World Conference (aka Long-suffering)
This has been a whirlwind event. I've been more involved with the running of the Conference this year, and so it seemed even more packed than usual - plus staying with Susan (one of the "higher-ups" in the church) and knowing more people from having attended Seminary for two years now and constantly stopping to talk to people and make and nurture connections all over the world... Conference has been a mile-a-minute event. All this as preface to an apology for not having posted this week. (I figured, if you were interested in following the Conference events, you'd have been doing it anyway.)
Of course, the biggest thing to happen was the adoption of President Veazey's "Words of Council to the Church" as inspired and authorizing inclusion in the canon of church doctrine (see above). But a more subtle aspect of Conference was an increased emphasis on discernment, both in the explicit exercise of small groups gathering for spiritual searching and sharing on the direction for the church, and in the increased opportunities for discussion of topics at Conference. In the past, "discussion" of issues has taken place on the Conference floor - in front of thousands of people and under Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure. (Which is to say, it wasn't "discussion" at all, but often political jockeying.) This year, we have been facilitating discussions on topics ranging from homosexuality to drinking and cohabitation-before-marriage in different cultures to war and peace to increasing participation of non-North American members in the life and leadership of the church. In the discussion sessions I attended (both as a facilitator and a participant), I saw several different perspectives honorably expressed and received, and I learned a great deal.
A key moment for me was in a discussion group on the issue of homosexuality. Some were representatives of other countries and cultures where, for example, in Europe homosexuality is less of an issue than in the US, and in Africa where the idea is so unacceptable that it doesn't even merit discussion in the African church. And, of course, there were plenty of North Americans who represented the familiar spectrum of viewpoints. There were also members of the church committee tasked with exploring the issue in depth and reporting to the church their findings.
At one point, a brother from Africa rose to say that for him the issue isn't one of sexuality but of interpretation of scripture. He went on to ask (rhetorically) when does a scripture "expire," when can we no longer obey it or when can we replace it with a newer and better scripture. That was a point, in my opinion, well made. Of course, we do that all the time - ignore some scriptures and lift up others, according to our understandings and sentiments at the time, and even how we read the scriptures we do lift up is affected by the lenses and understandings we bring to the text (we read into the scriptures as much as they tell us of their own accord).
Throughout the session, but particularly toward the end, the committee members explained something that seemed to me to be key. Other Christian churches have dealt with the issue by either wholesale exclusion or wholesale acceptance - and both positions have cost those communities members and integrity. The committee was searching for a third way, a way of bringing together different positions in communion, a strategy that has not been explicitly adopted or attempted by any other Christian church (to our knowledge).
All of a sudden, it dawned on me that this was precisely the Christ-like thing to do! I had always approached the issue as one of seeking justice and fairness for my other-sexual brothers and sisters, considering conservatives as retrogrades and oppressors. But in this discussion I heard of the genuine struggle they were having, and realized that they were confronting some very powerful voices inside themselves, and that to force such a conclusion on them without serious and long-term work would be unkind and un-Christ-like. If I am to honor my "enemies" in this case, I have to allow them to hold their views as long as they genuinely believe those views to be mandated by God. This comes at the expense, of course, of some of my brothers and sisters receiving justice, and that hurts, too.
To be exclusionary is un-Christ-like, certainly, and our church's continued policies in that manner remain an open wound on our corporate body. But to be "open and affirming" (as much as I would like our church to be, and as much as I believe that to be the right thing to do) would be just as cruel to many of our members as I believe our current practice is to others. I cannot reconcile myself to liberate some of my brothers and sisters by foisting the chains of exclusion and struggle on others. Our task is to, as a church, open a healthy and respectful space wherein people of profoundly different perspectives can share together, can journey together. I am convinced that for most people it is only through genuine, mutual and respectful relationships that profound change will come. And that requires patience. (And an old synonym for patience is long-suffering.)
I came out of that discussion session genuinely changed. In the perspective of my "side", it is a bad change - I am no longer so ardently in support of "winning" regardless of cost. But I have to hold myself accountable to the gospel, and confront the possibility of changing to what I didn't think possible, ending up somewhere I earlier thought to be bad, changing priorities, discerning what is most important and open to the possibility that what I thought was most important might not be the case.
I'll take away a lot of things from this Conference, but this will be among the most important. Not expecting to, I experienced metanoia, "repentance," a change of thinking/knowing/heart.