These were my remarks at the clergy session of annual conference, Sunday, June 5, 2016. I offer them for all as my reflections on General Conference.
We gather in this clergy session and at this annual conference following a very tumultuous General Conference. I struggle with just what to say. I’m going to start with a scripture that usually feels like a rallying cry, filled with joy and anticipation. But I want to read it from the perspective of utter surrender—a word I don’t use lightly—to express the depths of my frustration and the realization that we can’t rely upon ourselves alone but upon God who is the source of our hope. I will also personalize the pronouns:
14-19 My response is to get down on my knees before (God), this magnificent (God) who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask (God) to strengthen us by the Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in us as we open the door and invite God in. And I ask God that with both feet planted firmly on love, we’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.
20-21 God can do anything, you know—far more than we could ever imagine or guess or request in our wildest dreams! God does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, God’s Spirit deeply and gently within us. (Ephesians 3:14-19 MSG)
So the mess we’re in as a church (not to mention a nation!) requires/calls us to this tone and expression of trust in God. It is a time when we truly have to test the dimensions of God’s love for us as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ. There’s definitely more room in God’s grace—reach out and experience its breadth, its length, its depth and its height—than there feels to be in the life of the church today.
I’m pretty sure the one thing that we all have in common here today as clergy of the NIC—no matter what our theological perspectives are—is that we are in a difficult place in the church. We narrowly avoided a schism at General Conference; some may feel we should have just split and others are shocked at the thought. Nothing changed in the Book of Discipline (BOD) to provide some space for us to live together in our differences around human sexuality, especially in a country where same-sex marriage is legal.
As you may know, a proposal was made and accepted to have the Council of Bishops (COB) form a Commission to study all of the paragraphs in our BOD regarding human sexuality. As part of the agreement, no legislation on human sexuality was considered at General Conference. This Commission will be formed sometime between now and November 2; probably much closer to November 2 with the understanding that the selection of the Commission members is of utmost importance. I pushed for an earlier selection of the Commission but the strong sentiment was that the careful selection of people on the special Commission is more important than speed. The Commission will include people from all regions of the church and differing perspectives. If they complete their work on time, there may be a specially called General Conference before 2020.
The COB’s statement acknowledges that our debate and our language in the BOD regarding human sexuality “is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts.” The unity that the proposal mentions is the need to develop “new forms and structures which allow a unity of our mission…while allowing for differing expressions as a global church.” This is an understanding of unity that allows for diversity, differing and authentic expressions of faith that I fully support. What that unity looks like is still a question for us all.
The statement ends with the aspiration to “avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.” In my estimation, this is another contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate statement for this “pause for prayer” as the Commission does its work. It will require more conversation as we go forward into this quadrennium.
One wonders what the work of this Commission will bring. Will it bring the possibility of separation or will it bring a pathway to live together? That is certainly an unknown and we need to pray for the Commission and the process. As our theme for annual conference says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”
But I challenge all of us, myself included, to consider this: is this all we are as the UMC? Aren’t we more than our impasse on human sexuality? I’m not suggesting that our differences on human sexuality are to be minimalized, but I am calling for all of us to consider how we are more than this one thing. We struggle and plumb the depths, but we also soar in what we are able to do together that we can’t do alone! In local churches, this annual conference and in the general church across the world.
There’s lots of anger and frustration in the wider church and it certainly funnels into this room. I feel much of that myself and yet I know that God calls us and equips us through the Spirit to trust God, to work with each other and even to trust each other.
So where do we as an AC go from here? I don’t totally know but will look forward to hearing more from you as to how you think we should proceed. Our Landscape results indicate that we have a need as clergy to be together in worship and fellowship, learning and service in order to build bridges of trust.
What do we need to have conversations about? What could we offer the greater church through those conversations? What if we had our own process as described in a proposed rule change at General Conference that could be used to offer a way forward to the greater church? Could we do that? How would we do that?
In this “pause for prayer” in our general church, as the COB proposal references, I would call us to engage full speed ahead in helping people connect with God as vital Christians/disciples through strong and vital congregations that are engaged in our communities and the wider world.
We dare not let the church itself suck up all of our attention, prayer and action because there is a world out there that is need of our justice and mercy.
We have no state budget and after a year the most vulnerable are becoming even more vulnerable.
We have a culture in this presidential election year that has taken the lid off of hateful speech and spread hate everywhere.
We have a growing disparity between those who have everything and those who don’t have enough to live on from day to day.
We have gun violence and racism.
We have plenty to keep us busy in a world that needs the light of Christ now more than ever. We dare not let the problems of the church blow that light out! We need to let it shine in the midnight of our current society.
Will you let that light shine? Through your own faith and hope in God? Through the local church or context of ministry that you serve? Even as we continue to struggle with what divides us, will you let your light shine?
~Bishop Sally Dyck