Saturday, June 9, 2007

Annual Conference: The State of the Christian Church


I attended South Indiana Annual Conference in Bloomington this week. The image you see on the right is a picture an amazing group of Duke Divinity School alums who serve in the South Indiana Conference.

The biggest issue on the table this week was whether to merge the two conferences in Indiana – “Imagine Indiana,” it was called. The Indiana Area of the United Methodist Church has been divided into a North Conference and South Conference since 1968, with one bishop serving both conferences. What this means is that there is one bishop overseeing two cabinets, two lay leaders, two councils on ministries, two councils on finance and administration, two boards of ordained ministry, two boards of laity, two conference staffs…and all the other duplications that my Methodist brothers and sisters can identify. At annual conference this week, the recommendation by the Imagine Indiana Planning Team was for a new conference to be created in the state of Indiana.

After an hour of intense discussion, during which people argued for and against the proposal, delegates voted on the Planning Team’s recommendation. The results released showed that both Conferences voted in favor of uniting to form one conference: 78% voted for the plan in the North and 67% in the South. This is, indeed, a gigantic step in favor of moving forward to form one Indiana conference. This new conference could meet as early as 2009.

After Annual Conference I could not help but reflect on the state of the church. My reflection began with the words of Jesus in John 17:21 – “that they all may be one.” There is a Christian obligation to achieve Christian unity. This is a very sensitive and complex subject. Nevertheless, I am forced to believe that Christian unity should not consist of a mere acknowledgement of “one God,” but also “one body…one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Our biggest setback as the people of “one faith,” is our fragmentation into a multiplicity of “denominations,” “movements,” “conferences,” “fellowships,” … the list goes on. Christian unity has become a utopian vision limited to “academic discussions.” No matter how eloquent or sophisticated these discussions are, if all we have are theoretical considerations but not a pragmatic approach to unity, we become another version of a bird trying to fly with one wing – it moves around in circles, i.e., if it is lucky enough to get a lift. One should visit these “denominational” websites and observe the different groups (or should I call them “sects”) that exist even in a particular denomination. There is, indeed, a heavy weight of Christian sectarianism.

Both of the verses cited above (John 17:21, Eph. 4:4-6) connect Christian unity to God’s unity. Thus, with the proliferation of Christian denominations – all having different practices and doctrines – it may not be farfetched to say that Christian disunity is (or looks like??) practical polytheism. We have to reaffirm the unity for which Jesus prayed for his followers – a unity which is based on God’s love. When we are united in God’s love, “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). Not only do we have to reaffirm our belief in this unity, but as Christians, we have a fundamental duty to realize this unity.

1 comment:

Sam Keyes, M.Div. '09 said...

Practically, I don't know what it would mean for two Conferences to merge, but I just wanted to express my "hear, hear!" to your comments there about Christian unity.

From the perspective of an evangelical-turned-catholic-type-person, my biggest frustration is the lack from so many of even the desire for visible Christian unity. I have no expectation that, for example, Baptists should all wish that they were Episcopalian or Catholics wish they were Methodist, but I do think that they should all acknowledge the basic tragedy of the separateness (broken communion) between these communities. A church is not intelligibly Christian if it does not see one of its goals to be in communion with all other churches.