By Karon Mann
General Conference 2019 Delegate
In his book The Singing Thing, author John Bell says, “We are creatures of our past, we cannot be separated from it.” He was referring specifically to the music of our past, particularly hymns and religious songs that evoke strong feelings or memories, but smells can elicit memories, too, as can objects.
One of my favorite pastimes is browsing through antique malls, looking for items that remind me of my parents or grandparents. It’s fun to find aprons like my grandmother’s, vintage Tupperware measuring cups like my mother’s, or crystal Candlewick pieces to add to my mother-in-law’s collection. I enjoy using these pieces, thinking about what life would have been like for my relatives when those pieces were brand new. Objects in my house are a mixture of old and new, past and present.
Uncovering pieces of United Methodist history is something I also enjoy. Over the years I have acquired a few pieces from family: an 1876 Methodist Episcopal Church, South hymnal, children’s Sunday School pamphlets from 1902, and a 1940’s Sheridan Headlight article describing my grandfather’s family as “the singing Methodists” from Grant County, Arkansas. I was thrilled to find these treasures.
I continue to collect pieces of Methodist history I find – older hymnals, Books of Discipline from the 1900s, and a booklet explaining why we baptize babies, but my favorite find was recent. I was looking around in an online vintage bookstore site and saw a copy of the 1972 Daily Christian Advocate (DCA), a complete compilation of the proceedings from General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.
The 1972 General Conference was the first full General Conference of the newly formed United Methodist Church. One of the items to be received at this General Conference was the report from the Social Principals Study Commission containing the newly proposed statement of social principals. Purportedly there was tension and anxiety over the coming report, especially the section on human sexuality, and much debate was anticipated.
I purchased the DCA and awaited its arrival, hoping to receive the bound copies of the proceedings and read the discussion surrounding the Social Principals Study Commission report, especially the debate over the insertion of the sentence, “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching.” I hoped that reading the actual words would give me insight into the thinking and rationale that led to the revising of the proposed Statement of Social Principals. I wanted to understand how we got from there to here, where almost 50 years later we are still debating the words and face a 2019 called session of General Conference over the issue of human sexuality.
The document that arrived was so much more than printed words. It was filled with handwritten notes in margins and underlined passages. Typed worship bulletins, budget notes and handwritten speeches that the owner hoped to give on the floor of General Conference were inserted. In reading it, I felt a little of the experience of the owner (whose name is not recorded anywhere in the book).
When I flipped through the printed legislation and daily reports, they showed the hopes and dreams of our newly formed denomination: a focus on evangelism, much written about the participation of women in the church, and the encouragement of lay participation. In addition to the statement of social principals, new doctrine and doctrinal standards were adopted, as was a revised structure for the church, adding a Board of Discipleship and the Board of Ministries and Higher Education.
In his closing address to the 1972 General Conference, Bishop Eugene Slater said, “May I suggest that the time is at hand when each of us and each group among us must begin to recognize its relationship that it sustains as persons and groups to The United Methodist Church as a whole. It is within this segment of the household of faith that we have our life as Christians. If we are to be built up and renewed in our faith, it will be within the fellowship of the church, the body of Christ.”
As we approach the 2019 called session of General Conference, I pray for the future of our church. Despite our differences I am committed to remaining a part of and supporting our “segment of the household of faith” called The United Methodist Church, and believe that it is possible for faithful Christians to disagree on scriptural interpretation and remain committed to our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
This is part of a continuing series from the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.