The opening devotional time prior to our opening Annual Conference Session was very well done. Brett Probert had the Youth Choir pumped up, and I could feel the presence of the Spirit (which I typically do not feel in contemporary worship settings...so this was a good thing).
I also felt, however, that the politics began at that point.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton went to great lengths to "depoliticize" Annual Conference, but, in my opinion, in so doing, actually made for an extremely political gathering. Concerning people's fears about political fighting, our Bishop said during the devotional time, “It will be OK – if we put our trust in the hands of a living God and not in ourselves.”
He followed those words, however, by quoting a wonderful passage from Martin Luther King, whom I respect a great deal. But it seems that, from the "get go", the message was: "Be racially inclusive".
Now, please do not misunderstand my words. If we fail to be racially inclusive, we fail to be the Church. This is not a political matter; it is a spiritual and theological matter.
But, is inclusivity a greater concern than, say, doctrinal faithfulness, or effective leadership, or relational gifts? Inclusiveness is a part of orthopraxy; it surely does not comprise the totality of orthopraxy.
I wondered why our Bishop quoted a passage from Dr. King about racial unity, rather than something about Church unity. Was I feeling too cynical?
Rev. Vance Ross was brought in from the General Board of Discipleship to lead us in a discernment process. He had good words to share with us, even though the Biblical exegesis wasn't particularly in depth or insightful. Rev. Ross' words were inspirational and optimistic, and that is always to be appreciated.
BUT...the tone was set. We were to discern the Spirit's leading in a prayerful manner; this was presented as something diametrically opposed to "campaigning" or simply voting for those who agreed with your theological prespective or your views on sex.
At the same time, we were told, often in somewhat surreptitious ways, that we needed to be racially inclusive, and that this, more than any other orthopractic or doctrinal concern, was to be a primary value.
This was all done in seeming ignorance of the fact that the denominational news service had published a commentary several months earlier entitled, "How to become a General Conference delegate" (featuring pictures of our own Conference's 2004 delegation, ironically enough), which encouraged folks to organize and campaign.
At any rate, that's when all heaven broke loose. The Conference discerned.
I can't tell you how many people told me that they felt as if they were being manipulated by our institutional leaders. Their votes reflected that. While many have seen the results as theological in nature, I believe they were more anti-institutional in nature (perhaps I'm being naive, but I just can't believe that the anonymous letters of the past few months had any effect on the votes). The "institution" (Bishop, Cabinet, Conference staffers...wonderful people all) were inadvertently, in trying to "depoliticize" Conference, creating an intensely political atmosphere.
John Ciampa was the first clergy election, perhaps our most respected pastor, a true thinker with a compassionate heart. Next was Sharon Schwab, a prominent leader and advocate for rural ministry, smaller membership congregations and local pastors.
Third was Bob Zilhaver. In the interest of full disclosure, Bob is a good friend of mine and served as one of my ordination sponsors. No one loves Western PA Conference more than Bob loves it. No one in our Conference knows the Book of Discipline as well as Bob knows it. No one in our Conference has his passion for justice; no one even comes close.
Just hours after standing before Clergy Session and asking for a ruling of law regarding the complaint and discipline procedures practiced by our institutional leaders (esp. the BOOM and the Cabinet), which Bob viewed as clandestine, unjust, and perhaps out of compliance with the Discipline, Bob received more votes than all but two clergy members. Bob's integrity speaks for itself. But he is possibly our most contentious, controversial pastor in many ways. For him to be lifted up speaks volumes not only about Bob, but the mood of the Conference.
I have no first-hand knowledge of any direct campaigning by anyone. I received no lists of suggested delegates. But in many ways, the first six (of eight) lay delegates elected were "Zilhaver-friendly", in that they share many, though not all, of his theological concerns (even those such as Matt Johnson who were largely unaware of any support, and never sought it). Bob's daughter Laura will actually lead the lay delegation as the top overall choice.
This was no coup d'etat. But the message was clear. There was a shift in the heart of the Conference. Several prominent Conference leaders barely got elected, whereas in the past, they'd have led the way. The Cabinet, which has dominated our delegation in recent decades, was by comparison a non-issue.
There were some great elections. Eric Park is one of our finest leaders, and many of us hope he has an opportunity someday to lead while wearing Episcopal vestments. Matt Johnson will serve on his final laity delegation, and many of us look forward to the day when he can be an important part of our clergy delegation. Joan Reasinger will serve as our first Deacon to represent us at General Conference.
As the shift continued, there were several calls for racial inclusiveness. The problem is that our Conference hasn't really produced any great leaders of color, and that's to our detriment. We clearly have more work to do in this area. But it looked as if people were not going to vote for someone simply because of their race. In the years ahead, Western PA Conference needs to do more to raise up minority leaders; we've done a sinfully terrible job ministering to the African-American folks of western Pennsylvania. We have a lot of work to do in this area.
So, the Conference discerned. And the results were unexpected. For good or ill, we have our most conservative (or, better, "evangelical") delegation perhaps in a century. And the institutional leaders failed to make a big impression, receiving a message that requires much prayer and further discernment.
"Politics" is not a dirty word. Just as "liturgy" is "the work of the people", politics is "the work of government". The Annual Conference, as the governing Church body in our area, did its work. The representatives of the people spoke. The ordained clergy people spoke. There was a real shift. And, since we were told that this was all done through Spiritual discernment, those who are dismayed at the elections have little recourse but to either deny the Spirit's presence altogether or ignore how the Spirit moved.
There are concerns, of course. Our clergy delegation is hardly inclusive of younger pastors, even though excellent candidates such as Greg Cox, John Shaver, and Jim Walker were available. Despite the fact that United Methodism in western Pennsylvania is largely female, we have only two women on our GC clergy delegation (and three on our lay delegation), and only one more on our JC clergy delegation. Clearly, we need to do more work in the African-American community...not simply to raise up leaders, but to make disciples.
And, we need to find a way to discuss the issues of the day in the open, rather than ignoring them, or trying to focus on unity while important conversations are bubbling under the surface. There's no shame in loving debate and conversation. We just need to find a way to do it. Our Bishop and the other Conference leaders meant well by trying to depoliticize things, but as long as it is our responsibility to deal with real issues, there will be, must be, politics. As John Howard Yoder taught, there is nothing and no one more inherently and offensively political than Jesus Christ and his Cross.