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What is “holy conferencing”?

This phrase seems to be one of the buzz words for contemporary United Methodism. This post is the first of two posts on this topic. (It could be seen as the second of three posts, as yesterday’s post pointed out that Wesley himself did not use the phrase “holy conferencing.”) This post discusses the contemporary use of “holy conferencing.” The second post will discuss what Wesley meant by the phrase “Christian conference,” which is the phrase from Wesley that is usually connected to contemporary uses of holy conferencing.

At the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL “holy conferencing” was the explicit rationale for three scheduled times when delegates would break into thirteen groups for “holy conversation.”

Following General Conference, in the September/October 2012 issue of Interpreter the feature article was “Holy Conferencing: Bringing Grace to Tough Conversations.” I have to admit I was predisposed to be critical of the article by the subtitle, which to me suggested that we are the ones who bring grace to tough conversations because of our mastery of the skill of holy conferencing. I’m not exactly sure what the subtitle intended to convey, but it would be too easy of a target for outsiders who already suspect that Methodists are peddling works righteousness.

Nevertheless, I take this article as a good example of what many United Methodists mean today when they invoke the value of “holy conferencing.”

The article does not itself provide a clear definition of holy conferencing, but instead defines it by quoting a variety of church leaders. The main place where the article does interact with the concept is in this passage:

“Holy or Christian conferencing is a practice John Wesley included, along with prayer, Scripture reading, fasting and the Lord’s Supper, as a way of experiencing God’s grace. The roots are biblical. Leaders assert that every Christian should practice it, within and beyond the walls of the church.”

This is a helpful quote because it makes both moves that are typical in discussions of holy conferencing. 1) Its roots are in John Wesley. 2) It is important because Wesley included it as an “instituted” means of grace. So, similar to many of the other buzzwords in contemporary United Methodism, the grounding for the practice is – at least loosely – the authority of John Wesley.

But the above quote doesn’t tell us much about what holy conferencing is. From the above we know it is something that Wesley included with other basic Christian practices as a way of experiencing God’s grace (which, again, is in tension with the subtitle of the article). And that we should practice it in and out of church because the roots are biblical. This sounds important! So, again, what is it?

Here are a few quotes from the article where various United Methodist leaders use holy conferencing as a concept:

“Holy conferencing became really important as we gathered at the table to listen to all the reasons of why we should or shouldn’t move forward… When there would be a conflict or some tension or a variety of opinions, we would commit to listen to each other and approach each other with grace as much as possible. We always remembered that we have a place to stand together even if we don’t end up in the same place at the end of the conversation.” – Rev. Trudy Robinson, First UMC Littleton, CO

“Holy conferencing developed out of recognizing who people were, with a theological commitment that each person is a child of God and deserves to be treated as one.” – Rev. Stephen Cady, Kingston UMC, NJ

“In our culture today, there’s so much divisiveness that it’s really important to call ourselves to that means of grace… People, particularly in the United States, understand how uncivil conversation and discussion have become. People desire something different. In general society, there’s a fair amount of conversation about civil discourse. As Christians, (we have) a number of (Scripture) passages and admonitions in terms of how we treat one another.” – Bishop Sally Dyck, Chicago Area of The UMC

“It’s not just an exchange of opinions… but a real attempt to move toward a common understanding of God’s will and intention towards Christians. It’s a holy thing to be undertaken with seriousness and integrity. It’s an opportunity to build on the trust that is already there and to allow people to seek together for the truth.” – Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice-president, Good News

With the exception of the quote from Lambrecht, it seems like holy conferencing means being nice to each other when we disagree.

One gets a similar sense from the “Principles of Holy Conferencing” that are published as a sidebar in the same article. (Note: This is a condensed version of a longer paper Bishop Dyck wrote. The full paper can be accessed here.) Here are the eight principles:

1. Every person is a child of God
2. Listen before speaking
3. Strive to understand from another’s point of view
4. Strive to reflect accurately the views of others
5. Disagree without being disagreeable
6. Speak about issues; do not defame people
7. Pray, in silence or aloud, before decisions
8. Let prayer interrupt your busy-ness

This is a helpful list. And these principles are important to keep in mind when having difficult conversations. I have seen too many examples in person and (more often) online where these principles have not been practiced by contemporary Methodists. So, I think this is a well thought out and helpful guide to having difficult conversations. However, at the end of the day, it still looks like the focus is on being nice.

My sense from thinking about the use of “holy conferencing” in contemporary discourse over the past six months or so is that it is being appealed to so heavily because, during a time when there are areas of profound disagreement among Methodists, it is a way to find something we can agree on. We should be able to agree to be nice when we disagree with each other, to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

There are at least two problems with this approach. First, the areas of disagreement often go so deep that someone finds the clear statement of a particular position to itself be disagreeable. In other words, the use of “holy conferencing” presumes an ability to not take the beliefs and convictions of another as a personal attack. I am not sure we are currently in a place where people are always able to make a distinction between honest disagreement and intentionally being disagreeable, or intentionally hurtful.

The second problem with this approach is that it deemphasizes the importance of the beliefs themselves. At best, it does not provide a way to resolve any disagreement. The only solution offered is polite conversation. At worst, it implies that there are no right answers.

The use of holy conferencing seems naïve because the solution it appears to offer is that if enough people could just sit down long enough, be nice enough, and hear each other, agreement would come from clear and kind articulation of each perspective. I think this underestimates the depth of genuine disagreement that often exists. There also may be a subtle form of arrogance that believes that I can convince you that I am right if we can just talk about this long enough because you have never actually thought about this in a careful rational way (or, that my beliefs are in themselves rational and logical in some way that yours are not).

I do not think that is what people who are advocating for holy conferencing intend to be the outcome of this practice. I think they are rightly broken-hearted by the extent of disunity, even anger and bitterness, in contemporary Methodism. And so, leaders are rightly trying to come up with anything that will move Methodism in a better direction. From that perspective, I think polite conversation is a step in the right direction.

My concern is that what was likely initially intended as a step is coming to be seen as a solution. The process of coming to theological convictions seems to be valued above the convictions themselves.

William J. Abraham has argued that the quadrilateral was conceived as a way to create a big tent vision for Methodism when it could not agree on basic Christian doctrine. (See especially his Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia). So, instead of focusing on doctrine, Outler created a way of thinking about doctrine. The idea was that we may not agree on the outcomes, but we can agree on the method we use to come to our different conclusions.

Is “holy conferencing” another Act in this same play? Some of the quotes from the Interpreter article, in fact, emphasized that “standing together” was more important than “ending up in the same place at the end of the conversation.” Think about the imagery in that quote. The image itself shows how insufficient a vision this is. The goal is to stand together, even though we are not in the same place?!

Recall that the common rationale given for the importance of holy conferencing is that it was endorsed by John Wesley in the “Large Minutes” as one of five instituted means of grace (meaning that they were explicitly given to us by Christ). The other four instituted means of grace are: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting. These are rich, robust practices that have been a part of the Christian life from the early church. Could Wesley have really meant by “Christian conference” that Christ instituted the practice of “standing together, even though we are not in the same place” as just as reliable of a way of encountering God’s presence as prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting? Surely not!

The next post will answer the question: What did Wesley mean by the phrase “Christian conference”? It will also consider the role of “Christian conference” for contemporary Christianity, suggesting that it is much more than being nice when we disagree.

In the meantime, what do you think about the way that “holy conferencing” is used in contemporary Methodism?

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.