Two General Conference delegates from the Arkansas Annual (regional) Conference - the Rev. John P. Miles Jr. and the Rev. Rebekah "Beka" Miles - are siblings with sometimes widely divergent views.
But they and other delegates are being encouraged to use holy conferencing, or holy conversation, to set "a tone for respectful dialogue and relationship building." The goal, explained Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck during the pre-General Conference news briefing, is to have dialogue instead of debate and to find consensus around important matters rather than have "winners" and "losers."
United Methodist News Service asked John, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Jonesboro, Ark., and Beka, associate professor of ethics and practical theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, to share their thoughts about holy conversation and the role it might play at General Conference.
Your father, John Miles, was a several-times General Conference delegate. What did you learn about holy conferencing/conversation from him? Growing up, did you debate/discuss United Methodist issues around the dinner table? How did that influence you?
John: Dad has always been a very passionate person.He is deeply identified with The United Methodist Church.I learned that beliefs matter. I learned that principles were worth defending.I am not sure how holy our conferencing was, but Dad never demonized other people, even though he was often arguing with others.Both at annual conference and at General Conference, there were obvious allies and opponents. Dad always considered his opponents his brothers and sisters.I also learned from him that church politics were secondary to local ministry.Both Mom and Dad were our tutors in United Methodist politics.
Beka: Our mother founded and led the women's leadership team in our jurisdiction, which was pivotal in the election of several bishops, including Janice Riggle Huie and Ann Sherer-Simpson. We learned from our parents that this is a highly political process, that compromise is central and that compromise doesn't happen by itself. You have to work for it. You have to be willing to talk to people, to listen, and to give and take. We were encouraged to debate issues around the dinner table and to disagree with each other. A lively disagreement was as important to a good family dinner as the food itself.
Looking toward the 2012 General Conference and the many issues to be discussed, how is holy conferencing/conversation important? How would you define "holy conferencing/conversation?"
"Holy conferencing is holding fast to what you believe is true while listening to other people's truths."
John Miles, first-time delegate.
John: I think most of us are deeply concerned about the polarization within our nation's culture and politics.We as the church should try to give a better witness in our own struggles.Holy conferencing is not the surrender of basic beliefs for the sake of comity.Holy conferencing is holding fast to what you believe is true while listening to other people's truths.It means not demonizing others.It means attempting to try to understand why others think differently about issues.
Beka: Honestly, true holy conferencing is difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve on any large scale at General Conference. I have a more modest hope, which you can call holy conferencing if you want: that we will be civil, generous and try not to make complete jackasses of ourselves, and that when we do make jackasses of ourselves, we will apologize and then try to amend our ways.
John is a first-time delegate, though he has attended three General Conferences, including one as an alternate. This is Beka's third time as a delegate. What is it like to serve on the same delegation as your sibling whose votes, quite likely in some instances, will be opposite yours?
John: It is an honor to serve on the delegation.When my sister was elected as the second clergy delegate, I was very proud of her.She is a wonderful person.I do not always agree with her, but she is the kind of delegate and clergy person we desperately need at General Conference.She is willing to think outside the box while being deeply committed to basic Christian theology and ethical behavior.I am not naïve enough to think things will always go the way I want them to go. At General Conference, you are always guaranteed to lose some of the votes.You do the best you can and accept the outcome and go back to your home and be grateful for your local church.
Beka: I love serving with my brother. What I want to see in delegates - whatever their political leaning on any particular issue - is a capacity to listen to others with whom they disagree, a willingness to compromise and a pragmatic spirit that seeks to work out agreements between the various parties. My brother has that in spades, as do many other people of diverse opinions. Not only do I love serving with my brother at General Conference, I am even going to room with him! OK, I have to admit I am a little uneasy about that one! But there is no question that our love for each other can weather any disagreements and any living arrangements, including spending 10 days in the same hotel room!
Do you expect to debate issues with each other before and/or during General Conference? If so, please elaborate.
John: Beka and I share a passion for The United Methodist Church and the holy catholic church.It is a tie that binds us.We love talking about theological and ethical issues confronting our church.I think, sometimes, we enjoy debating our differences more than our similarities.In our family, it is a prized hobby.
Beka: That's exactly right. We love arguing about the issues. It's the favorite sport in our family, but as with any sport or game, there are rules. We know that we can't be mean and nasty to each other. We know we have to take the other seriously. We know our love for each other and shared commitments to God trump any argument. That's true for arguments with my brother, John, and with all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Which issues, in your opinion, will call for the greatest amount of holy conferencing/conversation, and how will you encourage that?
John: The issue of homosexuality, of course, has polarized the mainline churches for decades now.With the continued growth of our more conservative regions in the United States and around the world, I think there will be a bit less tension around that issue.I also think the work of the Connectional Table will be a flash point.Surely, no one at the conference believes the status quo is acceptable.I have some hope we can rethink our structures and our way of doing ministry together.
Beka: We should approach every issue with the minimalist expectations I described above: being civil, listening generously to the other and trying not to be a jackass. We like to think we are divided by left and right, but the truth is that the ideologues on the left and right are extremely difficult to tell apart; they are cut from the same cloth.
Do you agree with the Rev. Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, Tipp City, Ohio, who said, "We do more political conferencing than holy conferencing?" Why or why not?
John: It would be naïve to think that holy conferencing will be the guiding principle of something like General Conference.Most of the delegates were elected through an openly political process, and we are often political enthusiasts ourselves.If we can be gracious in our political differences, that is realistically about as close to holy conferencing as we can get in something as political as General Conference.Actually, I have found the people who decry church politics the most are the ones in charge.
Beka: "Politics" is not a dirty word. We have a highly democratic, political polity. The founders of American Methodism set things up that way. An open political system is a gift. We just have to be willing to engage in the process with civility, generosity and a willingness to see and monitor our own faults. If the promotion of holy conferencing encourages us to be civil to each other, that's wonderful. If it slows things down and gives less time to the actual political process, it will give significant advantage to the packages of legislation proposed by boards, agencies, commissions and bishops. In other words, depending on how it is done, even the call for holy conferencing itself can be a political act with political advantages for particular players in our legislative process.
Each cycle, as I prepare for General Conference and as I engage in the process at General Conference, I call to mind a quotation from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith found in a letter he wrote to John F. Kennedy as he began his presidency. "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."
For more information, visit the General Conference 2012 website.
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.