Opening Worship for the General Conference was vibrant, multisensory, linguistically and culturally diverse, deeply Trinitarian in spirit, and relentlessly evocative in its music and imagery. I wish that all of you could have been there. (I understand that many of you watched the service online.)
During Opening Worship, Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., who served in Western Pennsylvania back in the 1970’s and who, in fact, was ordained elder in Western Pennsylvania in 1975, offered the ministry of preaching. Bishop Brown’s proclamation of the Word was a powerful reminder of the sufficiency of Jesus Christ in making ecclesiastical unity a possibility, even amid significantly different interpretations of Scripture and theological perspectives. Bishop Brown called to mind the important and sometimes tumultuous disagreements that the United Methodist Church has experienced in its 48-year history (since the 1968 merger that resulted in the creation of this denomination). “We hold on to our respective positions as dearly as we hold our own consciences,” Bishop Brown acknowledged in his preaching. “But may we also seek the path of unity as we have on other matters throughout our history. Jesus, we are here for you as a united church—united by your grace that saves us!”
Later on in the afternoon, we experienced a video presentation by Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area. Bishop Yemba spoke about the creative way in which many Africans in the Central Congo manage their conflicts. When conflict arises in the community, the conflicted parties agree to gather under a tree for the purpose of addressing the issues over which they are divided. The tree’s branches remind them of the many lives impacted by their conflict. The tree’s shade points to the refreshment of reconciliation. The tree’s trunk calls to mind the sturdiness of unity. According to Bishop Yemba, these conversations under the tree do not always lead to solutions. Frequently, they simply lead to a fresh recognition of the fact that peace can prevail without winners and losers and that unity can accommodate the absence of uniformity. Bishop Yemba then concluded with this powerful point: “Jesus Christ is the tree under which we gather.” We stand in the shade of his grace, unified but not uniform; manifesting peace, but not homogeneity. The tree metaphor fell upon my heart as something powerful, given all that is before us.
We devoted the rest of the afternoon and evening to special introductions, organizational matters, and the adoption of the rules of General Conference. Conversations about General Conference rules are always challenging, especially for those who are not particularly conversant in the language of our polity and parliamentary procedure. However, I am deeply grateful that there are leaders in our church who have both the skill and passion to help us to practice good stewardship over our rules and our processes. Those rules and processes are what help to create a healthy and appropriate context in which the General Conference can best do its work.
It is 11:15, and I am ready for sleep. Thank you for joining me in this journey.