By Rev. Creede Hinshaw, republished with permission from the Albany Herald
I returned home from the yearly meeting of South Georgia United Methodists, held this year alongside the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus. We Methodists have been meeting like this for centuries, a practice begun by our founder, John Wesley, who used the meeting to inspire his preachers, keep their doctrine pure, their preaching relevant and their behavior above reproach.
We’re still doing this, but the way we gathered has changed vastly over the centuries. For one thing, there’s no Father John to keep us in line anymore, and although we have elected bishops to follow in his footsteps, they don’t wield the autocratic authority that our founder once displayed.
We Methodists have changed in other significant ways in these annual meetings. For a long time, the only persons allowed to attend were the clergy, but eventually we figured out that most of the church was made up of laypersons, who now represent 50% of our gathering and are often more faithful in attending sessions than their clergy counterparts.
Initially, our meeting was only open to male clergy, because we were convinced for a long, long time that God didn’t call women into ordained ministry. We finally got that right, too, and now men and women are both ordained.
In a similar vein, we once only allowed men to run the committees and boards of the church, but we finally realized that way more than half the church consisted of women, who were mostly smarter than the men anyway. Now many women lead our committees.
And then for a long time we were dividing our annual meeting into racially segregated Methodist bodies. But some 50 years or so ago, we south Georgia Methodists finally, though very reluctantly, realized that God doesn’t care about the color of somebody’s skin. So now we meet together, on earth as it is in heaven, each year.
This annual meeting, which takes place across the globe on every continent, is part reunion, part revival, part business meeting, part gabfest, part dinner on the grounds. As much significant work takes place in the hallway as at the business session. We memorialize those clergy and spouses who have died over the past 12 months, ordain those men and women who will lead the church into the future, receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and accept the authority of our bishop to send the pastors to their appointments for another year.
Once every four years we elect delegates to attend our general conference. That election took place this year: two Albany Methodists (Robert Greene and Larry Price) were honored and entrusted with the responsibility of representing south Georgia at next year’s worldwide gathering.
Methodists face some pretty stiff headwinds in the year ahead of us. Differences that seem irreconcilable face our denomination. It’s possible we’ll split into two or more denominations in the future. If so, I can almost guarantee, however, that Methodists will still be gathering annually to sing, pray and seek the Spirit. It’s one of the most basic ways we organize to preach, teach and witness to the world.