Opening worship characterized by words of diversity and call for unity

gc2016worshipUMR photo by Ben Hanne

Love Prevails offers their own alternative communion station for participants at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference.

Editor’s Note: UMR correspondent Christy Thomas is a retired United Methodist Elder and known for her Mystery Worshipper series written for the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle. Christy offers her reflections on the opening worship service. 

Portland, OR —Pentecost is May 15 this year. Those in opening worship at the 2016 General Conference experienced a touch of Pentecost as the service unfolded.

The large hall of the Oregon Convention Center is not terribly conducive to a service. It’s noisy, with challenging lighting. Even seconds before the worship service began, it is unlikely that anyone knew the beginning was imminent, other than noting that the 2:00 pm start time had arrived.

The delegates sit at tables in the center of the space, five chairs per table. Nobody has to twist to see the stage. Observers in the back of the room step up into to a bleacher-type set up furnished with chairs in tiered rows. Press and other observers have spaces at the edges, with limited site lines. Many look a bit lost, others deep in conversation.

Suddenly an image of The Rev. Laura Bartlett, Worship and Music Director for GC2016, appears on the screen. She raises her hands, wordlessly instructing all to stand. To a medley of classic hymn tunes accompanied by organ tones, bishops of the church process and take their places around the edges of the designated delegate area.

Three men using hand drums decorated with painted symbols begin a slow beat. They continue that cadence while adding a verbal chant. They segue into a drum roll and then abruptly stop.

Moments later, 92-year-old Kathryn Jones Harris, a Native American and former chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, brings greetings and implores delegates to get the blessings they had come for. She asks all to place hands on hearts and proclaim, “The Creator has a place for each one of us.”

Moments later, the screen displays about 15 scenes of people saying, “Welcome. The Peace of Christ be with you.” Each spoke in a different language, including sign-language, with each of those languages being the first tongue for some of the delegates. Another round of multi-tongued greetings followed, “We greet you in the name of Jesus Christ.”

The opening of this worship service makes one thing clear: the United Methodist Church is anything but a US-only church. It has spread worldwide. Many delegates have traveled half-way around the world to attend, to offer wisdom, and to discern together the will of God for this expansive church.

Congregants sing “Alleluia” and  “To God Be the Glory,” Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda from the North Katanga Annual Conference offers an episcopal greeting. Then words to “Holy, Holy, Holy,” appear on the screen, with each verse in a different language.

Again, this is not a US-only gathering.

The service moved rapidly forward from there as a liturgist quoted Matthew 28:16-20 in multiple languages.

Bishop Warner Brown, the outgoing president of the Council of Bishops, then arose to speak, reminding the delegates that all are called to be “United in our love for God and love for God’s people.”

A phrase permeated Bishop Brown’s message, one he learned in the Shona language of Zimbabwe: “Jesus we are here for you.”

He then traced the history of the United Methodists, noting the consistent welcoming of the outcast and the insistence on making room for the despised. He also freely acknowledged the challenging issues facing this General Conference, contending that the reason for the challenges is because the people called United Methodist care so deeply.

Suggesting that too much of church history is told by stories of splits and divisions, he said to great applause, “God has not given up on us yet.”

Brown quoted John Wesley from his sermon, Catholic Spirit, “though we cannot think alike, can we not love alike?” He called for the delegates to celebrate larger unity while holding with integrity opinions in disputed matters.

And once more, “Jesus, we are here for you, therefore, let us go . . . “

With Brown’s message concluded, the worship team lead the conference in a spoken/sung “Apostle’s Creed,” and a discussion about prayer beads and medallions. An offering was then taken, designated for two particular mission projects. The room broke into laughter when it was announced that the conference had finally entered the 21st century as offerings may now be received via SMS message.

A multi-lingual Service of Holy Communion then followed, with Bishops and Deacons spreading to multiple areas within the convention center so all could join in the holy sacrament.  Four choirs — two from the US, a Korean choir from Rome and an ensemble from Zimbabwe offered musical selections during the distribution of the elements.

As communion was being served, the advocacy group “Love Prevails” came on to the conference floor and setup their own separate “queer friendly” station for communion, flanked by banners displaying the words “Remember Me.” On their website, Love Prevails offered an explanation of the banners:

“We remember the people who have been lost to our denomination as a result of the church’s categorical discrimination against queer people,” they wrote. “We remember all who have been marginalized and violated by the church’s many acts of oppression. We also commit to Re-Membering the Body of Christ – to making whole that which has been broken and torn apart.”

The service then closed with some rousing musing, and a final benediction:  “God keep you in love with each other–people hope to be loved in Jesus name.”

With the closing of worship, The General Conference then took a break before organizing their work for the next two weeks.


I’m a retired Elder in the United Methodist Church, the place I finally discovered grace after a lifelong search. I love writing, gardening, reading, asking questions and making connections between political and religious practices.

My husband and I jointly claim eleven children (as he says, “mostly by mergers and acquisitions!”) and twelve grandchildren. In between our own travels, we love to have them and many others come and stay with us a bit. We see so much of the heavenly grace in the offering of earthly hospitality.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ 

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
2 Comment threads
4 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
6 Comment authors
Tony LanePaulRev. Susan WaltersJohnKim Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

“As communion was being served, the advocacy group “Love Prevails” came on to the conference floor and setup their own separate “queer friendly” station for communion, flanked by banners displaying the words “Remember Me.” On their website, Love Prevails offered an explanation of the banners:”

Why do this? If you want to be recognized as part of the “whole” why set yourself up individually? I’m so trying to understand but things like this make it difficult.


I agree – how are we going to move forward with separate communion tables. Nothing in our Doctrine has ever suggestion ALL WHO BELIEVE are not welcome at His table


As UMs, we practice open communion. The sacrament was established by Christ… it is Christ whom we remember and Christ alone whom we glorify when we come to the table. We don’t come to the table to remember one people over another but to acknowledge that through Christ’s self-offering God draws all nations to himself. To segregate the sacrament by self-identification as was done here is prideful and, therefore, self-serving and sinful.

Rev. Susan Walters

I completely agree, Judi.

Tony Lane
Tony Lane

Join the discussion Next time go right up to them and say, “I will stand with you so you will not have to stand alone.”


Separate communion tables reminds me of what the apostle Paul warned the early Christians: “Do not eat your own meal!”

%d bloggers like this: