Reformer and hand-wringer: notes from the back row

Reformer and hand-wringer: notes from the back row – United Methodist Church’s 1996 General Conference

William H. Willimon

There was not a hint of crisis when my thousand fellow delegates gathered in Denver for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. In a denomination which has lost more than 2.5 million members over the past two decades, and in which benevolence giving has decreased precipitously, one might have expected soul-searching self-examination by the assembled followers of Wesley. Having urged structural reform in my recent book (written with pastor Andy Langford) Reinventing the Connection, I was hopeful that innovation was in the air.

Yet in the opening episcopal address by Bishop Judith Craig, delegates were warned not to rock the boat. “The United Methodist Church is alive and well around the world,” Bishop Craig proclaimed. “While many lament and wring their hands with worry and despair about the church, there are signs of God at work all around us and within us. There is so much good in the church, we could, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., `dig a tunnel of hope through every mountain of despair.'”

As chief among the lamenters and hand-wringers, I took note: We are doing fine. Things are going well. Maintain the status quo. Stay on course. Don’t rock the ark.

Yet when we moved into the next five days of grueling committee meetings in which delegates wrestled with legislative, proposals, it became apparent that many had come to the conference with change on their minds. In one of the first day’s devotionals, Pat Callbeck Harper promised us, “If we listen, we can hear the rush of the Holy Spirit in the turning of the DCA pages [our foot-thick collection of impending legislation] or the shuffling of harried feet down crowded corridors.”

In my assigned committee, where we worked late into the night every evening, even I could not deny the presence of the Holy Spirit and a new spirit of change. In a church saddled for two decades with the most complex, bureaucratic, impenetrable structure since the Roman church of the late Middle Ages, many of the delegates were talking downsizing, simplification, new paradigms for ministry and the need to return power to the congregations.

Not everyone. Some of us endured stiff-arming by agency officials and bureaucrats who felt threatened by the new mood. One African-American pastor from the Southeast told me, “When you say `empower the local church,’ I hear `states’ rights,’ or `Let’s forget inclusiveness.'” Some women and ethnic-minority delegates feared that without the current complex of quotas, rules and mandated structures they would lose the ground they had only recently gained. They viewed the proposal to move into a less legislated and mandated future as only a veiled call away from inclusiveness and back to Egypt. An ethnic-minority pastor defended the bureaucracy: “I know that it’s expensive, hard to work and unresponsive, but, as they say, `You ride the horse that brought you here.'”

While I understood his feelings, I was baffled by the ethnic-minority support for a structure which reflects a 1960s, white-collar, corporate American way of doing business–all good ideas flow from the top down, nothing can occur in the organization which is not approved and coordinated with everything else in the denomination, never trust anyone in the organization to do anything which has not been previously mandated and monitored by those at the top, and so on.

It is tough to turn around a large, complex organization where so much power has been concentrated in the hands of a large bureaucracy. As a perceptive delegate from the Mid-west said in exasperation, “Why should one expect fundamental change from those of us who have benefited from the status quo? We are at General Conference because all of us have mastered the present system, know how to work it, understand the jargon. Yet the majority of the folk in our churches don’t understand the system and have lost faith in it.”

A particular irony of our denomination is that we are being directed by people who think of themselves as progressive and liberal yet who, when it comes to organization, are rigorous protectors of the status quo.

One evening early in the conference, we learned on the TV news that 15 of our bishops had signed a statement, devised by Washington pastor Philip Wogaman, stating that they could no longer in good conscience affirm the United Methodist Discipline’s ban on the ordination of practicing lesbian and homosexual persons. This they did without consulting or notifying their fellow bishops.

The bishops defended their action as a progressive act of conscience, but many of the delegates interpreted it as hierarchical arrogance. To delegates who had been laboring all day on legislation, it seemed a pre-emptive publicity strike.

By the end of the second week of motions, substitute motions, referrals to committee and points of order, it was clear that few were in the mood for fundamental reform. In a church in which benevolence funds have dropped 14.4 percent (in purchasing power) in ten years, where the gap between what we budget and what we receive is wide and growing, we continued to pass budget increases.

Unlike a local congregation, a denomination seems to have few resources for facing the facts. An outside observer, watching us preach, pray and sing, and argue over details of legislation would never know that if present trends continue, by our next General Conference we will have far less church to administer.

We managed to delete some of our local church structure, kill the disastrous Council on Ministries system of programming and at the same time vote in a very expensive, extensive study to implement the “Interactive Process Model” (whatever that is) in our general church.

We killed an attempt to bless same-sex unions by the church and at the same time soundly defeated an attempt to strengthen the disciplinary language on gay and lesbian practices.

We formed a number of committees to worry about our ethnic-minority churches and at the same time denied equitable representation to our sisters and brothers from conferences outside the U.S. We United Methodists are nothing if not ambivalent.

Still, there were highlights. When a church meets just a couple of weeks after Easter, it’s difficult to deny entrance the Spirit. Our new Hispanic hymnal along with our new program for Hispanic ministries is wonderful. The report from Africa University (founded by United Methodists a few years ago) was an experience of Pentecost. Bishop Arthur F. Kulah of wartorn Liberia made a triumphant entrance into the conference. He had a heart-wrenching tale to tell and pleaded with the delegates “not to give up on Liberia.” The diversity of music, some of the preaching, and most of the worship was great, giving us welcomed respite from the legislative morass.

The best sermon of General Conference was by Hillary Rodham Clinton. “She quoted more scripture, sounded more like a preacher, and converted more souls than anybody else who’s preached here this week,” said an attorney from the Midwest. Rodham Clinton said that her Methodist upbringing not only inspired her interest in the Bible and her love of service to others but also taught her “how to recover from the embarrassment of passing out in an overheated sanctuary when I was playing an angel during the Christmas pageant.” We loved it when she thanked us for instilling in her a “connection between my personal faith and the obligations I faced as a Christian, both to other individuals and to society.”

As the conference limped to an end, ten days after it began, Bishop Woody White pleaded with delegates to go home remembering that “the good news is, the bad news is wrong.” The bishop’s appeal could be interpreted as one more episcopal attempt to stifle change or as a faithful gospel call to remember that the church is more than its leaders, My row, the very back row, took it as a faithful reminder of the real business of the church.

I recalled White’s words for a delegate who was sulking in the lobby after the last session, enraged and hurt that the conference had defeated his earnest plea for more equitable representation in the apportionment of delegates from the Annual Conferences. He sighed and said, “No, the good news is that God will probably forgive us, even for this.”

As I dragged myself home, I remembered a truth that Father Wesley never forgot–our beloved church continues not on the basis of majority vote, consensus legislation, the work of a committee, wise bishops or humble bureaucrats, but by the unmerited, amazing grace of God.

William H. Willimon, a CENTURY editor at large, is university chaplain and professor of ministry at Duke University.

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group