I often tell churches and clergy that what we do not know is as important as what we do know. So it is that some things truly, truly still surprise me. Like the amount of time we spent talking about whether we should add language to the Book of Discipline encouraging “supplemental” ministries for women or men, outside UMM and UMW. We had a long debate about whether there was need to add words to the Discipline about what kind of ministries a church can create. In addition, I was astounded that anyone would look to the Book of Discipline for guidance on that question.
We just come from different places, different contexts. More deeply, we read the Bible differently and have different hopes for the future of the church in the world and how it will look. There are voices in different parts of the church who are saying today that we have passed the point of no return with each other, that to pretend to go forward seeking unity is a farce. These voices, which generally sit on the ends of the spectrum, say it’s time to split and move on down the road. We’ve talked enough, they say. There’s nothing more to talk about.
All I can say is that I don’t agree. We haven’t talked enough. We’ve talked about each other, and sometimes at each other, but most of us haven’t often talked with each other (with some notable exceptions). And we sure haven’t listened to each other. Not really, not on the global level. We’ve heard the parts of printed caucus statements or Facebook posts that land on top of our fears and opinions. We’ve heard debate in speeches for and against. But we have not heard each other’s full stories and engaged those stories in trust. This conference offered possibilities for such listening, and I am very grateful. I’m also committed, as I serve on the commission that will plan the next General Conference, to make and encourage more such spaces. I read a suggestion today that we even try to hold those conversations via social media in between conference sessions, and I hope we can take steps to talk and listen at the local level, too.
What we do not know is as important as what we do know.
This morning’s sermon by Bishop Elaine Stanovsky came, in my opinion, right on time. She reminded us of Bishop Swanson’s call for us to lie prostrate on the ground in humility and prayer. She led us to stand and bow at the waist before God with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The bishop said she carries a constant awareness of the capacity of the church to choose death over life, to convince ourselves that death is life. She noted that within our church, even with that knowledge, what looks like life to some has the stench of death to others.
We may well end up at a dead end as a denomination, once the bishops have moved us through their process. But two things are true about that, in my opinion. One, there is a great variety of ways that dead end could look. Some would have us split down the middle (and we don’t even agree on where and on what basis that line would be drawn), while others would have us hang together in the middle and let the ends go if they feel so led. And two, if we do not pursue the task of hard conversation, under the spiritual and temporal leadership of our bishops, we will not have given all we could to this monumental work. If we have to walk away from each other after that work, then so be it.
It would be a stretch to say that hope is the only thing in my heart. But I do hope in the ministries around the world that we have accomplished as a denomination, including the remarkable progress we’ve made on eliminating deaths from malaria (that’s just one example). I hope in those ministries as a practice that unites us and helps us grow beyond ourselves. I hope in the lives of local congregations where people of diverse opinions and perspectives and experiences love one another deeply and decided a long time ago to stay together in Christian community. And I hope in the power of our God to bring life from death and to transform us from division into love. We cannot imagine that happening to us; I can say that many days I wouldn’t want to vote for that. But what is our alternative, truly, if we seek to follow Christ and live as his disciples? What else do we read about in the scripture (Paul especially) but questions of practice and principle? The early church fought and fought about these things, wrestling and wrangling. Yet here we are today, their descendants. And the word of God says to us: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
The eternal God—over all and through all and in all. Bigger than we are. Better than we are. Able to unite us when we don’t know how that’s possible. This has to be our hope. In my humble opinion, as a sinner loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ.