I love the church. I always have. Call me crazy! Call me weird! But the church has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I am a “cradle” Methodist who prefers Welch’s grape juice to red wine and I know by heart all the words to “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!”
For the past several days, thanks to the wonders of live-streaming video, I have been watching the church in action as delegations from all over United Methodism gather for General Conference. For the uninitiated among us, General Conference is the once every four years gathering of leaders that alone speaks as the official voice of the United Methodist Church. As your pastor, I find myself hoping that you haven’t watched any of it, for I find it embarrassing and humiliating. There have been a few high-soaring moments of inspiration in the preaching and worship I have seen, but we remain solidly divided over how we interpret the Bible, leading to increasing polarization around the issues of human sexuality that have divided us for so long.
I hope for some middle ground, some compromise, at the very least some conversation, but these things are elusive. Perhaps if I was physically present I would sense the power of the Spirit at work among the gathered church, but I honestly can’t see it from my virtual seat here in my office.
There is talk of schism. There is talk of driving the progressive minority (which is a majority here in the Pacific Northwest) out of the church. There is talk of required church trials for people whose ecclesiastical disobedience grows out of their strong sense of Biblical obedience. There is palpable frustration from both sides of the divide, for doing nothing simply prolongs the conflicts we have been experiencing for decades.
I wonder and worry. Perhaps the conference will find a way to move forward to some sort of reconciliation. That is, of course, my prayer. But what if they don’t? What am I supposed to tell you then, church? You children of God with whom I am privileged to live and work, what am I supposed to tell you about how the “Big C” church rejects the radical hospitality we proclaim here in the “little c” church where all are welcome? What am I supposed to tell you about whether or not we will keep the word “United” in our church’s name? I turn off the live feed and try to get the work of ministry done, but the streams of social media draw me back to the bitter fight and I grow weary of the worry.
Church, I don’t know what to tell you, except this: On Sunday, I will be here at the usual time, prepared to preach the good news of God’s love. I will put my stole on and represent the church that I see in my heart, not the one I see on the live stream. I will pray the prayers of the people with you, and I will confirm a youth, receive members into the fellowship, tie Pentecost prayer ribbons on the Pentecost Prayer Tree in the narthex, sing beloved hymns, and shake the hands of four year olds and 94 year olds. I will do all the things I always do, because when push comes to shove, despite the ecclesiology held hostage by this general conference, church happens here, in Olympia, and in places just like Olympia, every day.
I believe with all of my heart that the Holy Spirit cannot be contained by the Book of Discipline. I believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In a few days, when the General Conference has ended and all of the delegates have gone home, I will still be called to ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. You will be, too. Together, we will be called to transform the world by making disciples of Jesus Christ, just like we are today.