The 10-day marathon we United Methodists know as General Conference has concluded in Fort Worth. As a reporter of several such conferences, I felt the move toward "holy conferencing," a more gracious Christian way of doing business. It diminished the political and emotional aspects of this gathering of 992 delegates from around the world, including Indiana Area's 22 voting delegates, reserves and visitors.
I felt the African and other Central Conference delegates were no longer observers of floor action, but entered the body with voice, vote and a lively participation in many legislative discussions. The global dimensions of the church were present. Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made history as she addressed the delegates asking for their support as partners in eradicating poverty. The hall was ecstatic when she thanked the church "as a daughter of the church."
The main barrier to equal participation by all delegates continues to be the eight languages spoken by delegates and the cumbersome Robert's Rules of Order, which pits seasoned church politicians against newcomers to a foreign decision making process. Even bishops at times became entangled by parliamentary procedures.
As a church, we are moving forward in meeting the needs of our world in new and effective partnerships. Our alliance with the United Nations Foundation, NBA, WNBA, Sports Illustrated and the Gates Foundation gives us new momentum in conquering malaria across the continent of Africa one $10 bed net at a time. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for conquering HIV/AIDS on the same continent waned by several millions of dollars since the church last met as a General Conference in 2004. We have accepted the challenges of world health, now we need to deliver.
For the fifth decade running, General Conference continues to debate by the hour the status of homosexual members in the life of the church. A 55 percent majority of delegates did not budge on the church's stance on the ordination of homosexuals or on same-sex union rituals in our churches or by our pastors. During this debate delegates discussed the possibility of changing judgmental language, and to openly say that as "faithful and thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness," but voted to maintain the status quo and retain the current language stating that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
This action was met with a 15-minute recess during which time more than 200 supporters (including 16 bishops) of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community within the life of the church draped black cloths over the communion table placed at the crossing of the two main aisles on the floor of the conference.
Progress was made with a $642-million four-year budget, giving priority to the four strategic goals of the church:
Developing principled Christian leaders;
Creating new places for new people by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones;
Engaging in ministries with the poor; and
Improving global health, especially attacking the killer diseases of poverty (like malaria).
This General Conference focused the church on growth with a goal of one new congregation per day and the revitalization of existing congregations. This goal goes hand-in-hand with our own proposed uniting of the North Indiana and South Indiana Annual Conferences with a focus on growth. Even though it would be a new structure with an emphasis upon congregational vitality, professions of faith would continue to be dependent upon congregations inviting and welcoming un-churched Hoosiers.
To accomplish a goal of making new disciples of Jesus Christ, congregational life must look outward and not inward. We know people will not automatically walk through our doors. Today church buildings culturally are viewed as private places. We must change from within to make them public places for public gatherings, self-help groups and associations needing a place to meet. Our worship needs to be lively, available beyond Sunday morning, beyond our buildings and pertinent to the spiritual and emotional needs of the greater communities in which we live. Each congregation also needs to be a volunteer-in-mission sending center to meet the needs of our communities and world.
In all our doing, we also must remember to invite and welcome others to join us as members in the body of Christ.
Hopefully, the 22 Hoosier delegates and their reserves will be able to impart their excitement and the goals of the General Conference during each of the respective annual conference sessions this spring in West Lafayette and Bloomington.
As United Methodists, we know what divides us as a people. We need to concentrate and work on what unites us as we continue to become The UNITED Methodist Church.
I felt more hope than despair at the close of this General Conference compared to the two previous General Conferences held this decade. We need to express more unity among our growing diversity, more hope for our future and partnerships with other congregations and pastors as we remember that making disciples of Jesus Christ is only the means for redeeming and transforming God's creation. Such actions are attainable if we follow in Christ's way rather than our own way. The reign of God continues to be within our reach, if only we place our trust in God's Spirit working in and through us.
Daniel R. Gangler