Philip Jenkins, in his book “Jesus Wars” (HarperOne 2010), tells the tragic story of the violent, deadly Second Council of Ephesus in August 449 AD during which 127 bishops assembled in the Church of the Theotokos (Mother of God) to resolve the explosive and vexing issue of the identity of Jesus. Was he human, divine or both? One nature or two?
That notorious council was subsequently called the “gangster council” or “robbers council” with good cause. The invitee list was rigged, and the presiding bishop was conniving. Not content to let the issue play out honorably, he invited the prominent, militant monk Barsaumas to attend the council. Barsaumas carried with him a Bible and brass knuckles, not necessarily in that order, and was accompanied by a covey of muscular monks and a mini-militia.
At a certain point in this spurious church proceeding, the bishops, prefiguring recent political rallies, began chanting about one of their opponents, “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!” Later in the conference, Barsaumas unleashed his thugs, who beat up some of the attendees, including the elderly Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople. Flavian died a few days later, martyred by fellow Christians. The assembly reached unanimity on the matter at hand because the fratricidal monks intimidated the wavering bishops to sign blank sheets of paper onto which were later written the doctrines the “winning side” selected.
I am recalling this shameful bit of church history as I fly to St. Louis to observe and report on the United Methodist Church’s General Conference to address and perhaps resolve our acrimonious half-century argument over whether or not LGBTQ persons can be fully welcomed into the church.
Church conclaves are now far more sedate. The 860 worldwide delegates have been fairly elected by their regions (though some think the representation process favors a certain theological slant). Nobody brings guns, knives or muscular bodyguards. A rules committee establishes how the convocation will proceed. The church has been as transparent and Christlike as possible in planning this gathering.
No, we are not Ephesus 449 AD. Nevertheless, many church volunteers or members of a vestry, board of deacons, administrative board, finance or personnel committee at any level know in the heat of a church meeting people frequently forget Jesus said “Blessed are the meek.”
Most of those voting in St. Louis will read between the lines of every speech, pore over every motion, second-guess every parliamentary maneuver and evaluate every inflection. These are not attributes normally associated with respect and resolution.
This Methodist yearns for one of our old-fashioned Love Feasts to break out in St. Louis. Melted hearts can resolve anything. Barring that, one prays that delegates will adopt the stance counseled by Jesus (Matthew 10:16) to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. If the gathering is filled with the rare combination of wisdom and gentleness, it’s possible the Holy Spirit will yet break out on John Wesley’s fractious children.
Email Creede Hinshaw at email@example.com.