A couple of weeks before United Methodists gather in Portland, Oregon for their General Conference, the highly anticipated sixth season of Game of Thrones will debut on HBO. This will be the first season to leapfrog its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire, the popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. The second promotional trailer for this season, released just a week ago, already has 14 million views.
While Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon, it is also very clearly intended for a mature audience. Even though the show’s fandom assuredly includes some Methodists, there have been moments throughout that have rightly given viewers, religious or not, pause.
Of course, the same might be said of the quadrennial meeting United Methodists call General Conference. Billed as a “global church gathering” accompanied with celebratory displays of worship and recognitions of Connectional work, this meeting of the denomination’s “top legislative body” can also be a babelesque confusion of cultures, values, and theology. The $10.5 million price tag for this church gathering, given the elusiveness of substantive results, also gives many pause.
The fantastical world presented by Game of Thrones is one where power is awarded to the most clever and ambitious; in Westeros, compassion and integrity are potential liabilities. Many first time readers/viewers are shocked when Eddard Stark, an earnest and honorable character around which much of the early story revolves, is beheaded. It is an early indication that this story is different. Game of Thrones provides a severe but strangely familiar reflection of a world where health and wealth are not often allocated to the most deserving. It is a realm without much justice, grace, or reconciliation.
On paper, or on screen, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy should bear little resemblance to the actions of any body representing Christ to the world. But as I’ve watched the show, I’ve often been reminded of our connectional struggles with each other at and around General Conference. So much–too much–of what we disagree upon is set in terms of battle against, of winners and losers. Our language preemptively accepts the proposition that we are not of one flesh, it cedes that we can cleanly win while another feels real loss or pain.
While there is a certain amount of hyperbole in much of what follows, each of these narrative parallels between this stark world of ice and fire and our work together at General Conference is also deeply troubling.
Despite its lurid sexual content, Game of Thrones earned its loyal fandom from the complexity of the world that George R. R. Martin created. Within it, most of the action takes place in Westeros, which in itself is home to seven kingdoms each with its own elaborate political and social histories. Much of the plot involves the visible power shifts initiated by the death(s) of significant players and driven by proclaimed alliances and others hidden below the surface.
In a similar fashion, while many delegates will come to General Conference with a simple goal of serving the church through thoughtful and prayerful debate of the topics before them, much of what they will be caught up in is the result of alliances formed to advance certain predetermined agendas. Just as we find in Westeros, some of these agendas and alliances are well-intentioned, and how you feel about a particular agenda likely says something about where you are aligned. Each, however, also represents the reality that we don’t function as one body, certainly not when we see the other as enemy.
Grudges held, history
I remember a conversation which took place over Twitter during the first week of General Conference 2012. In it, several individuals expressed outrage over the breaking of a communion chalice in Pittsburgh in 2004 by an individual protesting the church’s stance on human sexuality. While I could recognize the symbolic power of such an act, and how it could be divisive to some, the level of vitriol evident after 8 years called to question for me the presence of grace.
In Game of Thrones people also seem to hold onto grudges and historic slights for a long time. Whenever a character acts out in some unanticipated way, readers have come to expect that there is a narrative twist forthcoming that will explain why the character made the choice they did. For all its complexity, Game of Thrones is a strongly deterministic world where actions can often be predicted if one knows enough of the backstory.
Those comments about determinism named, there is a chaotic actor in the world of ice and fire: Magic. While many of the people of Westeros hold much skepticism toward the seemingly impotent gods that are worshipped by most, the story is also driven by the emerging presence of magical forces represented by the return of house totems like the Targaryen dragons and the dire wolves of House Stark. Melisandre, a morally ambiguous priestess of the Lord of Light, is one of the first capable of harnessing this power, though even her control is questionable.
United Methodists seem to behave as if a similar magic is afoot in the church. We act as if, despite our worst efforts, the Holy Spirit will swing in and bail us out. This way of being suggests a belief not in the God revealed in Scripture but in a magical God more fitting to Martin’s world of fantasy. If we have access to a magic that can change our Connectional fortunes, it is that word I mentioned previously: grace.
The term sexposition was coined to describe the numerous scenes in Game of Thrones where exposition occurs advancing the plot while characters are engaged in sexual acts onscreen. This tactic has been roundly criticized even by those who appreciate the show for being too heavily relied upon, unintentionally comical, and near pornographic in its deployment.
A strange variation of this phenomenon is often on display at General Conference. As we engage in conversations about human sexuality we rarely acknowledge the distinct, and potentially incongruent, cultural and theological contexts from which we speak. With this being the case, our conversations about sex rarely advance the plot in ways that satisfy any, leaving them at risk of being sadly comical and pornographic as well.
The little people get hurt
One of the riveting things about Game of Thrones is the way that protagonists that would be safe in other works of fiction are potentially endangered in this world. Major characters, kings, lords and even princesses have all met untimely ends. Still, despite a feeling that even the powerful are never quite safe, it is clear that the little people in villages and cities bear the weight of the conflict and lack agency to boot.
In a similar way, the General Conference will gather this May in Portland but it will not bear the burden of any failure alone. As the only body empowered to speak on behalf of the denomination, it has the ability to loose and bind the ministries of so many individuals and faith communities across the globe. Working well, it can direct energy to empower passion and movement in contexts as varied as the stars. Poorly, it can be a pox on all of our houses further tarnishing the United Methodist brand and forcing uniformity where God has created diversity.
With the notable exception of a storyline following the exiled Daenerys Targaryen, most of Martin’s tale is stuck in the aforementioned Westeros. However, as the accompanying map displays, this world is much bigger with Essos dwarfing Westeros in geographical size if not in narrative points. And it is hard to overlook that our glimpses of this vast continent only come as we follow a young, light skinned, female who is seeking to rescue people (white savior complex?).
The way we are introduced to Essos reminds me of how our international church is often encountered in the popular narratives surrounding General Conference. While all delegates will struggle at times to understand any practical impact some legislation will have upon their ministry settings, central conference delegates will encounter a disproportionate amount of legislation which may fit in that category. It is also unlikely that there will be adequate time to listen deeply across significant cultural and theological differences on a number of topics that will likely divide, leaving some prone to patronizing dismissal of perspectives that aren’t quickly harmonized.
Winter is Coming
A consistent thread throughout the books and television show is a sense of impending dread. This is memorialized in the words of House Stark, “Winter is Coming.” Winter is a different sort of thing in Westeros where seasons can stretch out for decades and even then, not all are created equal. From the very beginning, we are introduced to the reality of the threat of the mysterious White Walkers who are coming with winter from the far North. Those who live in Westeros, and even the fandom following along, continually lose sight of this imminent (if slowly advancing) threat.
As a church we also too easily lose sight of some very big items which threaten doom for us all. Despite all of our disagreements, you would be hard pressed to find Methodists who see our accelerating decline as long sustainable. The continued aging of our congregations as measured by death rates, the relative scarcity of younger clergy that are an essential resource toward reversing this trend, and the significant levels of deferred maintenance accumulated by many of our congregations, all demand our continued attention.
A Future Unwritten
The Game of Thrones television series was never supposed to surpass its source material. To the disappointment of many fans, author George R. R. Martin has lacked the discipline to control an ever expanding cast of characters and plot lines, or to meet any of the deadlines required to stay ahead of an annual television production. Many still hope that he’ll finally deliver the goods but as they say, the show must go on.
I’ve never really known a United Methodist Church that wasn’t fighting over its Connectional polity. I do know that I would never join a local church with members who looked and talked about each other the way people do in and around General Conference. There is something definitively unChristian about it and, frankly speaking, it is a story I’m tired of reading.
In a time where more churches are finding new vitality by learning to interpret and share the Gospel in contextually relevant ways, isn’t it strange that we fight to bind each other to our versions of ideological purity? After forty plus years of squabbling in our proverbial desert, perhaps it is time to let go of some of our own complexity and seek instead a narrative that might provide some hope or resolution.
At General Conference this year, United Methodists will have an opportunity to write a new chapter in this story we share. Is our next chapter really predetermined by what has happened before? Do we truly need another battle to advance our plot? Will we build a big wall somewhere to keep us safe from them?
Maybe these are all necessary things but if I had a vote, I’d love to see our next chapter written about grace.