I realized yesterday that apparently 2016 is Year of the Church Conferences: Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PC[USA]), The United Methodist Church (UMC), Unitarian Universalists (UU), the Orthodox churches, the Church of the Brethren (COB, but this is less impressive because they hold one every year), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, also known as Mormons; if I include the UUs, I can’t leave out the Mormons even though they also have a conference every year), the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are all holding denomination-wide conferences this year.
And that’s just the ones I know about from friends and acquaintances.
I have no idea why this year is so big for church politics. Maybe every however many years is this big and it’s just that I’m paying attention now. Maybe it’s because we’re all gearing up for next year, which is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. (I know I’m excited.) Maybe it’s that we’re getting together more often in the face of a world that freaks us out rather a lot.
Whatever the reason, it’s a churchy political year. I don’t think it’s at all an accident that it’s also a secular political year, because try as we might we churchy folk are most certainly in the world and often of it, too. So what do churchy politics look like?
For my denomination, they look a little bipolar. I won’t here speak of General Conference, which is the denomination-wide one, because I didn’t go to that. But one of the things I love about Annual Conference (which, in the United Methodist Church, involves the conference level; conferences are regional bodies that usually correspond to a state or couple of states–e.g. there’s the North Georgia Conference, the Susquehanna Conference, the Dakotas Conference–or, outside the U.S., to a country or couple of countries–e.g. the Germany Central Conference or the Liberia Annual Conference) is the worship. It’s not even necessarily whether the worship is good (although it almost always is) but that it’s wrapped into everything we do. Starting the morning? Worship! Shifting to a new part of the agenda? Worship! Having a particularly difficult conversation before a vote? Prayer! Need to bring the floor to order? Hymns!
It’s a living enactment of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which is one of only about five verses I have memorized and it’s totally because it’s so short. It’s a taste of monastic life in the sense of building an acknowledgment of God into everything we do. And I love that because the normal life I live outside of AC is pretty secular and it is way too easy for me to reach the end of a day or a week and be like, “O hai God, thanks for hanging around.”
But one of the things that I hate about AC is that we cut our business away from that worship even more cleanly than in the day-to-day world. It can feel like there’s no God in the budget, or in the legislative committees, or in the votes to close down unused churches. We try, and I thank God for the many ways that we try, but it’s super hard to be worshipful when talking about parliamentary procedure. The happy clappy spirituality of belting out Here I Am, Lord can be difficult to translate into voting on an amendment to an amendment to an original motion adding a sentence to a proposed statement of unity (which happened this year, really).
So how do we work as the people of God, as the Bride of Christ, as the hands and feet building the Kingdom? I appreciate the frustration of the people who want to do away with denominational structures and go back to the early church that had way fewer rules, and I think they’re partly right. But I don’t think we can go back; we’re too big. Christianity has shaped the world, especially the Western hemisphere, in a way currently unmatched by any other religion. We can’t pretend that rules, regulations, procedures, and conversations aren’t important.
And we shouldn’t try–our conferences, despite themselves, are doing good things. At my conference this year we committed ourselves to continuing the conversation about our denomination and sexuality; we decided that gender and sexuality could no longer be factors considered in the ordination process for new clergy; we bound ourselves to standing against discrimination against Muslims, equipping and sending each church to stand in their communities in partnership; we decided that all churches in our conference will remain gun-free zones no matter what the state government says; we pledged to advocate with all of our resources for restorative justice to fight against the prison pipeline that so disproportionately tears apart minority communities; we gave authority to UMCOR to continue working in areas affected by natural and man-made disasters; and we even passed a budget.
Some of that might seem to be window dressing, speaking of action rather than doing it, and some of that might truly be window dressing. But it is still the Church realizing that we must engage this world we are in, it is the Church trying to marshal its resources of literally thousands of people (there were almost 3,000 at this conference, I think) to have any reality in praying “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, it gets nitpicky and exhausting, and yes, there are definitely lots of differing ideas about what God’s will really is in all this legislation. We are the Body of Christ, but we are not perfect. Like our world, we are broken; but, I realized today, so was Christ. His body was broken, shattered; we remember this in every communion we take. But it did not stay there; the Body, like her King, is not meant to limp along forever. One day we will be raised in perfection—complete with scars from all the times we have fallen, but living.
Not a bad thing for which to keep striving.
Avoid foolish and thoughtless discussions, since you know that they produce conflicts. (2 Timothy 2:23, CEB)