The Episcopal Address
April 16, 1996

1996 United Methodist General Conference


The Grace and Peace of Jesus Christ be with you, sisters and brothers of the Household of Faith.
(First Sentence spoken in several other languages.)

Your Bishops greet you in the fresh and lively light of Easter Dawn that lingers in these days of Eastertide.

We come together in the presence of the Triune God. As God is Three, yet One, so we come from many cultures and expressions of faith, yet we are one in baptism and profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Nothing reveals our unity more than having come to One Table this afternoon. At that Table we met the Risen Christ and each heard: "Take this . . . do this . . . remember this." A lay woman, Amy Spencer, wrote a prayer for the Table: "Help me to understand that your words . . . (take, do, remember) . . . are really an invitation to know you, trust you and follow you." {1} Let us thank God for the inviting Table. Let us thank God for the rich and varied ways we may respond according to our national origins, our unique traditions, and our historic identities. With Amy let us pray that as a General Conference we will come to know Christ more deeply, trust Christ more fully, and follow Christ more faithfully in the conduct and completion of our work.

United Methodists are part of a world fellowship. Our global nature is made visible by the largest number of delegates in our history from Central Conferences: one hundred thirty eight (138) delegates from the Annual Conferences in our six (6) Central Conferences. In addition there are ten (10) delegates from those with whom we have concordat relationship, thirty- three (33) from affiliated autonomous churches in the Methodist family, and two observers from Russia.

In our Central Conferences we see our fastest numerical growth. At the end of 1994 the Central Conferences accounted for more than One and Half Million (1,500,000) of the worldwide ten million two-hundred thirty-six thousand, eight hundred thirty- five (10,236,835) members of United Methodism.{2} This growth keeps giving birth to new annual conferences around the globe. Every day new professions of faith are made in chapels, house churches, cathedrals, and open air meetings around the world. The missionary enterprise is truly global, with no one way streets, no sense of one part of the world sending and another receiving. We all send to each and each receives from all.

We gather in a beautiful place where we can feel secure and comfortable. Here we have enough to eat, enough to wear. Some of us come from places in the world where security and comfort are a privilege restricted to the few. There danger stalks the daily walk of the many. Others live in places where freedom from war or disease is the usual. In those places the privilege of feeling secure and having more than enough for daily needs belongs to the majority. Yet we confess a sad truth: No place in this world is safe from violence and disruption at the hands of those whose anger and frustration explode in destruction of life.

Some of our delegates have left homes where wars rage, coming here not knowing what they will find when they return. Others have known the terror of violence in homes and cities and towns we do not usually think of as danger zones. Among us are Bishops who have escaped brushes with death and survived serious injury at the hands of violent people. And some -- Bishops and delegates -- are not here at all, caught in cross fire of battles at this moment and shut out of the United States for want a visa.

But here our relative sense of safety and comfort numbers us among the privileged of the world as we are free to debate and think and decide with honor for each and all.

In our security, we dare not slip into a false sense of God abiding with us only. God is not confined in our assembly. God's attention is not limited to debates about order within The United Methodist Church. God's knowing and doing range far beyond us. God surely cares what we decide and how we decide. But God insists that our decisions embrace the creation plan for justice and life abundant for all the created order without limitation or exception. Our work here must manifest the justice and abundance envisioned by the Creator.

May the peace of Christ hold us as we are here. May the peace of Christ go with us as we return to our homes near and far when the work of this General Conference is completed.

The United Methodist Church is alive and well around the world. While many lament and wring their hands with worry and despair about the Church, there are signs of God at work all around us and within us. There is so much good in the Church, we could, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "dig a tunnel of hope through every mountain of despair."

Consider these signs:

..........Twenty-nine (29) persons have graduated from Africa University a bare six years after its beginnings. Now there are five faculties in place and enrollment in 1996 is three hundred (300). That University was a vision, birthed in a few inspired minds, caught by a General Conference and extended by a global community. It is the church alive, touching minds and hearts with knowledge and faith.

...........More than four hundred thousand (400,000) persons have finished one or more courses of Disciple Bible Study. One seminary professor reports Disciple graduates bring a deepened foundation to their studies. The study is now in five languages -- English, German, Korean, Spanish and Chinese. More than sixteen thousand (16,000) people are trained to lead.

...........A series of spiritual growth movements is deepening faith and sharpening skills in Christian life and witness. They are reconnecting us to the almost lost principles of mutual accountability once at the heart of classes and bands. For instance, more than one-half million people have taken the Walk to Emmaus with more than twelve hundred (1,200) walks in 1995 alone. Covenant Disciple Groups and Wesley Classes are meeting in every Annual Conference in the United States. Four hundred twenty (420) persons benefitted from the two-year Academy of Spiritual Formation and Annual Conference Academies are springing up faster than they can be counted. The list is too long to catalogue. You add the specific movements and events that are part of our Church's response to the expression of a spiritual hunger resident among people around the world.

..........In a majority of our Annual Conferences we hear with fresh urgency the questions: What is our primary task? Where does God call us to focus our resources in this age? They rise from initiatives born in congregations and conference gatherings. They are prompted in some places by participation in Vision 2000 and forms of Quest for Quality.

...........Three events have been held in the United States inviting youth and young adults to listen for a call from God to ordained and diaconal ministry. More than two thousand seven hundred (2,700) have attended. Many are responding "yes." The average age of seminary students in the United States is lowering each year. The number of students in seminaries and schools of ministry in the Central Conferences is increasing each year.

..........The National Plan for Hispanic Ministry has taken wing. It is bringing into being new congregations. Through its energy we are training and deploying lay missioners, establishing faith communities, new outreach ministries and church schools. The report of this ministry is before the General Conference showing the measurable and hope-filled effect of an initiative of the 1992 General Conference.

..........United Methodist presence is being experienced in places where we had scarecely been four years ago. Consider the Russia Initiative where new congregations gather for worship, Christian education and service because of United Methodist invitation. The initiative also fosters major work in medical, economic, educational, industrial and agricultural growth for the people of the region.

Signs of hope are not limited to congregational life or work among the membership of The United Methodist Church.

...........The Church has been a voice for freedom, quietly and openly working against oppression in government and seeking to bring justice to people without a voice. Consider the Christian witness in South Africa through the dismantling of apartheid -- the Middle East, where the Christian voice is small, but effective in giving hope -- and Eastern Europe, where Christian communities survived forty years of oppression and being cut off from brothers and sisters in the rest of the world.

...........Four years ago the General Conference set aside its agenda for a day to address a crisis of anger and destruction in one of the cities of North America. A vision was set forth. In the intervening years that vision has taken specific form. By the end of 1995 there were ninety-five (95) established or developing Shalom Zones on record.

...........In the last four years over one-hundred three thousand (103,000) people participated in Volunteer in Mission events in forty-six (46) countries, supported by over thirty- eight million, eight-hundred thousand dollars ($38,800,000).

.........And how shall we count contacts with legislators, letters written to influence public policy, information and testimony given to offer Christian perspective on decisions that affect the course of nations and communities? All that activity is also a sign of vital life among the Church's people. Such active discipleship brings the Gospel to bear on issues that shape the life of persons who may or may not be part of the Church of Jesus Christ, but are still the concern of God.

In all these signs of hope we see a marvelous linking of individual disciples, congregations, districts, conferences, and general boards and agencies. Signs of hope show the connection at work, doing together what we cannot do alone.

Is the Church alive? Does evangelizing bear fruit? All around us are stories of lives resurrected with ethical strength and moral toughness, of hope kindled in the face of despair, of generosity in spite of shrinking resources.

You know the signs. You are the signs. You know the stories. We urge you: tell them to each other. As you walk to and from meetings, as you have meals, as you share refreshments, tell the stories of the Church alive and shaping the world's peoples.

Signs of hope evidence evangelical fervor. Evangelizing is the natural outgrowth of knowing the Gospel. We receive to give away. The Gospel is effective if it is on the tip of our life-tongues -- in both talk and walk.

Our zeal to invite through example and exhortation must be motivated by more than a desire to effect membership numbers. If that is our only goal, we will know disappointment and be counted as unfaithful. Numerical growth is a by-product of spiritual growth which is the sign of faithful evangelizing. To evangelize is to tell about Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, reconciling the tattered world to the healing Creator's love. We must not truncate evangelism by limiting it to any sectarian definitions or motives other than compassionate, inclusive announcement of God's redeeming love. Our discipleship is defective if we try to limit God's encircling embrace of grace to those we judge acceptable.

As part of learning to be faithful evangels, we urge our people to examine their relationships in congregational and personal life. If the Christian community is consumed with conflict and arguments about power and control, the Body of Christ is fractured and ministry impeded. How tragic to hear persons say, "I would be more interested in Christian faith if I didn't see the way church people treat each other." Our baptism means we have put on Christ. Let us be sure our actions reveal the wearing of Christ lest our sacraments become a hollow shell of false religion. Let us make sure those who wait to hear good news are not deafened by contradiction in our profession and practice.

The heart of the Gospel reaches beyond relationship of persons to Christ and Christ to Church. The Gospel is the expression of the Grace of God which intends social justice in the whole society of humankind and all of nature. To separate the salvation message from a call to justice, both within and beyond the communities of congregations, diminishes the thrust and energy of the Evangel. The whole Good News is ours to proclaim in word and act. Individuals, institutions and systems must be redeemed to free persons from any imprisonment that would deny the abundant life bought through a terrifying cross and an empty tomb.

We have so much for which to shout Hallelujah! At the same time, we are deaf if we do not hear underneath our shouting the groans and screams of a creation in pain. We learn from the Psalmist the strength of lament, a mixture of weeping and praising. The Psalmist was so sure of a listening, responding God as to dare to say it all: that which was cause for great joy and that which confounded and wounded. As the Psalmist, we live in a world that celebrates freedom even as it weeps because it is caught in the webs of pain and sin still begging for the news of redemption.

Look at God's world into which the Incarnate One came and comes to reconcile and redeem and bring life abundant.


Images of God's people in God's world. They leave us with so much to mourn and so much to celebrate.

What has the agenda of this General Conference to do with the images we have seen, with the global concerns of God? How will our debates and decisions make visible the Body of Christ in the midst of creation's joy and wounds? The wind of God's spirit sweeps across places of deprivation, violence, fear and denial of dignity. We must welcome that wind blowing us to decisions and lives that reveal the reign of God.

We labor here in response to the Creator who looked on all that was made and said, "Behold, it is very good." That same Creator now weeps over impoverished cities and villages, ravished lands, polluted streams, depleted soil, poisoned air, fractured humanity. The weeping God beckons us to become God's healing presence in human communities and all the created order.

Humankind has lost its sense of reverence. We see the loss when life is robbed of meaning and dignity by unequal opportunity and unjust distribution of the basic goods that sustain life. The poor rise in number and sink in despair as political and economic systems continue to protect the comfort of the few at the expense of the many. Poverty strips human beings of their dignity and robs them of hope for the abundant life our Gospel promises. The Gospel of Jesus Christ stands against the forces that hold people in the captivity of poverty.

Loss of reverence relentlessly assaults the young of the world. Children are abused by images of carelessness with life. They both see and experience that carelessness daily. Our young are hungry and malnourished. They are dislocated and orphaned by war. They are held hostage to the power struggles of people without conscience. Children are scarred and deformed by systems that do not give first attention to their need for shelter, safety, education and nurture. The terror of carelessness with the lives of children is real in every nation, from the poorest and war torn to the richest where no declared wars are fought. Do you know the United States is the only industrialized country in which children are the largest segment of the population who lives in poverty?{3}

Loss of reverence touches youth in their teens. A generation is at peril, hungry for help in standing over against the temptation to instant gratification and the altering of reality with drugs and alcohol. Their sense of future is blocked by walls of economic and educational limitations, blinding them to opportunity and inviting short-term goals that undermine long- term well-being. Values and morals are challenged and twisted by alternative views of life that are inconsistent with the Gospel vision.

As a Council of Bishops, we believe the Church can offer no more powerful sign of steward responsibility than making the welfare of children and youth the first concern. They are the ones who will inherit the wind of our terror or the nurturing breeze of our care. Their needs are the most urgent cries to which we must respond quickly and without reserve. To that end we urge this General Conference to keep the image of the most powerless of people -- the poor, children, youth, women --always in the forefront as we do the work given us to do.

In the very near future your Bishops will be inviting you to major attention through an Episcopal Initiative addressing issues of children and poverty. All else we do will be wasted if we do not engage in shaping the future so that it offers life abundant instead of squeezing life out of the next generations.

As we think about what is now, we are aware also of the future coming toward us. This General Conference convenes on the threshold of a new millennium. A thousand years ago United Methodism had not been born. The second millennium has witnessed radical changes in how we speak of the faith. Our ancestors ordered the household of faith through reform after reform in that thousand years. Now we are they whose privilege and responsibility it is to think "long thoughts" after the fashion of God as we position The United Methodist Church for the third millennium.

How we do our work must be influenced by this sense of time. We are gifted with an urgency and potential unlike anything given to previous generations. Some say that the revolutions of knowing and human comprehension facing us in the next thousand years will dwarf anything that occurred in the thousand years now ending. For instance, neuroscientists and linguists are unlocking the mysteries of how language is formed in ways that will revolutionize teaching and communication.{4} Encounters with such revolutions are not new for the Church. Expanding knowledge has always called the Church to join in new expression and encounters with emerging truths. The Church has not been static in the last Millennium. Ways of speaking the faith and intersecting with life issues have developed and shifted according to God's continuing revelation.

We sing, "as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. . ." We proclaim God's word, "Behold, I make all things new." They are two phrases of one truth. What has always been is that God is always making things new.

In fact, United Methodists are the inheritors of major intrusions into the understanding of Church. It was a revolution when John Wesley dared to take preaching to the streets and open fields, declaring faith empty if not accompanied with insistence on justice. Listen to these words from Mr. Wesley's diaries:

"Saturday, March 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitfield there. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields . . . having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church."{5}

Such a scandal, Mr. Wesley! But preach he did, in those unorthodox ways, often using the text from Luke: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to proclaim Good News to the poor . . . "{6} One story carries the memory of an angry crowd throwing empty whiskey bottles at Mr. Wesley. A woman whose stature was considerably more expansive than that of the slight Mr. Wesley strode out of the crowd, stood before him, and threatened all who would further assault, saying, "Let the little man preach."{7}

Oh yes, we are the inheritors of radical breaks in tradition and revolutions in ways of being "church." Our faith and it's practice are not frozen in time or space. What we do and say reveals whether or not we stand in continuity with what is always the same -- the new and far reaching activity of God.

God's continuing revelation requires us to claim what we already know and keep listening for what God has yet to teach us about divine grace and its reach. Some look at us and wonder how we can pronounce the limitless grace of God and then call together huge assemblies to define who and what falls beyond that limitless grace. The church we order must be an open house where Jesus sits at the doorway and welcomes all who come, regardless of whether the townspeople think it proper or not! It is an offense to God to define so carefully and describe church so rigidly as to create a family tree that says most clearly who is not welcome. It is unfaithful to focus so much on our own internal life that we have nothing left to give as moral leaders and stewards of the whole of God's creation.

God watches us, perhaps with Divine angst, to see if we who claim to be faithful will indeed act faithfully. The poor, the oppressed, the young and the old listen for the Word spoken in language they can comprehend and recognize in actions that reach their needs. Can we speak God's forgiving, nurturing Word in 21st Century languages and practices? O, please God, make us able to answer with a resounding "Yes!"

We move toward the new millennium as part of a wounded world. We are ourselves a wounded community. Our wounds, sign of sin still resident within us, cry out for healing. When they are healed, our message of redeeming hope will have integrity and power in the larger human community among whom God places us. Our announcement of reconciliation begins with confession of those places in our personal and institutional lives wherein we are not reconciled. Our invitation to holiness is accompanied by a fresh determination to live holy lives ourselves. Our call to justice includes ordering life within our own body in ways that are just.

We mark forty years of benefitting from the gifts of women as elders in full conference membership. That gift rises out of a century of history, dating back to the ordination of women as elders in the United Brethren Church as early as 1889.

We celebrate thirty years of having removed from our midst the scandal of formal segregation in the Central Jurisdiction. All our legislation and covenant agreements testify that racism and sexism are sins that must not live in Christ's Church.

Sadly, we know legislation does not guarantee practice. It is difficult to find words to express our outrage at continuing discrimination against women and people of racial ethnic heritage. It lingers in every circle of the church's life. An unrelenting migration toward homogeneity unmasks a myopic vision of God's richly diverse creation. The exclusion of persons because of race, gender or status of any kind flies in the face of God's intention to embrace all who name the name of Jesus. Allowing congregations to participate in sinful patterns of discrimination surrounding them is faithless sinking into the ways of culture rather than shaping culture according to God's creation plan.

We call all who bear the name of Christ -- United Methodist Bishops included -- to confess the sad truth that we continue to participate in institutions and practices that favor Caucasians and males in overt and covert systemic exclusion. Let us repent that we may be led to just behavior.

We are grieved and puzzled by the rising number of allegations of clergy sexual misconduct. That so many of our covenant community seem insensitive and irresponsible about appropriate relationships and pastoral propriety is cause for lament. We join you in seeking to create just ways to respond.

We know the crucial distinction between the sure redeeming love of God for all who sin and the requirements that make one worthy of the sacred trust of the office given with consecration and ordination. We insist that those who carry the precious privilege of ordination and consecration maintain the exemplary lifestyle required by the call of Christ and affirmation of the Church.

Our ways of responding to clergy misconduct must evidence swift, just and gentle care for all the aggrieved -- the ones primarily wounded, those in secondary and tertiary circles of disruption, and the wounders themselves. We cannot ignore or be inconsistent in our response to this offense in the Church.

God's gift of sexuality is good! Even as we claim that creation truth, our cultures are bombarded with twisted and demeaning exploitation of sexuality --pornography, promiscuity, the breakdown of covenant relationships. Within the Church our struggle to understand the expression of human sexuality has become painful and divisive.

We yearn for a holy community that embraces sexuality as a good gift of creation rather than something about which to be embarrassed or to interpret and define in ways that exclude persons from full participation in the life of the Church. In cultures saturated with images, abuses and excesses that belittle and demean holy intimacy, the Church is the only community with the possibility of teaching the strength of the divine blessing on human bonding and fidelity.

We affirm the sanctity of marriage. At the same time we are called by a gracious Christ to live with a spirit of welcome for persons of many realities and persuasions. We have much to learn about our human nature and what it means to be created in the image of God. Let us bind ourselves in common search for God's continuing revelation about Divine creation intention, especially the meaning and employment of the beautiful gift of our sexuality.

How shall we respond to the woundedness around and among us? So much of life waits for the healing touch of the Gospel. Sometimes it is mediated through human institutions, in systems and structures by which life is ordered. The General Conference is responsible for providing order and visible framework for United Methodism. That organization makes possible our carrying the Gospel's healing touch.

We are a people who value structure. We understand the strength of being connected with each other in orderly fashion that allows the flow of resources and the linking of gifts. Any decisions that weaken the coherence of that connection threaten the urgency of solidarity in witness and practice in a fractured world. So much in life suffers from discontinuity and disconnection. Our connection --manifested in structural coherence that is recognizable from place to place -- is a sign of healthy wholeness. It is the means by which we are in ministry together where no one part of us can be effective alone.

We urge consciousness of that wholeness in your deliberations. Frequently ask: if we decide this way here, how will our decision effect what is being considered somewhere else? Let us never forget our linkage as a corporate body. Our language, our customs, our dreams, our desires are each shaped and worthy in their own time and place. Yet all together are the strands on a divine loom that become a tapestry of the Living Christ made visible through the likes of you and me -- connected and united.

Remember United Methodists are part of the whole Body of Christ, in relationship with persons who live in other rooms in the grand Household of Faith. Our unity with other communions in councils of churches and covenant relationships moves us toward God's vision of the Church made whole. What we decide about our way of being faithful must be appropriate to ourselves and our tradition. At the same time we must demonstrate respect for our kindred of other Christian traditions and self- understandings.

The Council of Bishops has put before you the opportunity to place United Methodists in formal relationship to Churches in Covenant Communion. We urge you to debate and act in light of the world's need to see and hear a unified witness to Christ.

World consciousness and ecumenism are the twin templates within which to perfect legislative proposals. Let no continent or clan pretend any weight of authority that denies the unique energy of all nations and peoples. Rather, let the uniqueness of culture and continent enhance the beautiful unity of common heritage and practice as United Methodists.

One way our common heritage and practice is made visible is in ordering ministry for service through the Church. Four years ago you entrusted the Council of Bishops with the Study of Ministry. You asked us to undertake our work in a spirit of prayer and discernment. We have sought to be faithful to that task. Before you is a document overwhelmingly commended by the Council of Bishops. We ask you to consider the proposals about the ordering of ministry in the same prayerful and discerning spirit which we have sought to follow.

We are a people of The Word, the The Holy Bible.. We gather to write two books: The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions. Those we write must never take the place of the first. Our books must not interpret and order life in any way contrary to the always fresh and contemporary Word of God. Therein lies the tension of our work -- an ancient body of truth guiding a contemporary and emerging expression of new things God is doing. We stand in between what God has done and what God will do next. We can be dams of self interest and polluted channels of selfish motives that block and foul the pure force and creative energy of God's will. Or we can be open doors and clean vessels through which God pours continuing Divine intervention into creation.

"In-between-ness" is as old as Scripture. We are told to remember who made us, who delivered us, what God has taught. At the same time we are told to follow the God who makes all things new, who is always doing a new thing. Jesus stood in between, saying "You have heard it said of old -- but -- I say to you..." When we gathered at The Table earlier today, we were in between: "Do this to remember me . . . until the reign of God comes." In-between-ness is our location in faith.

Wonderful discoveries break into our lives with speed that takes our breath away. Knowledge and ways of communicating unlike anything we imagined in our first decades of life are now commonplace to those born after us. We stand in between generations. One was raised on printed pages. The other knows the flicker of computer screens. One talks of truth in images that are static and contained in books. The other interacts with people around the globe, encountering truth in cultures and faith expressions that are dynamic and mutually enriching. One generation talks about the nuts and bolts of life. The other speaks in languages of bits and bytes. We are truly in between revolutions and revelations, right where the Church has always been. Our memory of God is tested in between.

I heard a story of a four-year-old girl into whose family was born a baby brother. From the day her parents brought him home she began to ask for some time alone with him. The parents were reluctant, not sure just what she would do with him. Finally they relented to her persistent insistence. One evening they told her she could go into the nursery after he had been put to bed, and there be alone with him. They shut the door, then cracked it ajar and watched as she went near the crib, bent down and spoke. She said to her baby brother, "Tell me what God looks like. I am beginning to forget."

The long look requires remembering what we have always known, but learning it in forms and images that are appropriate to our time and place.

When we sing, "O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come . . . ," we offer a unique gift of assurance that steadies those whirling in the excitement of unfolding revelation. A Church truly faithful to Christ will not be obsolete in the new millennium. The Church knows the Source of all that is coming to light. Our voice is essential, our understanding central, our confidence basic for the well-being of the world in the future as it has been in the past.

The 1996 General Conference comes to life in a birth-room full of what could become destructive controversy. It is always appropriate to examine our beliefs and engage each other in an earnest search for each generation's form of expression and confession. It is troublesome if the engagement scatters seeds of dissension and destruction among seeds meant to germinate in abundant new life for a new century.

We have watched with alarm tensions that rise out of good desire to protect the Church from harm. We fear the desire to protect may turn to desire to control. We urge you to tune in to the wind of the Holy Spirit, letting it drown out the sound and fury of human insistence. We exhort you to approach the work of this General Conference embracing a holy tension: remembering what God has done and expecting God to do something new.

A question confronts us: How can we faithfully guard the irreducible tenets of faith-filled tradition without confining God in any one creed or confession in human language?

Let us repent of our pretentious assumptions that human language and time-encrusted traditions can contain the omnipotent, omnipresent Holy One. The Apostolic faith is ours to enjoy, to give away, and to which to invite others. The Apostolic faith is not locked in expressions or experiences of the Apostolic Centuries. It is sufficiently strong to be flexible in expression and experience to be offered in language and form appropriate to all time, including the new Century we approach.

We are not suggesting a cavalier setting aside of valued and valid tradition. We embrace Trinitarian faith and hold to the centrality of the Incarnation, Atoning Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the same time, we acknowledge the limitations of human formulations and rites to express those unchanging truths. Language and rituals that have been sufficient in the past may not be heard with convicting force in the now and the future. God's Spirit sweeps over the earth searching for expression to transcend tradition, gender, race, and nation.

Opposing temptations beckon us. One is to go on to new things disregarding tradition altogether. The other is to stand so rigidly in tradition as to believe we simply must make what once was happen again. While some retreat into memory, others tend to run ahead as if suffering amnesia. It is for us to find the balance in between, guided by the Holy Spirit who sets us free of partisanship.

We who are your Bishops believe that what you decide and order will make a difference in how both the Church and world recognize the continuing revelation of God among us and through us. So crucial and relevant do we believe your work to be that we issue an invitation.

We invite you to Holy Conferencing.. We urge you to claim with confidence our rich heritage that trusts God to offer wisdom through the gathering of varieties of thought and convictions in conferencing. We believe debate can be prayerful expression, honoring the Holy resident among all and within each. It is possible to disagree with another's ideas while still claiming oneness in Christ. That flavor is what we hunger for in this General Conference.

We invite you to step out of party spirit and walk together in Holy Spirit. We urge you to turn from being slaves to predetermined agendas, no matter how thoughtfully and prayerfully prepared, to a free embrace of the will of the One to whom we belong. We invite you, we urge you, to remember where we began: at the Table. We invite you to create an atmosphere of hospitality and mutual respect that comes from sharing around that Table.

About a year and half ago I sat in a Bedouin tent outside the city of Jerusalem. There some Christians, some Israelis and Bedouin Muslims sat around a rug which was, for our hosts, a table. Around that rug-table Bedouins gather for talk and decision making. Around that rug-table they gather to eat. At that rug-table they asked us to sit as they told us their story of persecution and hope. Surrounded by the dust of the Judean hills, we sat at the Table. The Elder of the tribe did not speak until children had appeared out of the brown dust with sparkling clean glasses on a polished copper tray. They carried a bright blue pot out of which they poured the hot, sweet, strong tea of the Middle East. As we each took a glass and drank together, the barriers of culture, language, and faith began to fall. We found ourselves entering into the stories of each other's dreams and hopes. Tables tumble barriers and bridge distances between people.

Just so we began at the Table. We took broken bread and drank from one cup. This unique Table is central to our faith. From the Table we learn what God means to do -- re-member the dis- membered order of life. In fact, Jesus told us to do just that - - re-member him, put together again the wholeness of God's presence in this world. At the Table we receive the invitation to bring Christ's broken body back together and to offer Christ's spilled blood to salve the wounds of the world.

The Table stands in between the old and new covenants, bringing together as one movement the continuing activity of the God of all covenants. At the Table one part of God's salvation drama is completed as another waits to be realized in the future.

There were tensions at the table where the twelve sat with their Teacher. Jesus named his betrayer. The disciples quarreled among themselves about greatness. Jesus had to remind them about servanthood. But Jesus stayed at that table. He sat there in the midst of that broken community and gave them a sign of healing and wholeness.

In times of conflict and differing opinion what does it mean to stay at The table? We believe all that we do can be transformed toward God's will if we will stay at the Table. Our invitation is to heed the call of the Table to re-member lest we pass by on our own way still dis-membering the Body of Christ.

The delegates to this General Conference were invited to prayer, using a common daily guide for the forty days preceding our gathering. It made us one before we saw each other. Your Bishops now offer a specific sign of continuing prayer. Members of the Council of Bishops will be in prayer around the clock for the duration of this General Conference. We have designated teams of prayer partners who will intercede for all of us, asking the Holy Spirit to intrude into all we dream and propose, all we say and decide. We will identify the interecessors each day and the place where they are in prayer. Others may join them there, or in one of the other chapels, or a place of your own choosing. We invite all to join us in making this entire General Conference a season of prayer.

In the same spirit, we ask that each time you gather in a legislative committee, in a caucus meeting, in plenary, you begin with five minutes of reflecting with another person -- perhaps someone you do not know well -- speaking about these two questions: 1) What is my most earnest hope for the next few hours of this General Conference? 2) What do I believe is God's most fervent hope for these next few hours? Then we ask you to pray with that conversation partner beseeching God to bring the two hopes into one. We go to our discipline of intercessory prayer with confidence God will break in with energy, wisdom and joy. We invite you to your moments of self-revelation and search, equally confident that God will bless the Church and the world through a General Conference earnestly praying and listening for God's guidance. May it be so, in the name of Christ.

We are confident you will respond readily and eagerly to this wrapping of our Conferencing in the mantle of prayer. We are confident you will do your holy work of conferencing always aware of being at the Table with Jesus. As sign of our mutual covenant to do so, let us sing a prayer to undergird all we do in these days as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church in the Year of our Lord, 1996.

Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
All that I would, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light forever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.

Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O thou whose deeds and dreams were one.


The Episcopal Address has been written by Bishop Judith Craig who was selected by the Council of Bishops. It has been perfected for presentation at the ____ session of the General Conference after considerable preparation, including discussion and debate at regular meetings of the Council of Bishops. Though not reflecting the view of every bishop at every point, in finished form this address has been approved by the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church.


Roy I. Sano

Melvin G. Talbert


{1} Amy Spencer, Delaware, Ohio, in a Good Friday Liturgy, 1995.

{2} Membership figures from 1994 General Minutes.

{3} "Faces of Poverty", United Methodist Communications, Bill Dale, Producer, 1987.

{4} The Cognitive Neurosciences, Michael Gazzaniga, ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995, CH. VII: "Language," pp. 851-959.

{5} The Works of John Wesley, Ward and Heitzenrater, eds., Abingdon Press, 1990, p. 46.

{6} Luke 4:18.

{7} John Wesley in Wales, 1739-1790. A.H. Williams, ed. (to be completed).


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The Episcopal Address, April 16 1996
1996 United Methodist General Conference