James Howell: How do clergy gatherings matter?

We don't beat one another up anymore. We mostly just yawn.

Recently our church hosted a big conference for clergy, with great speakers, lots of enthusiastic buzz, warm feelings, and expressions of gratitude once it was over.  But what is the purpose of such functions?  Do they really help? Or just bolster our feelings and sense of vocation a bit?

I was left wondering this because I left the event to fly to Germany to represent the Methodists in a conversation with Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed on the Doctrine of Justification.  When I tell people (clergy or laity) of my destination and work, they gaze a bit vaguely past me in puzzlement.  We don’t care much about doctrine.  We care very much about technique:  at our clergy event, if we’d offered some handy tips on how to increase giving, attenders would have been even more giddy.  But if the event had been about the doctrine of Justification, nobody much would have come.

The cognitive dissonance on this was underlined for me in that one of our event speakers, Philip Jenkins, has a new book entitled "Jesus Wars" -- so I downloaded it into my Kindle to read on the plane.  In the 5th century, Jenkins reminds us, people travelled to big clergy events, not to be “inspired” or to bask in much-needed fellowship.  They came to do what I went to Wittenberg to do:  argue doctrine.  They even hired armed thugs, riots broke out, politicians got involved, and regular shopkeepers and laborers all over the world were abuzz over the debates.

Frankly I’m glad nobody pulled me off the train headed to Wittenberg to break my knees, but I wish doctrine mattered.  If we talk about it at all, it’s in an effort to smooth out differences, to “get along.”  I guess I wish we could get a little fighting spirit going, that your temperature might rise over something I said about Romans 7 or 1 John 2 . . . and I’d want to holler back, because saying true things about God matters.  I wish my Church people cared about either doctrinal debate, or even the clergy event!  They probably hope I had fun, and wondered why I didn’t get to the hospital that day. 

History, and the state of affairs in today’s dim ecclesiastical world, in conjunction leave me depressed.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.