st World Methodist Conference looms in Houston

At the World Methodist Conference, church politics get checked — mostly — at the door.

There’s no legislation, but plenty of preaching, teaching, singing and fellowship.  

Think revival, but also think family reunion, with John Wesley as the common ancestor.

“This is a full-on celebration of the Wesleyan tradition that takes place once every five years,” said Sarah Wilke, publisher of The Upper Room, and program chair for the World Methodist Conference set for Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in Houston.

As reunions go, this will be a big one, with attendance of 2,500 to 3,000 expected. Seventy percent of the early registration is from outside the United States. More than 70 denominations and other church groups will be represented, all sharing a Wesleyan heritage and basic Wesleyan theology.

And some will travel a long, long way.

“Myanmar just signed up!” Wilke said, referring to a Methodist group in the country formerly known as Burma.

To have Methodists coming from all over the globe presents visa and translation challenges. It’s worth the trouble, said United Methodist Bishop Michael Watson, who first attended a World Methodist Conference in 1991, in Singapore.

“It’s an uplifting time, and it’s a time that’s cross-cultural in a big way,” added Watson, who is ending his tenure as North Georgia Conference episcopal leader and will become ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops. “We don’t govern each other, but we join together for mutual encouragement and support and love.”

The Pope and John Wesley

The World Methodist Conference is a meeting of the World Methodist Council, an association of 80 Methodist, Wesleyan and related Uniting and United Churches representing 80.5 million people worldwide.

The council actually grew out of the conferences, the first of which occurred in London in 1881.

These days, the council works on a number of fronts, promoting evangelism and social justice, giving a World Methodist Peace Award, and engaging in dialogue with other Christian groups.

A council delegation, including two United Methodists, made the news April 7 by having a 45-minute private meeting with Pope Francis for the opening of a Methodist Ecumenical Office in Rome.

 “Very warm, very gracious,” Watson said of the pope’s welcome. “He quoted John Wesley to us.”

Kirby Hickey, a United Methodist layman from Pennsylvania who serves as CFO and treasurer of the council, especially recalled the end of the meeting, when Pope Francis said goodbye individually to each member of the delegation.

“He looked me square in the eye and he said, ‘Pray for me,’” Hickey said. “That set me back on my heels, to hear the pope say ‘pray for me.’”

Hickey is a businessman who has visited many countries on council business. He calls this work “the most fulfilling of my career,” but one thing discourages him.

“I do find in my travels throughout the world, literally, that the World Methodist Council has a far more recognizable reputation everywhere else than it does in the United States,” he said.

A seminary teach-in

The World Methodist Conference in Houston — the first in the United States since 1981 — may help change that.

Even before the conference gets underway there will be related events happening in Houston, such as the Aug. 29-31 Global United Methodist Clergywomen Gathering

At the conference itself, there will be high-profile speakers from various denominations, such as Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Joanne Cox-Darling of the Methodist Church in Britain.

But United Methodists will have a key role.

The Rev. Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, will preach worship on Sept. 1, and Jorge Lockward, director of the Global Praise program of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, will be the conference worship leader.

The Rev. Ted Campbell, a professor of church history at United Methodist Perkins School of Theology, will be the plenary speaker that day.

Perkins’ professors will give what amounts to a teach-in before and during the conference, offering a range of seminars and mini-courses.

For example, the Rev. William Abraham, Outler professor of Wesleyan studies at Perkins, will lead a seminar titled “John Wesley and the Future of Spiritual Formation.” The Rev. Rebekah Miles, a Perkins professor of ethics and practical theology, will teach on the lives and selected writings of key global figures in Methodism, including Frances Willard, D. T. Niles and Mercy Oduyoye.

The 21st conference

The conference’s stated theme is “One: One God, One Faith, One People, One Mission.”

That may seem optimistic given the open discussion of schism in The United Methodist Church over differing views on homosexuality. Campbell said he plans in his plenary address to mention The United Methodist Church’s troubles and ask for the prayers and counsel of the broader Methodist family.

But in the main, the World Methodist Conference will focus on cherishing what its far-flung members hold in common as far as faith and mission priorities.

Bishop Ivan Abrahams, of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, is the top executive of the World Methodist Council, and he notes that this conference will be the 21st.

That’s a coming-of-age number, he added.

“So this is a time to celebrate, and we’re going to throw a party in Houston,” Abrahams said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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