“A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense,’” says President Barack Obama. General Conference is trying its best to make sense.
At this General Conference session, 952 delegates from around the world will consider 1,200 pieces of legislation; 143 are on the calendar to be voted on by the full body. These petitions include huge, weighty matters – the potential restructuring of the denomination, the role of bishops as leaders, issues of who is included and who remains outside the church doors, and setting missional priorities for the next four years. There are also a few silly petitions. But each of the 1,200 is treated as a sacred trust, sent forth from United Methodists across the globe as pieces intended to build God’s kingdom in the United Methodist tradition.
By some estimates, I’ve heard, the delegates will spend $1,500 for each minute they gather. That makes the decisions they consider and how they invest this time critical. It makes it essential that reason, passion and wisdom merge in creative ways. Business-as-usual can feel, at best, self-indulgent, and, at worst, sinful.
In the Conferences Legislative Committee, which I was on, 43 percent of the members were United Methodists from outside of the United States. Most were from Africa. This new, global participation shapes the proceedings. Translations take time and nuance is sometimes lost. A more orthodox edge is being felt.
During some of the breaks in the committee’s schedule, Chamusa Kasweshi of the South West Katanga Conference led us in song. I didn’t have the slightest idea about what the words I sang meant, but joining together with a church that stretches across a multitude of cultures seemed to be contain the spark of something holy. We were Russian, German, Africans that spoke Kiswahili, French and Portuguese, and Americans from the East Coast, West Coast, the Deep South and points in between.
In our committee, was the Rev. Seth McPherson of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, who had a list of Hebrew words from 2 Peter 1:5-7 tattooed on his forearm. This passage speaks of adding to your faith: goodness, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and love. On McPherson’s other arm are Aramaic words that echo Jesus’ words in the Garden: “Not my will, Lord, but thine.”
It was almost these exact elements that the committee sought to reflect and create as they debated and voted on legislation to send to the plenary. They’re also words the General Conference is trying to press into the fabric of the church’s future. Pressing 1 for “yes” and 2 for “no” on their electronic keypads, they’re hopeful the votes will create legislation that makes sense and delivers a potential for something holy to unfold.
It’s legislation, but it’s also a ministry in which extraordinarily diverse people come together and, in a process of envisioning, deliberating and voting, attempt to craft a future for a church they love. My prayer is it does make sense, and like a good sentence or a good song, reaches out in unexpected ways.