Reflections on General Conference 2019 by Teresa Welborn 2/22/19

 

What do we mean when we say diversity?

 
The church gives me the gift of encountering diversity in richer ways than I could ever imagine on my own. The church also teaches me to have a critical eye and speak out when there is a lack of diversity. Certainly General Conference is the time when I experience most fully the diversity of our denomination. But what do we mean when we say “diversity?”
 
As District Superintendent in the greater Austin area, I often hear laity and clergy celebrate and emphasize the importance of diversity. That is a good thing, but what do we mean when we say “diversity?” I remember once hearing Bishop Streiff speak. He is the resident bishop of Central and Southern Europe. He told us the Book of Discipline is translated into 12 different languages in his episcopal area. And here I thought I was doing good adding some Spanish to the bulletin every now and then! When it comes to diversity, The United Methodist General Conference stretches our imagination.
           
The called session this month is centered around the hope of finding a way forward in the midst of ongoing debate and diversity of thought regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion. I am reminded that among the delegates present will be persons from countries where it is illegal to be gay. I am reminded that among the delegates present will be persons who support a United Methodist bishop who is a self identified lesbian. When it comes to diversity, General Conference stretches not just our imagination, but our comfort zone.
           
Many are puzzled at how we remain The United Methodist Church, but of course there are just as many understandings of the word “unity” as there are “diversity.” This past summer I reread Kathleen Norris’ book entitled Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. At one point she writes the following about church:
          
 From the outside, church congregations can look like remarkably contentious places, full of hypocrites who talk about love while fighting each other tooth and nail. This is the reason many people give for avoiding them. On the inside, however, it is a different matter, a matter of struggling to maintain unity as ‘the body of Christ’ give the fact that we have precious little uniformity. I have only to look at the congregation I know best, the one I belong to. We are not individuals who have come together because we are like-minded. That is not a church, but a political party. We are like most healthy churches, I think, in that we can do pretty well when it comes to loving and serving God, each other, and the world; but God help us if we have to agree about things.
          
 Norris goes on to speak about the “things” church members do not agree on from the color of the carpet in the church parlor to more serious matters like divorce and women in ministry. The chapter on church was written over 20 years ago from Norris’ experience as a Presbyterian, but as I read the words it seemed they could be written about The UMC today.
          
 Some people have wondered whether The United Methodist Church will be able to remain unified in mission in the midst of deep theological differences. I don’t just think it’s a possibility, I experience it here and now. It happens when Emergency Response Team members volunteers work alongside one another in flood recovery efforts. It happens when those advocating for immigration reform work together through our Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors.
           
I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve as a delegate at the upcoming General Conference. I will look forward to seeing some of you there. Others can watch live streaming here.
 
Our prayers in all their diversity are gathered together before the one God whose name is Love.
 
Be encouraged!,
teresa