Friday, July 24, 2015

Did We Soar? Reflections on Disciples General Assembly

I'm home from the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I have gone to all but one Assembly since the Denver Assembly in 1997 (my first). At the time I was in the midst of a job search since I had been forced to resign my teaching position at a small Christian college in Kansas. By my count that's nine assemblies.  I have been fortunate that the congregations I serve and have served have deemed it appropriate for me to attend and have provided the necessary funds to make that possible. As I have stated in previous posts, the General Assembly serves as the primary gathering point of the extended Disciples ecclesial community. I know that Assemblies are costly, and it appears that the General Church is being forced to look at different means of gathering (perhaps less frequently -- not a good idea in my mind -- or in less costly venues -- my preference). Nonetheless I believe that this is an important part of being in a larger covenant body, which by the way is only a part of the larger church of Jesus Christ.  As Michael Kinnamon reminded us at the Disciples Seminary Foundation luncheon, this is not about being interdenominational; it is about being intentionally ecumenical. 

The question that is being asked of me as I return home and prepare to return to my position of pastoral leadership in a local congregation (I'm back on vacation till Monday) is whether I soared at the General Assembly. I'm not sure I soared, but I'm glad I participated in the experience that is General Assembly. It isn't the business meetings, which don't excite me. It's not the worship itself, which I must admit left me a bit bemused (I prefer corporate singing to performance, especially during communion). It isn't the workshops either, though for many these can be very helpful. No, it's the connections we make with each other. That's what makes for a good assembly -- the opportunity to connect with old friends and to make new friends.

I was blessed to spend time with one of my mentors -- Keith Watkins.  I was never an official student of Keith's but he has been a constant conversation partner for nearly a quarter century.  We spent some quality time eating together and signing books together (well hoping to sign books during a rather quiet moment in the day). I had the opportunity to have substantive conversations with several people about the need to reengage the purpose of our being church theologically. My friend Jose Morales and I are instigating conversations that will hopefully lead to the creation of significant theological resources that can aid the conversation in our congregations. I was, of course, blessed by the leadership of a good friend from college days, Glen Miles, who served as moderator for the past two years. It's not a job I would want, but Glen has served in this capacity ably, helping guide the conversation during an especially challenging time in the life of the church.  Oh, and in an age of social media it is always good to put human flesh to relationships that have been emerging over the years.

The question that is being asked at this moment in time when so many are questioning the value of any institution is whether there is purpose for the church as an institution, and whether the denomination has a purpose. I have seen a number of younger clergy raising the question of whether or not we should begin merging our interests to create what several have been calling the United Church of North America (suggesting a merger with the United Church of Canada as well). Before we move in that direction I would urge a close reading of Keith's book The American Church that Might Have Been (Picwick, 2014), which tells the story of the rise and fall of the Consultation on Church Union. 

So, no I didn't soar, but I was blessed by my time in Columbus. I heard some good and great messages (especially the sermons of Glen Miles -- Sunday morning at First Community Church -- and Amy Butler, as well as the speeches given at meals -- Michael Kinnamon and William Barber, two prophetic voices that speak to the wider church and beyond. 

I look forward to our next gathering in Indianapolis in 2017, at which time we will elect a new General Minister and President who will be charged with guiding us into the next chapter of our life together, In the mean time I believe we are blessed to have wise and gifted leadership in the person of the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins!  

As I leave this reflection I want to offer a few lines from one of the architects of our denominational life, Dr. Ronald Osborn, who presided over Restructure and gave important theological leadership to our life together. In an essay that was contributed to the Panel of Scholars Reports that formed the theological foundations for our life together, Osborn offers this word about denominations:

A denomination is a particular historic expression of the organizational life of the Christian institution. As historic it is partial, transitory, conditioned by the relativities of history; it is in no sense ultimate. Rather the denomination -- and this means any earthly ecclesiastical institution -- points to the ultimate, it bears witness  to the eternal gospel, it carries the continuing (though partial) tradition of those who reach back to the Christ-event; it provides forms for the effective expression of the fellowship  among Christians, it serves the mission of the church. Speaking historically -- and in the strictest sense, i.e., with reference only to past history -- the denomination appears to be both inevitable and necessary in the historic existence of the church. No denomination, no particular institutional structure, is of the essence of the church. [The Revival of the Churches, Wm. Barnett Blakemore, ed., (Bethany Press, 1963), pp. 94-95].
I leave you with these words of Ronald Osborn, whose centennial of birth will occur in 2017, while 2019 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the restructured Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

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