I was invited by the Committee on Faith and Order to speak to the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church on “holy conferencing” at its November, 2014 meeting in Oklahoma City. The invitation was very encouraging to me, particularly because the working documents that Faith and Order shared with me on their work on the topic were quite strong. I had previously expressed concerns about misuses of the term holy conferencing, where one of only five instituted means of grace in the Wesleyan view had been distorted so that it had become little more than trying to be nice to each other when we disagree. In contrast to previous misuses of the phrase, Faith and Order was working on an account that was more theologically substantive and engaged more robust practices. As I recall, nearly every document they shared with me identified the early Methodist class meeting and band meeting as the most concrete expression of Christian conferencing in early Methodism.

I went to the Council of Bishops meeting with a real sense of optimism. I felt that I was being given the chance to build on this positive momentum and encourage the leadership of United Methodism to reclaim an authentically Wesleyan approach to Christian communal formation. In this spirit, I began my presentation by asking the bishops to consider what would be “one thing that United Methodism could do today that would be most likely to bring deep renewal and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to our church?” My answer was “reclaiming an accurate understanding of holy conferencing in contemporary United Methodism.” But I was quick to add, “everything hinges on getting right what holy conferencing is.”

My basic advice was for there to be preaching and teaching on the concept of Christian conferencing at the General Conference and Annual Conference levels. I suggested that the most productive place to seek to return to this practice would be at the district level and especially the local church. (You can read the manuscript I used in my presentation here.)

I don’t think reclaiming the practice of Christian conferencing should start at the General Conference level because it is asking people to do something that most of them have never done with people they do not know. I don’t think you can take it for granted that people know what Christian conferencing is in contemporary United Methodism. General Conference is not the wisest place to implement Christian conferencing. Rather, it is a prime opportunity to teach people what it is so that they can begin working towards a return to it on the ground at the local church level.

As I read reports of the pre-General Conference meeting in Portland last month, I was initially encouraged to see that the Commission on General Conference featured Christian conferencing prominently in its work. The shift away from “holy conferencing” to “Christian conferencing” is a positive move. The desire to lift this practice up at General Conference is also laudable. However, the more I read about the use of Christian conferencing in the Advance DCA, as well as reporting on it by UMNS and other places, the more I fear that we are in for another General Conference that reinforces the distortions of one of the most distinctive practices of the Methodist heritage.

The Advance Daily Christian Advocate contains guidelines for Christian conferencing, especially with “A Few Sentences on Christian Conferencing” on page 22. There are also several places where there is a proposed language change from “Conference business” to “Christian conferencing”. Perhaps most significant is “Rule 44,” a proposed rule change to the “Rules of Order” that would allow for a group discernment process instead of the usual parliamentary procedure, which observes Robert’s Rules of Order.

In reading through the references to Christian conferencing in the ADCA, my impression is that this phrase is being used to try to have a better conversation about controversial topics. The sentences from The Committee on Faith and Order appear to be a combination of past misuses of the phrase with some corrections and more responsible interpretation. In reading through the sentences, I had a kind of déjà vu experience. Some of it sounded like it came from the manuscript I used when I spoke to the Council of Bishops. Other parts seemed to reaffirm what I critiqued or rejected. In its current form, the document could be used either to support a robust theological vision for reclaiming Christian conferencing or to support a gross distortion of the practice. There is simply not enough precision to rule either out.

In my view, the Advance DCA fails to offer a clear definition of what Christian conferencing is. How do we know when we are doing it? How do we know when attempts to Christian conference are falling short of what ought to be considered an instituted means of grace? Reading through the ADCA, I feel a bit like we are hoping that if we say “Christian conferencing” enough that somehow it will happen. I’m also left with the impression that we still lack a coherent and compelling articulation of what it in fact is.

Clearly defining Christian conferencing is a real challenge, and all the more so because Wesley himself did not offer a clear definition. The one time he refers to Christian conferencing, all he offers are a series of rhetorical questions that could be used to support misuses of the practice.

The need for a deeper understanding of Christian conferencing is one of the main reasons my advice to the Council of Bishops was that General Conference and Annual Conference would be the appropriate contexts for preaching and teaching on Christian conference and the role it has played in our tradition –not trying to engage in the practice itself. If we are not crystal clear on what the practice is that we are trying to reclaim, then we don’t seem to have much hope of succeeding in practicing it at General Conference – the most highly politicized and stressful expression of our collective life together.

Stay tuned: The next post will point towards a clear articulation of what Christian conferencing is and ways to reclaim this practice in contemporary Methodism.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.