(Editor’s note: Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton has invited Rev. Dr. Terry Harter, superintendent of the Sangamon River District and one of the deans of the Cabinet to write this month’s column for The Current)
We have just concluded our annual pilgrimage to Peoria to participate in what we in the Wesleyan tradition call the fifth instituted means of grace: the Christian Conference. In one of its current forms, it is known as an Annual Conference.
“Christian Conference” was the all-encompassing term Wesley used to describe any form of corporate life, including that which occurred in the United Societies and the larger church. He urged Christians to gather together to confer about inward and outward holiness.
Due to the malaise of the churches in his day, Wesley saw the need for places where people could gather for nurture, study, encouragement, stewardship, witness, and service.
Apparently, in eighteenth-century England, infrequent participation in worship was not producing people devoted to a life of holiness. (Might the same can be said for the early 21st century?) For Wesley, then, Christian Conferencing was one of the means to recover what was missing, with the aim of returning people to the church to be agents of transformation, as disciples of Jesus.
Well, that’s the theory. Our Annual Conference surely needs to gather for nurture, study, encouragement, stewardship, witness, and service. So how did we do this year? If you attended, what were your expectations? What shaped your attitude toward Annual Conference? What guided your participation? And what might we learn in preparation for the upcoming 2016 General Conference?
I am no longer surprised by all the cultural baggage we drag to our annual conference. We gather as a large crowd, and I think we are conditioned in that by our experience of the sporting event. For heaven’s sake, we meet right next to a hockey/basketball arena, and Conference is almost always held in the post-season of both the NHL and NBA playoffs and finals, so there is a similar spirit of the crowd assembled for another game, with various sides keeping score. We can’t help but choose sides, wear our colors, declare for winners, and hope not to be losers.
When I served the Champaign First congregation and held season tickets to the Fighting Illini for 10 years, I often fantasized that our worship services (attended by mostly the same people who were at the games on Saturday) would “just once” rise to the level of passionate devotion expressed by those folks sitting in the stands and cheering, year after year, for mediocre to poor football. On those weekends, there was much more passion for the Chief than for Jesus.
Now that I have that out of my system, let me say that our cultural conditioning by sporting events does not make it easy for us to set the stage for Christian Conferencing. At this point, a word of gratitude is in order: to those who labor all year to plan and carry out our conference.
Somehow, by late on Wednesday night, we have experienced the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in worship and communion, and this continues with Morning Manna, the recognition of retirees, our memorial service and the liturgy of ordination. We may arrive with a sporting mindset, but the game has been called on account of prayer.
Another cultural paradigm we live in is the political. We are already awash in the 2016 presidential campaign, God help us. The vitriol is flowing (it never ceases to flow) poisoning almost every topic, every human need, every civic activity, and, of course, every institution. If any dynamic of human relations other than politics stands in greater need of redemption, I don’t know what it is. Our over 239-years-long national political discourse (actually, “discourse” is far too kind and generous of a word to describe the verbal free-for-all that pretends to be statesmanship) is, at turns, either embarrassingly vicious or inarticulately stupid. We probably need to fast from political activity for a decade or so.
You possibly have already surmised that which is to be my point: The cultural paradigm of politics is a suffocating nursery for Christian Conferencing. We are called to stand facing against its tempest with nothing other a broken loaf and a cup. In so doing, we discover that we need to learn how: to listen to the other, to attend to the other, to empathize with the other, to care for the other. These are not small things. They are directly contrary to most political practice in the world today. They are at the heart of Christian Conferencing which begins with listening and attending to the Word of God.
It’s just about a year until our next Annual Conference, and 11 months until General Conference. As a United Methodist, what can you do to stand over against the cultural challenges to either one being what Wesley envisioned as a “Christian Conference?” Integrity starts with each one of us.
Your brother in Christ,
Sangamon River District Superintendent