Edgar Moore: Holy serendipity and General Conference

Serendipity is one of the dialects the Spirit speaks every now and then.

Serendipity is one of the dialects the Spirit speaks every now and then. And like every dialect of the Spirit, serendipity can lift us heavenward in joy, compel us to profound soul-searching or move us to tears -- tears of anger, desperation or something else.

The Spirit serendipitously dropped two documents on me recently, both within a few minutes of one another. The first was Lee Siegel’s May 3 op-ed piece in “The New York Times,” a review of the current Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play, “Death of a Salesman.” The second was an e-mail from my bishop, John Schol, reporting on the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, just adjourned in Tampa.

Siegel’s op-ed notes the contrast between audiences who paid $4.80 to see “Death of a Salesman” at its 1949 debut and those who pay upwards of $800 to see the current production. In the old days, Siegel writes, folks in the audience, “especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping,” because so many middle class theatre-goers identified with Willy Loman’s tragedy. Arthur Miller recalled that Elia Kazan, the play’s first director, “was the first of a great many men -- and women -- who would tell me that Willy was their father.”

But audiences don’t weep anymore, because they can no longer fathom Willy Loman. “[T]oday’s capitalists no longer share Willy’s belief that he could attain dignity through his work,” writes Siegel, “In 2012, a fight to the death for shrinking opportunities in so many realms of life renders the idea of fair competition an anachronism.” Willy’s dreams of a simple middle-class life seem pathetic, and “make him a deluded loser” by current canons.

When I read Bishop Schol’s report on General Conference, I couldn’t get Willy Loman out of my mind. The Conference had just voted to abolish the guaranteed appointment, United Methodism’s equivalent of tenure for fully-ordained pastors; its covenantal counterpoint to pastors’ agreeing to go wherever appointed; the prophetic assurance that women and minorities were given pulpits. Working among United Methodist pastors almost daily, I knew many of them were fearful General Conference would take this action. Their concern was not only the possibility of losing the guarantee, but also the emergence of the inevitably politicized structures necessary to determine who would be allowed to continue in pastoral ministry and who would not.

Bishop Schol reported his disappointment that General Conference had failed to adopt a restructuring plan for denominational boards and agencies, after expending enormous time and energy. He wisely noted that we err when we imagine that repairing structures will fix problems that are symptomatic of missional opacity and theological confusion. He went on at some length about “adaptive spiritual challenges,” regretful that General Conference had failed on a number of fronts. “A church with declining membership, worship attendance, new disciples [sic] and money should be ready to take bold steps,” he wrote. “Instead we opted for small changes or no change.”

There was no mention of the loss of the guaranteed appointment, a loss that was scarcely “no change” as far as pastors are concerned.

As an historian, I know that a document’s silence can be as instructive as its pronouncements, and the silence here is deeply saddening.

One of the running debates among scholars who study American Christianity is whether the church can stand at sufficient remove from American culture to assess itself, or is inevitably shaped by secular culture’s values and agenda and therefore risks the loss of sacred identity. When a bishop writes with evident passion about matters of denominational structure and, with some eloquence, laments his denomination’s theological superficiality, yet cannot imagine front-line pastors’ fears, perhaps he is sitting in one of those $800 seats where no one understands Willy Loman.

Perhaps the question for United Methodism ought not be whether this or that board or agency gets merged with another, but why we aren’t moved to tears at the courage and sacrifice of the pastors out there in the three-point charges, preaching faithfully in a culture increasingly content to view them as “deluded losers.”

When we cannot even imagine them, their hopes or their fears, we’re no longer standing downwind of the Tree of Life that flourishes in the New Jerusalem, but, instead, somewhere quite different. Where, I wonder?

Sometimes the Spirit speaks serendipity. It may lift us heavenward in joy, compel us to profound soul-searching or move us to tears -- tears of anger, desperation or something else. Thanks be to God.

Edgar Moore is Duke Clergy Health Initiative's director of theological education and conference relations.