I stand among those who are happy to see the emphasis on Christian Conferencing as the preferred means for deliberating matters at General Conference this coming May. I believe that the future of The United Methodist Church largely turns on our willingness and ability to practice Christian Conferencing and our willingness to allow this means of grace to inspire and inform us.
This is the vision I cast in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ in proposing that our hope for renewal lies in our commitment to exercise love, non-judgment, and holy conferencing. I chose the Round Table used by E. Stanley Jones as my illustration for Christian Conferencing in the church today. I will write a few blogs on this practice as a means to assist any who wish to practice holy conferencing.
What John Wesley called Christian Conferencing was his 18th-century use of the ancient practice of holy conversation–a conciliar process used by Christians throughout the Church to deal with challenges by trusting the Spirit to give collective insight which exceeded what an individual or partisan group could achieve in isolation from the larger community.
This process underlay the seven Ecumenical Councils, enabling some of them to produce the classic Creeds of Christianity, and other significant things as well. We see the process at work in later periods of Church history, one product being major Confessions. The process was also used throughout Vatican II and the multiple subset activities which the conference generated (e.g. ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’).
The practice is continued today through such things as Jewish Chavurah, Native American Council Fires, Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, and Appreciative Inquiry. The commitment made by General Conference delegates to practice Christian Conferencing is a sign of hope.
But Christian Conferencing is not something anyone can do on the spur of a moment. It requires training and guidance. I am glad to see some resources aiming to help delegates prepare to practice Christian Conferencing. It would be well for the General Conference to engage the services of consultants who can provide on-the-ground guidance as the Conference unfolds. This could include people schooled in historic Methodist conferencing and others knowledgeable of contemporary conferencing (e.g. ‘Circles of Trust’ or ‘Appreciative Inquiry’).
In addition, every delegate and delegation would do well to “train” in exercising the spirit and substance of holy conferencing. In the next couple of blogs, I will offer insights from the Round Table that help facilitate holy conferencing.