I’m not certain what I think about General Conference.
The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis. Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland. Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020. The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass. As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.
Regardless, the Church goes on. I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on. And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.) This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.
In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:
Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.
These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15). In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.
We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen. Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)
We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ. The truth is that it is a miracle.
The church is always a miracle.
This is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God. It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this. But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.
As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom. As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.
When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.
But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church. We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.
I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace. But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.
But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us. The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed. That’s the definition of cold comfort.
But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life. It is not too late for a miracle.
I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.