On the eve of the United Methodist Church’s 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s Council of Bishops has issued a pastoral letter expressing hope for an atmosphere of love and prayerful Christian conferencing.
The bishops pointed to issues surrounding this General Conference that are creating a “sense of anxiety.” Those issues include visa problems encountered by some international delegates, financial and stewardship challenges, concerns about war and terrorism, continued threats of racism and poverty, and issues related to homosexuality.
“Fear and anxiety are not the only forces at work in the world,” the council said in its April 26 letter. “When Jesus Christ is present, we have nothing to fear. We are convinced more than ever that Jesus Christ is with us here, leading us to serve in all that we do.”
Quoting Philippians 1:9, the bishops said their prayer for the General Conference delegates is “that your love will overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.”
During its meeting preceding General Conference, the Council of Bishops had long hours of discussion about the tensions that are surrounding this gathering of United Methodists.
“We’ve had, in this council meeting, quite extensive conversation on the present situation of the church and how we should lead,” said Bishop Ruediger R. Minor, president of the council and leader of the church’s Eurasia Area. “While we’re not encroaching on the rights of the General Conference, which is the governing body of the church, we do want to help General Conference find a spirit of Christian conferencing by listening to each other and putting things in the right dimension.”
The 2004 General Conference begins April 27 and continues through May 7 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
The letter calls each General Conference a “pivotal moment” in the life of the church. General Conference is held every four years and is the gathering that determines changes to the denomination’s governing Book of Discipline.
Many of the petitions before this General Conference deal with sexuality, and a recent survey of delegates said that homosexuality would be a chief topic of discussion. The tension surrounding the issue has escalated with the March 20 acquittal of the Rev. Karen Dammann in a clergy trial in the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference. Dammann was acquitted of a charge of practices “incompatible with Christian teaching” — a violation of the Book of Discipline — stemming from her disclosure in 2001 that she was living in a homosexual partnership.
The bishops are responding to a growing concern that decisions made at this General Conference could split the United Methodist Church.
“That’s certainly one of the fears that people have,” said Arkansas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, part of the writing team that worked on the council’s letter. “That’s why we spoke to the unity issue very strongly.”
Addressing church unity, the letter reads: “As a Council of Bishops, we consider ourselves to be family. That means we love each other, we listen to each other, and sometimes we vigorously disagree with each other. However, we do not question the integrity of our colleagues and their commitment to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to them. We have learned that honest struggle is a part of love. Our love for Christ, the church and one another transcends our differences.
“On some issues, including human sexuality, we are not of one opinion. At the same time, we are united in our commitment to Jesus Christ. We are united in our commitment to practice and advocate unity. We are united in our commitment to uphold the Book of Discipline. … Schism is not a part of God’s plan for the church.”
Huie said the bishops spent a good deal of time praying over these concerns.
“We spent three or four hours in covenant groups gathered in prayerful discernment about the church and what is heavy on people’s hearts,” she said. “We spent a good deal of time in prayer.
“We’re aware of the concerns and the fears,” Huie added. “We, as the Council of Bishops, wanted to say a word to General Conference from all of us, that we approach these two weeks with confidence and hope.”
The bishops said they hope the letter will have an impact on the tone of General Conference.
“It’s an invitation to holy conferencing, with a sense of hope that General Conference will conduct itself in that manner,” Huie said. “We’re prayerful and hopeful, and looking forward to this General Conference.”
*Neill Caldwell is a correspondent for the United Methodist News Service.