At the end of the closing worship service at General Conference 2012, these words from one of the songs jumped out at me: “All of us have sailed on the rivers of heartache.”
I believe that many if not all of the delegates left the General Conference with “heartache” because of their concern for someone else, or because of their own inner pain resulting from disappointment because of their sense of incompleteness regarding what had transpired in Tampa, Fla.
I “attended” General Conference, even though I remained in my home in Asbury Park, N.J. Thanks to United Methodist Communications/United Methodist News Service, I had my first experience of live streaming, and through the screen of my laptop computer, I was present for all of the plenary sessions.
I am certain the heartache caused by the Judicial Council’s ruling that the plan for denominational restructuring – approved by the General Conference – was unconstitutional created deep disappointment for all of the delegates and those of us who were watching electronically. The months of planning and the discussions, debates and decision made at the General Conference were rendered almost meaningless by the ruling of unconstitutionality.
Many of us were disappointed that the General Conference failed to approve a proposal that would have acknowledged that The United Methodist Church is divided in response to the statement, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Our disagreement with this statement is related to the fact that some of us believe that our statement that “all persons are of sacred worth” contradicts our negative and judgmental language that singles out same-gender loving persons.
Collective disappointments of this kind cannot help but evoke a variety of emotions along with finger pointing, playing the “blame game” and wistful wishing that something different had been done. I am sure too that there was a sense of despair that a denomination engaged in such a rich diversity of ministries throughout the world, as reported in a Sunday evening plenary, could run into the wall of unconstitutionality and its own inability to change its 40-year-old language regarding homosexuality.
The need for Pentecost
Before the General Conference, one of the general secretaries of our agencies suggested that what needed to take place in Tampa was a “United Methodist Pentecost.” The Acts 2 description of the day of Pentecost contains this question; “…how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
I suggest that at the recently ended General Conference, delegates, bishops, agency staff and others of us “heard” that The United Methodist Church, regardless of where we live or who we are in need of deeper prayerful reflection, planning, organization, witness and action if we are to fulfill the mission and ministry that we believe God expects of us.
The church is “in need of deeper prayerful reflection, planning, organization, witness and action if we are to fulfill the mission and ministry that … God expects of us.”
This “hearing” has a universality about it that binds us all together. Thus, what happened in Tampa must not stay in Tampa. I believe that in Tampa, “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2)
There was a collective experience of realizing that our denomination, not in spite of but because of our rich history and heritage, has reached a place in the 21st century where it is compelled, “in the name of God,” to reconsider and then re-package, re-tool and then re-introduce the mission and ministry that are unique to The United Methodist Church.
Moving forward into the future
Larry Hollon has written about the silence of the mainline Church in response to the crucial and crisis issues of our time. The United Methodist Church is the largest of the Protestant mainline denominations of the world. It is imperative for our mission/ministry, as well as our survival, to realize that we cannot “back into the future” by replicating the past as a response to the present and the future. We ought not be ashamed that we recognize, “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.”
The General Conference of 2012, with its frustrations, incompleteness and silence on many fronts, missed an opportunity at a challenging moment in history to be not a liberal or a conservative church, but to be the best of a blend of the many realities of those who were present as delegates and leaders – a blend that is diverse in terms of our spiritual, cultural, racial and ethnic, economic, educational and sexual contexts.
I grew up in black Methodist/United Methodist churches where I heard often, “God may not come when you want God, but God always comes on time.” Could it be that the God of Pentecost came to the Tampa General Conference in the presence of a collective and communal experience of despair? And as always, God wants us “amazed and perplexed (as we may be) saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?'” (Acts 2: 12)
It is in and through “The Living of the Questions” (Robert Raines) that a “new” (in commitment, structure and implementation) United Methodist Church will be born.
Although I will be 82 when the 2016 General Conference meets in Portland, Ore., I am beginning to look forward to being present, physically or through live streaming.
*Caldwell is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Asbury Park, N.J.
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