I'm sitting in Albuquerque, but I've spent the morning at GA. I watched the Sunday morning service via streaming media, and the Service of the living Tradition which was actually held on Thursday night, via a media file. There are lots of workshops and a few business meetings that will keep me here this afternoon, connected to the great gathering. It's not the same as being there, but it's a lot less expensive and in many ways more comfortable. And I can get a lump in my throat as "Rank by Rank" is sung even at a distance of half a continent. Mostly, I suppose, because I have been there, many years, and that tune, even when the singers and organ are two beats out of synch, as they will be in a very large room, reminds me of years past, triumphs of my own, and the mourning of lost colleagues and mentors.
The SLT, as it is called, is the service in which new ministers are welcomed, those who attain full credentials congratulated, those retiring thanked, and those deceased are mourned. The service has been done in essentially this form for 61 years, although it's middle-aged spread has made it totally unwieldly. Nearly 100 persons traipse across a large stage and shake hands with dignitaries, while the congregation sits captive to ministerial ego and nostalgia, for a half hour of naming and shaking. Naturally in their boredom and enthusiasm for the few names they recognize, they make a ruckus and have to be repeatedly told to please hold their noise, although no one tells them why this is so important.
(This problem has been getting worse for at least 10 years. The first time it happened was at the Yale GA, a comparatively small gathering and the last non-Convention Center GA. David Pohl was calling the names that year, and finally stopped, stepped out of role, and counseled the congregation that one thing that is important in this service is the democracy and equality of ministry. All are equal here, whether popular, illustrious, successful, or not. That some are wildly applauded and others are not destroys this essential equality, so please, don't. It was a gracious speech that has stayed with me.)
Once the SLT was the Big Event at GA, but it has been eclipsed by the far more appropriate (for the venue and size of crowd) Sunday Morning worship. The SLT is increasingly a dinosaur, evoking the good old days when the SLT was held in a big church and had crowds numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands. The processionals, hand shaking, and slow pace worked when 20-30 ministers walked across the chancel. It doesn't work now. Some changes have been made in the past few years to tighten things up, but the transforming change it would take to make this ritual work for everyone is seemingly not possible. Now, there's a commentary on ministry for you!
I still got a lump in my throat, enjoyed a good sermon, saw a few great shots of our Albuquerque MRE, Eva Ceskava, who was singing in the choir, and cheered on three people who have had a relationship with my church: Jim Zacharias, honored as he formally retires, Lora Kim Joiner (wife of our intern, Meredith Garmon), who attained Final Fellowship, and Myriam Renaud (once a church member) who has attained Preliminary Fellowship.
But after two worship services, each 90 minutes long, it is time for lunch!