The 230th Annual Session of the Eastern PA Annual Conference, meeting June 16-18, at the Lancaster Marriott Hotel and Convention Center, will have some special features, including one that will resemble the recent General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
With theme “Open Wide Your Hearts!” members will be seated at round tables throughout the session, at times facing one another, which may well enhance their worship, dialogue, fellowship and Holy Conferencing.
The opening worship service–influenced by Native American history and culture–will usher in the Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People that follows. The worship procession will begin on the convention center’s second level, before a replica of the 1936 painting “Treaty of Lancaster.”
Artist Dean Cornwell’s vivid work depicts the 1744 meeting of Iroquois Federation Indian leaders with British and American colonial officials, including Benjamin Franklin, in Lancaster. At that meeting to form an alliance, the brilliant Onondaga Chief Canassatego advised the colonists to unify themselves so they could speak with one voice. Later Franklin would share that wisdom with the American Continental Congress, urging the colonies to unite as one new nation. The U.S. Constitution is essentially based on the Iroquois model.
That starting point for the worship leaders procession may have timely significance. As they join conference members gathered on the first floor, entering to sounds of drums and singing, they will do so grateful for a tenuous unity that the General Conference preserved by a vote that forestalled the threat of denominational schism.
That vote called for the Council of Bishops to forge a “way forward” that resolves the perennial conflict over church law and doctrine pertaining to human sexuality and ministry. That topic will emerge again at this annual conference as several familiar resolutions are presented for debate and decision.
But first there will be worship, from the traditional “blessing of the grounds” by Barry Lee, to the celebration of our faith and unity in Christ through song and sermon, liturgy and Holy Communion. The Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, a member of the Seneca tribe and a long-respected voice for justice and reconciliation among United Methodists, will preach on “A New Beginning,” celebrate the Eucharist and lead the body in its Act of Repentance. On Thursday evening he will teach on “Living our Theology: No Pain, No Gain,” about racial justice from a Native American perspective and the challenges facing racial-ethnic persons and communities.
Fassett was just honored by General Conference for his work against racism and for intercultural and interfaith unity. With his leadership the 2012 General Conference observed the first Act of Repentance and called on every annual conference to do likewise. Since then, our Conference Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM) has sought to prepare us for it. That included last year’s ceremony honoring nearly 200 children who died and were buried at the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School, now the U.S. Army War College.
Continuing the conference’s focus on understanding and repenting from racism, retired United Methodist Bishop Linda Lee will lecture Friday morning on “Creating a Church for All People.” The former chairwoman of the General Commission on Religion and Race will discuss how persons, churches and institutions can open and transform organizational structures through honest, vigilant assessment and accountability.
In other worship services, resident Bishop Peggy Johnson, will preach about the vision of a multicultural church of the future during the annual Service of Ordination and Commissioning, before she consecrates the 2016 class of elders and deacons for ministry. The service will take place at historic First UMC Lancaster on Friday evening after a public procession of clergy in robes and stoles march the four blocks from the Marriott Hotel to the church.
Finally, we will welcome back Bishop Marcus Matthews, who served the Philadelphia Episcopal Area as a new bishop in 2004-2008. He will preach during the Memorial Service to honor clergy and clergy spouses who died in the past conference year.
Bishop Matthews currently leads the Washington Episcopal Area, serving the Baltimore-Washington Conference, where he will retire this year. He chairs the Northeastern Jurisdiction Vision Table, the Africa University Development Committee.
“We want to make each worship service a really meaningful experience,” said the Rev. Candy LaBar, who is coordinating worship along with the Rev. Monica Guepet and other volunteers. “The bishop has a vision of seating us at round tables, and we want to maximize that. It’s exciting.”
At the opening service, rather than having Communion typically served at various stations around the room, people will serve each other using a loaf and cup at each table. “We had to make special arrangements,” LaBar said. “So all the bread will be gluten-free and we’ll have antibacterial wipes, provided by the Conference Health & Healing Council, at each table.”
Once again, as the Conference body celebrates retiring clergy and learns about milestones in their ministry journeys, the retirees will, in turn, celebrate, and welcome with prayer shawls, new clergy to be ordained and commissioned. Meanwhile, conference members will be invited to write thank-you notes at their tables to be given to the new retirees.
And during the Memorial Service, worshipers at their tables can again participate. Up front, family members or district superintendents will come forth and pour colored sand into a large vessel as each name of a deceased clergy member or spouse is read and the bell tolls. But at the tables there will be small vessels of sand that worshipers can also pour out in small amounts to honor each name read.
Worship services at annual conferences are always profoundly stirring events in both their solemn and celebratory moments. Much of the reason is the inspirational and diverse forms of music performed. This session is likely to be no different, with traditional Native American instruments, liturgical dance and the musicianship of David Bryant, Director of Music Ministries at First UMC Phoenixville for the past decade.
“Our goal for this Annual Conference, as always, is to help our people reach more souls for Christ by opening their hearts and minds and becoming more culturally competent,” said Bishop Johnson. “It’s all about us being the beloved community and drawing more people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, while making disciples who can help transform our world.”