All the tribes of The United Methodist Church gathered in Fort Worth April 23 through May 2. There were 992 delegates and about 1,000 others who gathered to watch and witness as the church tried its best to create “A Future with Hope.”
Almost immediately, they adopted John Wesley’s three rules: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in Love with God.”
Holy conferencing and conversation made all things feel possible. The young adults of the church made their first address ever and stressed the importance of “interaction over action.”
Even the dry, analytical finance report took on spirit when Bishop Swenson proclaimed: “Observe the cup. What we give, we receive. What we receive we give. We not only lift the cup. We are the cup. Let us be the cup overflowing in a thirsty world.”
It felt as if the denomination’s newly adopted four areas of focus were within its reach: eliminating poverty, improving world health, building new faith communities and developing new leaders.
And then, for me, hope crashed when Muland Aying of the North West Katanga annual conference rose to speak in the debate on homosexuality.
“There are things that exist in this world that we would rather not hear about; we would rather not see; we would rather not touch. However, we live in this world, and we have to hear, see and touch these things. However, we do not have to be influenced by those things that we hear, see and touch,” he said. “It’s very sad, Bishop, that The United Methodist Church continues to advocate things that come from the devil.”
Suddenly, the hope felt a bit hollow.
Words wound and his words cut into the heart of the church’s debate on homosexuality. Could we be the church and allow these words to be uttered about the gay men and lesbians standing next to us on the floor?
Apparently we could.
The church upheld its stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and it rejected, by a margin of 10 percent, the proposed statement “Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness.”
We couldn’t even agree to acknowledge that 45 percent of the church thought differently than Aying. It made one feel weak, and furious and battered.
In protest the next day, people witnessed to their desire for inclusion by shrouding the altar in black cloth, and gradually, piece by piece, moment by moment, shards of hope began to reappear.
Holy conversations began between all different kinds of people. But for me, it was the worship that reminded me that God’s grace can not be bound by the whims or the workings of any person or any church. That seemed a cause for hope.
Throughout the proceedings of General Conference, liturgical moments were woven in. The altar table, lectern, baptismal font and communion chalices were made of trees knocked down in Hurricane Katrina.
Broken pieces of people’s lives were collected, laid on altars throughout Mississippi and given to the delegates as they reflected on the cross in front of them, a mosaic of broken things made whole in God.
Plants, started from seeds throughout the United Methodist connection, grew throughout the convention hall.
And the bishops preached.
Bishop Minerva Carcano questioned her firm conviction that United Methodists could faithfully achieve their vision of overcoming poverty in community with the poor.
“I’m not sure we’re smart enough, disciplined enough or compassionate enough. But I don’t lose hope, because there is hope beyond ourselves,” she said. “That hope beyond ourselves is Christ Jesus.”
This hope beyond ourselves also resounded in a sermon by Bishop Joao Somane Machado of Mozambique, who told those gathered that “the church is blessed with men and women, lay and clergy, with tremendous gifts and vitality. We need to do what we say … it’s the actions we are missing,” he said.
And Bishop Ernest Lyght of the West Virginia Area preached: “Wake up, church! Get up, church! When men, women and children knock on the doors of the church, they are looking for fresh bread. They want to encounter a vibrant faith. They want to embrace hope for tomorrow. They want to experience extravagant love that includes them.”
Bishop Violet Fisher of the New York West area continued to deliver hope with her challenge: “What does it mean to open our hearts for the transformation of God’s world and be the Gospel?”
Her question was answered in a sermon by Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, who lifted up those of both sides of the debate on homosexuality — those who seek hospitality and those who value holiness.
“When we concern ourselves only with holiness, we become rigid and inward-looking. We make an idol of our purity,” Jung said. “When we concern ourselves only with hospitality, however, we lose our sense of who we are. Our identity is blurred and we lose the language of our own faith.”
Jung invited United Methodists to live in the tension of those two theologies, but cautioned, “Christianity is not about being theologically correct. “It’s about following Jesus,” he said.
And then Bishop Gregory Palmer, the new president of the Council of Bishops, from the Iowa Area, closed the 2008 General Conference with the words, It is “incumbent on you and me as people of Christian faith that we not become stingy with the blessings—stingy with what we have received from God.”
Then the people left Fort Worth, returning to their ranks among the 11.4 million United Methodists in their 48,000 churches around the world. They became a living benediction. And hope was released.