June 2006. I was exhausted and nauseated. Some of that could be pinned on my first trimester, but the feelings were stronger than usual. It did not help that I was intensely impatient with any foolishness during my pregnancy. (I use the term advisedly – “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.” And it did not seem to me that many people on the floor were acting as if God were in the room with them.)
I threw down my tote bag full of fliers advertising various programs and agencies of the Virginia Conference, and collapsed onto the chair in our hotel room. With enough vehemence to unsettle my husband, I began to pray: “Lord, strike them down – strike us down – every last one of us. Something showy, a surgical strike that we cannot ignore, that any thoughtful Christian will attribute to your hand. Strike us all with food poisoning – just the delegates and the alternates – let us all be too sick to show up tomorrow. Cut all power to the Coliseum – but only to the Coliseum, and only when we try to enter. Make us all too sleepy to wake up in the morning, so that none of us show up until time for evening worship. But food poisoning would be best Lord. Make each and every delegate as nauseated as I am right now, and more so. This conference must be stopped!” And then, though spent and hopeless, I continued to moan listlessly to my husband, like a child whose heart is no longer fully in her tantrum, as I got myself ready to slip into bed and sleep.
Much to my disappointment, the morning came like any other morning in Hampton, with delegates streaming into the Coliseum. Unlike a few of my colleagues, who felt that voting should not be allowed to get in the way of a good game of golf, I forced myself to join the rank and file. If God would not be persuaded to stand in our way like the angel before Balaam’s donkey, then I would proceed as I was bound to do. And so it was that I was there to witness – if not something like repentance and reconciliation for the previous day’s shenanigans, then at least hopeful gestures in that direction.
That year, there had been a lot that I was not prepared for – I did not have my finger to the wind. There were relationships and conversations that were going on behind the scenes – things that I could have been more educated about, if I had not been pointing my attention in other equally worthy directions.
When I started watching this year’s General Conference from afar, I was reminded of that last annual conference in which I fully participated. I didn’t totally know what was going on, but I knew enough to be angry, enough to wish to wash my hands of the idea of placing ecclesial power in the hands of a strong centralized body.
I began to wonder if there was a way forward for United Methodism without first fracturing.
But then I decided that before speaking, I needed to learn more. I needed to understand better what was happening, and what the legislative options were. And something happened as I read and read and read some more – I began to have more hope for the United Methodist Church than I have had in a long time. Because just like God had a better idea than food poisoning to turn Annual Conference around six years ago, there is a better idea than further schism on the table: The Global Book of Discipline.
One of my frustrations with General Conference was that 41% of the delegates this year are from the Central Conferences, and yet General Conference continues to address issues that are largely relevant to the U.S., in very U.S.-centric ways. Another frustration was the intense micro-managing of local congregations that takes place at this global level. But the Global Book of Discipline proposal is a first step to addressing both of these issues – making the Discipline leaner, and more broadly applicable across cultures.
I still wonder about the wisdom of the United Methodist Church as an international body. I wonder about the history of the central conferences, and how much is rooted in a colonialist impulse to keep a paternalistic eye on the beneficiaries of our missionary largesse. I visited with leading members of the Peruvian Methodist Church some years ago, and I remember that they did not see any benefit to joining the United Methodist Church. What is the history of this difference? Why are the Methodist churches in some European countries United Methodist, and others not? Why most of Africa, but not South Africa? Why the Philippines, but not Latin America? What would be the result of making the U.S. a central conference (or 2 or 3 central conferences), so that we would all be on even footing? What if, instead, we spun off the central conferences into their own churches, without them being obligated to come to the U.S. every 4 years to listen to us suggest (in English) such things as that we restructure the entire UMC in order to address the falling membership numbers in the U.S. churches?
The more I read, the more hopeful I became, but the more questions I had. I wished I could travel the world, talking to Methodists in every country about the history of Methodism in their country, and about their relationship (if any) to the UMC, and their feelings about that…
Actually, that would make a really great book. Who wants to take it on?