A UMNS Report By Heather Hahn*
TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS) — United Methodist bishops on April 18 heard a challenge to embody the peace of Christ to the 2012 General Conference, to an anxious denomination and to the greater world.
Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster delivered that call during his final address to the Council of Bishops as that body’s president.
“Can we bishops find a way to incarnate Christ’s love?” he preached. “Can we find a way to lead and model and extend the peace of Christ to the delegates, to Tampa, to our world?”
Goodpaster’s sermon, during opening worship at the council’s spring meeting, came just days before nearly 1,000 United Methodist delegates will convene in Tampa for the denomination’s top legislative assembly. Goodpaster called the April 24-May 4 gathering “our quadrennial test of stamina and endurance known as General Conference.”
Decisions to affect every level
The assembly will grapple with petitions that could affect just about every level of The United Methodist Church. These include proposals endorsed by the Council of Bishops to restructure general agencies, to fold the denomination’s ecumenical agency into the Council of Bishops, and to establish a full-time council president without the usual responsibilities of overseeing a geographic area.
General Conference also will take up a proposal to eliminate job guarantees for ordained elders and once again debate the denomination’s position on homosexuality.
“We will be making decisions of historic importance about structure and governance and decline and change and positions and principles and mission,” Goodpaster said. “Little wonder there is so much anxiety!”
Bishops do not get a vote at General Conference, and they cannot address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. Goodpaster acknowledged the bishops’ common lament that they often have nothing to do at General Conference “but sit around like wilting potted plants.”
How to bring peace
However, he suggested ways they could bring peace even amid contentious discussions about the future of the church.
He urged the bishops:
•As storytellers to retell and live out the story of the gospel
•To be a non-anxious presence, modeling themselves on the example of the risen Christ bringing peace to his frightened disciples
•To reclaim John Wesley’s vision of Christian conferencing
Bishops will soon have a chance to put Goodpaster’s challenge into action. On April 25, the second day of General Conference, active bishops will preside over small-group “holy conversations” among delegates about United Methodist theology and human sexuality. They spent much of their council meeting’s first afternoon discussing how they should handle scenarios that might occur in these conversations.
Bishop John Innis of Liberia said after Goodpaster’s address that he hopes he can remind those at General Conference that “we are all one in the Spirit even if we are at odds.”
“Peace is all we need,” he said. “Peace is a gift from Jesus Christ.”
Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy A. Johnson said with “inclusiveness, a listening ear, forgiveness and understanding,” United Methodists will have the kind of holy conferencing Wesley desired.
“Today, let us find, individually and collectively, the peace of God, which passes all understanding, a peace that will keep our hearts and minds tuned to Christ, relieving anxiety and calming fears so that we might lead into the future,” Goodpaster said at his sermon’s conclusion. “And then there shall be shalom in Tampa and beyond.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.