I spent most of this afternoon sitting in on the Faith and Order legislative committee at General Conference. This is the committee that is considering all the petitions relating to theology and doctrine, along with several petitions about homosexuality and its compatibility with Scripture and Christian tradition. You can see all the petitions here: Download 1.Faith and Order
Say what you will about these petitions. I certainly have my opinions about them and it was probably a good thing that I was a silent observer! What struck me most about the debate of the subcommittee dealing with homosexuality and ordination, however, wasn't so much the content as the dialogue itself. Imagine, if you will, a squared up series of tables where about 30 or so delegates are sitting. About two thirds of the group are American Methodists, while a third are from other countries–mostly United Methodists from Africa. Every time someone speaks, two or three translators–who are also sitting at or around the table–need to translate it into French for the Africans, or from French to English for the Americans. People speak in short bursts of sentences, wait for translation, and then move on. It's a painstaking process to just get the words out and heard.
But that's not the most difficult part of the process. What really became evident to me as I listened today was the fact that even if we're using the same language, we use words quite differently. Take the word "inclusion," for example. One African delegate wanted to clarify what that word meant to everyone else around the table. The translation made it frustrating for him and everyone else but it was an honest question. Several American delegates got up and tried to explain it, but each gave a different definition based on their particular perspective. For some, inclusion means that everyone is welcome in as they are and celebrated while, for others, inclusion is just the first step in a larger process where we are accepted as we are but we're not called to stay that way. For some, inclusion means participation while, for others, it must lead to transformation. The African delegate kept trying to get his question clarified but the committee chair eventually ruled his question as "inflammatory" and stopped him cold. I wonder how his translator handled that…
This seems to me to be a microcosm of the underlying problem of much of the dialogue here (not all of it, mind you, but much of it). We United Methodists have a serious language barrier. One delegate talks about the "quadrilateral" as the way we interpret Scripture (on a level with tradition, reason, and experience) and another delegate holds up Wesley's dictum that the Scripture is primary with the other three acting as lenses. One delegate talks about inclusion with the mantra "all means all," while another reminds us that inclusion isn't valuable unless it leads to transformation. We are seriously divided on issues like the authority of Scripture, the meaning of Jesus, the reality of resurrection, the nature of sin, and a whole host of other issues and terms we define quite differently. Even the people who don't need translators to hear one another can't really seem to understand each other. And sometimes, when we try to define the terms, others are quick to rule our definition as out of order.
I spent a lot of time walking around the convention hall today pondering this serious language barrier and wondering if it can ever be breached. It's more like Babel than Pentecost–everyone speaking their own language but no one being able to understand the words. I am doing my best to look for the good things here and there are indeed signs of hope in many places. But like the bishops have been saying throughout the Conference, only a movement of the Holy Spirit is going to enable us to revive this Church. Only a common language will enable us to move forward. Pentecost birthed a church in the beginning. I think we need it again if we're going to continue!