The older I get, the less certain I become. I remember being a young college student, passionately arguing right and wrong, out of my convictions. And not only was I certain on my position, those stances felt like life and death to me. I so wanted people to see the world the way I did. But then life came along and taught me. It is way more complex, and people are way more complicated, and not everything is clear and resolvable.
We are in one of those thorny places as the United Methodist Church. Perhaps you saw the April 3rd issue of The Christian Century. There was a prominent article about the United Methodist Church and the current tensions we are experiencing around the fact that same-gender marriage is now law in many states, but our clergy are prohibited by The Book of Discipline from presiding at same-gender marriages—and even more, it is a chargeable offense. Coming before us at annual conference will be some legislation from several parties asking us to find ways to respond to this tension in our life together.
In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer says there are five habits that any community or nation needs to cultivate for their health and vitality. The third is the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. I think we as an annual conference need to have a conversation about how we will live and act given the laws of the land, the changing cultural norms, our need and desire to be pastorally present to our parishioners, the nature of being part of a global church where we have differing values and contexts in which we are trying to live out our Christian values, and the fact that we are governed by a Book of Discipline that can only be changed every four years. However, I don’t know that debating legislation at annual conference is the best forum to have this conversation. It does not allow for deep listening, nuanced conversation, and truly discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit. And what can happen, in our effort to convince others, in order to win votes, is that we can inadvertently portray others who think differently than us as less-than Christian.
So here is my hope and prayer as we come together as an annual conference session: that we remember and commit to Parker Palmer’s first two habits of the heart: We are all in this together, and we appreciate the value of “otherness.“ Can we find a way to hold those as equally valuable? When we come together as an annual conference, it is not to draw lines of division, to create winners and losers. We come together as a people who have covenanted together to be on a common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Can we start there? And can we say that, together, we will commit to do the best we can to discern what God is calling us to now and next as we faithfully fulfill that mission? And can we agree that the reason we come together as an annual conference is because we all have different contexts and experiences, and in sharing our diversity, we can better discern what God might be up to? How we treat each other in the conversation and discernment is as important as what we eventually decide to do.
John Wesley said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. “One of the changes we are making at annual conference session is to sit at round tables. It may seem like a small thing, but it is about helping us change the conversation. We want a chance to share hearts, to build relationships, to extend hands to one another. We want to see each other’s faces. We will not resolve every issue facing the United Methodist Church in these three days, but hopefully we can find ways to hold the tension we face in life-giving ways that build up the body of Christ and truly demonstrate love toward God and our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church