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General Conference 2016 officially begins

By Barbara Dunlap-Berg
May 10, 2016 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

Scenes from the opening worship of  the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore., on May 10. UMNS photos.

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With a drum welcome from indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, United Methodists gathered here for the 2016 General Conference, the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church, joined in a cacophony of “alleluias” in many languages during opening worship.

Meeting May 10-20 at the Oregon Convention Center, 864 delegates will consider 1,000 petitions that will determine how the 12.3-million-member denomination orders its ministry, structures its agencies and addresses social justice issues, including human sexuality, for the next four years.

Delegates from the United States, Europe, Africa and the Philippines opened the session with the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and an address by San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops.

The theme of the 2016 General Conference is “Therefore Go.” The Commission on the General Conference selected the theme that ties to the roots of The United Methodist Church in Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Directing music and worship is the Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett of Eagle Creek, Oregon.

"My hope, as well as my challenge, is to create experiences of worship that are both grand and intimate encounters with God," said Bartlett. "The amazing experience of having thousands of people from around the world gathered in one place should reflect the grandeur and majesty of God. Yet, I personally believe for General Conference to be truly effective, we need to celebrate the relationships we share with one another and with God."

Titling his sermon “Jesus, We Are Here for You,” Brown admitted, “Like the first disciples, some of us may have come to this meeting of Jesus’ people we call General Conference with some mixture of hope and uncertainty. There are many issues on our agenda. So many things for you to consider as the plans for the church’s future are adopted.”

Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough led the communion service, assisted by Manila Area Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan, Mozambique Area Bishop Joaquina F. Nhanala and Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.

During the opening worship, a diverse group of people was to give a brief Christian greeting in their own language or cultural context. Some of the greetings were videotaped beforehand and some were delivered in person. The Rev. Vicki Flippin of Church of the Village in New York proposed a greeting that named certain specific groups.

Reconciling Ministries reported on its Facebook page that worship leaders had asked Flippin to remove a welcome to LGBTQ people or not to participate in opening worship.

She chose instead to participate in Love Prevails, which provided stations where worshippers could receive the sacrament from openly LGBTQ United Methodists. Love Prevails “works for the day when all people are welcome as equals on both sides of the communion table.”

Bartlett said General Conference is “committed to crafting every worship service in a way that communicates the inclusive love of God for everyone, bar none. As soon as you name one group, you need to name every group. Otherwise, it takes away the power of the Gospel message, which is that Jesus’ love is available to everyone.”

Warm hospitality from Oregon-Idaho

Welcoming General Conference delegates and visitors, Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Area focused on radical hospitality.

“In this age of increasing secularism,” he said, “The United Methodist Church can also be a place of countercultural value where the poor and hungry are the first to feast at the banquet table, the lost and lonely receive the best care and the environment around us is elevated to the same protection of our family home.

“Our prayer is that this spiritual message, which prioritizes ‘the least of these,’ can shine through all of you who represent the very best of our United Methodist Church.”

At the airport and the convention center, United Methodist volunteers from the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference welcomed delegates and visitors to Portland. Members of the General Conference Prayer Ministry Team presented new arrivals with Protestant prayer beads and medallions created by United Methodists who committed to pray for each delegate.

Before the service, delegates and visitors also visited a huge exhibit area that featured ministries of general agencies, Imagine No Malaria, Africa University, United Methodist seminaries and more, and purchased books and products of Cokesbury, the retail arm of the United Methodist Publishing House.

As always, delegates and visitors embraced friends they haven't seen for four years and helped one another find their way around the Oregon Convention Center, a location with which they will become quite familiar before the assembly adjourns on Friday evening, May 20.

Challenge for the gathering

In the opening worship service, Brown acknowledged, “We also bring our hopes and apprehensions. In our zeal to make a point, will our words do harm? Will we be able to restrain our passions enough to truly listen to one another?

“This work will not be easy because we care so deeply,” he continued. “We are passionate about what we believe to be true.”

Brown challenged the assembly to remember Paul’s word to the Romans: “So let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up” (14:19).

“Today, in this place, in this important time, by the power of God’s Spirit, may we once again collectively sing: ‘Jesu Tawa Pano’ ̵ Jesus, we are here for you. Not any other agenda. We are here for you. Therefore, let us go!”

Hagiya noted that the offering would be divided between the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund and Creation Vacation, a ministry of the Oregon-Idaho Conference.

Following the benediction, the Rev. R. DeAndre Johnson, pastor of music and worship at Westbury United Methodist Church, Houston, led the conference in a rousing rendition of the African-American spiritual “Guide My Feet.”

Dunlap-Berg is general church content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.