- by Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick -
In 1985, C. C. Goen published Broken Churches, Broken Nation, a slim volume with a haunting thesis. The historian contended that, as they witnessed their Christian institutions and denominations dividing over the issue of slavery, nineteenth-century Americans found permission to split the country and ultimately to wage the deadliest war in American history. Had the church been able to model constructive disagreement, Goen posits, the country could have been spared the war and its staggering toll.
There are two gifts in making these kinds of arguments. First, there is a gift to the historian. There is obviously no way to know if he is correct. There’s no running the clock back, altering a few things, and then seeing if it all plays out differently. We have the history we have from the choices that were made, and this side of Christ’s return, there is little that can be done about that. But, the second and more important gift of such arguments is the gift to community. These kinds of claims challenge us to think more carefully about the choices we make today. It is impossible to know whether the Civil War could have been averted if churches could have found ways of maintaining a common life, but as discussions and disagreements of the wider society find expression in the life of the church, it is crucial that we consider how we disagree because it is a witness to the world.
Much is still being written about the actions, inactions and reactions of the Tampa General Conference. (Probably much will still be being written about Tampa when we gather in Portland.) One common word I have heard in the descriptions of General Conference was fatigue – and not just the physical weariness of the individuals present but the emotional and spiritual exhaustion of the body as a whole. More than one person has observed how individual fatigue was merely symptomatic of the denomination’s languor. We have grown weary. We have grown weary of conversation with one another, however holy we claim it is, and when we are weary of talking with one another, it is easy to stop talking and to start taking ideas of fracture seriously (such as those already appearing in the blogosphere and in United Methodist publications).
Rather than cease conversation and begin planning for an amicable divorce, it is time for our conversation around our disagreements to evolve. Parker Palmer writes in his Healing the Heart of Democracy that communities must learn to hold tension in creative, constructive and ultimately life-giving ways. Few would say that we in the United Methodist Church can hold our disagreements so generatively, but for the life and health of the body, it is time we learn how to do so.
So here are two modest proposals for the quadrennium before we gather in Portland.
First, we must forgive General Conference for being what it is. We can dress it up with worship. We can preach at it, baptize at it even. We can sing a hymn at it and pray before every vote. But, General Conference is a legislative assembly. We can break its days up with sessions of holy conferencing. We can interrupt its flow with service. We can offer lectures by the most engaging and thoughtful scholars and preachers around. But, it’s still just a legislative assembly, and legislative assemblies are political gatherings by nature. So, let’s forgive it for not living up to our unreasonable expectations. Sure, let’s grieve its manifold failings; let’s call it to be more, but let’s also extend it some grace for the limitations of its being.
Second, let’s come to terms with the fact that General Conference cannot and will not be the place for generative conversation that heals the heart of our church, and so, let us work to begin an alternative place of conversation within the denomination about issues that matter too much to our common life to be entrusted to legislation. In my judgment, this conversation could best be had in the style of the truth and reconciliation processes experienced in South Africa, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in other communities around the globe. This would mean that the church would need to create a sanctuary of safety where the hurt caused by the church can be heard and met by the healing of grace. It would look like creating a place of trust where persons who feel estranged from the body can again find themselves incorporated in it. It would look like engaging in lament and praise where the weary can find rest and the church can hold both justice and Jesus dear.
As the Goen book demonstrates, though, the church has not been good about creating alternative conversations in this country. The divides of society have manifested themselves in the fracturing of our internal life. May whatever common fatigue we feel be overcome by grace so that we might risk finding ourselves as part of a new conversation. There may be more dependent upon that than we would like to believe.
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Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He served the Asbury-Longtown charge in Hamptonville, N.C., before joining the staff at Duke Divinity School. Kirkpatrick directs the Duke Course of Study in partnership with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, as well as leading Courage to Serve, the Institute of Preaching and other learning events for pastoral leaders. Kirkpatrick is a graduate of Wake Forest University and Duke Divinity School.