By Fred Koenig
Everything you need to know about General Conference 2016 is in this issue of The Missouri Methodist. But hey, I know you’re busy with Annual Conference session upon us, so I’ll do one better for you: everything you need to know about General Conference in the next sentence.
The General Conference in Portland, Oregon, in 2016 was a gathering of 864 clergy and lay delegates from local churches around the world who love God, love the United Methodist Church, and were prayerfully trying to guide the church into being the best that it can be today and for the future.
Four years ago I was at the farmers’ market in Columbia on a Saturday morning. I saw someone I knew, and when he asked what I was up to that weekend, I told him that I was headed to General Conference in Tampa. He replied, “I love the Methodists church. I’ve been part of it my whole life. I pray they don’t turn away from scripture to go with times, and have gay pastors and gay weddings. I couldn’t be part of that.”
I said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes,” and I walked on. As I came down the other side of the isle, I saw someone else I knew, and he asked what I was up to. I told him I was heading to General Conference. He replied, “I sure hope they finally change their rules banning homosexual people from ministry and not allowing same sex weddings. It breaks my heart to see the church I love closing its doors and turning our back against a part of our society that way. It’s not just, and it’s not who we are.”
This isn’t a parable – this actually happened exactly the way I’m describing it now. What makes the incident more memorable to me is that demographically, these two men were twins. Both were white men in their 70s, and lifelong Methodists. They grew up in rural Missouri on farms. Both went on to earn college and advanced degrees, had successful careers, and were now retired in Columbia. For years, both had even been very active members of the same local United Methodist Church. They were friends. They could hardly be more similar, nor could they be further apart on this issue.
General Conference is made up of people from radically different social contexts and cultural norms. They live in different societies and live by different laws. It’s little wonder that as a body they struggle to come to agreement on an issue that many people struggle to talk about in groups as intimate as their own immediate families.
At General Conference 2016 there was actually little discussion about these two divisive issues, but there were days of debate regarding how to discuss these issues – conversations about how to converse. It was tough on everybody.
Ask anyone who attended General Conference about their reaction, and you’re almost to get the same response. First, they will tell you the worship was amazing – uplifting and spirit-filled. If you ask in the first day or two, they will also talk about how wonderful it is to see a truly global church come together – with people from all over the world joining together under the United Methodist banner. Most will call it a Pentecost moment. But then they will talk about the banality of the business session, the hours spent in parliamentary procedural jousting, and the difficulty of trying to conduct business with several hundred people who understand things differently.
Through it all, I remain impressed with our dozen delegates and alternate delegates from Missouri. The respect they maintain within their group is a model of how things can work when they are working well. I give thanks that we all have them going to the table on behalf of Missouri Methodists during these challenging times.