One of the more fruitful and provocative ideas that John Wesley had on the means of grace is the concept that he called “Christian conference.” For many Methodists who are familiar with the institution of annual conference (a part of Methodist church polity), the idea of Christian conference might sound kind of ho-hum. Many of us have experienced annual conference sessions as being as much about church business as anything else.
Wesley’s understanding of conference as a means of grace, though, is a much different thing. While the annual conference was certainly one component of what Wesley meant by “conference,” the root concept he had in mind can best be understood by the verb form of the word: “to confer.” Wesley believed that Christians coming together in relatively small, communal settings for purposes of “watching over one another in love” was a true means of grace. He also tended to use a number of terms to describe the practice: religious conversation, holiness of conversation, Christian fellowship, and–of course–Christian conference.
So yes, annual conference is one aspect of conference-as-means-of-grace. But others within early Methodist practice fit the bill as well: class meetings, bands, select societies, and even the meetings of the whole societies themselves.
I bring this up because my friend and colleague, Dr. Kevin Watson of Seattle Pacific University, has written an outstanding series of blog posts on the topic of Christian conference. He and I share an interest in how the phrase “holy conferencing” developed in recent years to describe the practice I’ve outlined above. Wesley did not, in fact, use the term “holy conferencing” (which Kevin discusses), but I find it to be a usable phrase to describe the Wesleyan concept so long as we’re clear on what we mean by it.
Here are Kevin’s recent blog posts, which I would highly recommend:
Kevin does a good job of working through both the term and concept behind it over the course of these three posts. As an historian, I believe that attending carefully to the historical and theological dynamics wrapped up in Wesley’s thought is important. That holds true for the notion of conference as a means of grace just as much as it does for any other of Wesley’s views. Kevin attends to that, but he also examines the popular idea of holy conferencing in the United Methodist Church at present, including the way in which it was employed at the General Conference of 2012. There is discord in the church right now on a number of different fronts. It is possible that true holy conferencing (as a means of grace!) could help us come through that, but we need to be clear on what holy conferencing entails and what it requires of us. Kevin addresses much of that, which I think is important.
I want to add one item to this discussion, which is a short essay I penned last fall for my own annual conference’s Task Force on Human Sexuality. I serve on that task force, and we had been discussing what it means to engage in holy conferencing when dealing with difficult doctrinal and moral issues. At the task force’s request, I prepared a paper to examine some of the dynamics of holy conferencing in Wesley’s thought. You can download that paper at this link.