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Last evening I attended the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) dinner at the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodism in Roanoke. My friend the Rev. Steve Clunn, MFSA coalition coordinator, was the speaker. He and MFSA executive director Jill Warren were gracious to attend my book party for Methodism & Politics in the 20th Century in Washington, DC earlier this year. Obviously MFSA & IRD are philosophical opposites, but Steve & Jill have a friendly, winsome spirit.

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Mostly Steve reported on General Conference. “I’ve never seen progressives so happy to win so little,” he noted, citing legislative losses on homosexuality and anti-Israel divestment. He also called it the worst gathering he’s attended in terms of “divisions and adversity.” And Steve said, “I’ve never heard progressives talk about leaving as I heard at this General Conference.”

Citing a “power block” of 60 percent of the delegates, Steve recalled that for MFSA and friends it “felt like the church was slipping away,” creating a “sense of despair.” The Judicial Council’s last minute overturning of the church’s restructuring was a “breath of the Holy Spirit,” preserving agencies like the Commission on Religion & Race and the Commission on the Status & Role of Women. He also celebrated the preservation of church membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, though he didn’t mention withdrawal had passed in committee but was never allowed a vote in plenary.

Steve described the Adam Hamilton/Mike Slaughter attempt to codify disagreement about homosexuality as “coming out of the blue” and a “gift to the denomination.” But he noted similar appeals had failed at the last several General Conferences. Steve also observed that if just left to U.S. delegates, excluding internationals, the church would have accepted this appeal in 2004 or earlier. He described MFSA efforts to win friends among African delegates, having dispatched 3 persons to a pre-General Conference orientation in Harare, Zimbabwe. California pastor Richard Bentley serves as MFSA outreach coordinator to Africa. Another coordinator targets the Philippines.

After Steve spoke, Board of Church and Society Annual Conferences Coordinator Clayton Childers from the audience lamented a “church in a fear mood right now,” while thanking MFSA for its “positive spirit.” Surprisingly at the MFSA dinner I met a long-time IRD donor. He is a member at the downtown, Roanoke church where the dinner was held and was just curious.

After dinner I visited the nearby United Methodist retirement home to see my Cousin Roberta, who just turned age 100 last week. She is also a member of the church where the MFSA dinner was held, every Sunday catching the church bus dispatched to her home. A lifelong Methodist, she’s been attending church for a century. So she’s personally witnessed over 40 percent of the history of American Methodism.

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Cousin Roberta is first cousin to my great grandfather and is the last of that generation in my family. Her grandfather (my great-great-great grandfather), a judge & prominent Methodist in southwest Virginia, incredibly was born in 1820 during the presidency of James Monroe. Recalling her childhood when most Americans still lacked modern conveniences, she remembered the first time her family got an automobile, indoor plumbing, a radio and electricity.

I got a taste of old time southwest Virginia Methodism this morning at Beth-Horon United Methodist Church near Natural Bridge. In a charming 1920’s sanctuary built overlooking the James River, the pastor preached on “The Storms of Life,” based on Jesus stilling the storm while boating on the Sea of Galilee with His disciples. We sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “It Is Well with My Soul.” Then we recited the Apostles Creed and sang the Doxology. There were beautiful stained glass windows.

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As I type this account I enjoy a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from a porch in Natural Bridge, which is property Thomas Jefferson once owned and which was originally surveyed by young George Washington for Lord Fairfax. Reputedly Lord Fairfax was a friend to Methodism, or at least to his servant woman, leaving her money in his will for building a log Methodist worship house, which still stands in Ashby Gap, Virginia.

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