Opposing groups share similar experiences, bishops learn
A UMNS Report
By Victoria Rebeck*
They advocate vigorously for very different views on scriptural interpretation and, more specifically, the church's stance toward homosexuality. Yet members of the Confessing Movement and the Reconciling Ministries network share similar experiences that lead them to their perspectives, say three United Methodist bishops who attended gatherings of both groups this fall.
In early September, Bishops Sally Dyck, Scott Jones and John Schol attended the convocation of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group that advocates for full participation of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the United Methodist Church. Three weeks later, they attended the conference of the Confessing Movement, a group that promotes faithfulness to church doctrine. It also opposes the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and clergy-blessed unions of homosexuals.
"I found most compelling the stories I heard at both meetings about their deep disappointment at how the church let them down," said Dyck of the Minnesota Area. "Many expressed the deep hurt they feel at how the church did not rise to what it says it is or is supposed to be.
"Some said they believe the church did not equip them for their spiritual journeys. A person spoke of how her father, at the end of his lifetime of active church membership, did not feel assured of his salvation. Others spoke of the rejection they felt from the church they love and that nurtured their faith," she said.
"I learned that the very different opinions these two groups have on particular issues reflect some very similar concerns," said Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Area. "One of those is the Scriptures. The Confessing Movement's key emphasis is scriptural authority. Reconciling Ministries' emphasis is scriptural understanding. They are both looking at many of the same things, but through differing experiences, understandings and commitments.
"Both groups love the United Methodist Church, are deeply committed to it and want the best for it," Schol said. "That came through loud and clear. Both groups are committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ, although there are nuances on how they look at that."
The church's stands on ordination of homosexuals and unions of gay couples have become a focus of disagreement across the denomination. While the denomination's Book of Discipline describes homosexuals as people of sacred worth, it also says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. "Self-avowed practicing homosexuals" are barred from ordination, and clergy are prohibited from performing liturgical blessings of homosexuals.
Disagreement about these stands has become so polarized that it has led some to question whether the church can accommodate opposing views, and even to suggest formal division. Jones, leader of the Kansas Area, was surprised to learn by attending both meetings that not everyone highly values church unity.
At 2004 General Conference, an informal, unsigned paper circulated that proposed an approach to dividing the church. Conference delegates followed up by passing a resolution affirming the unity of the church.
Responding to the General Conference resolution, Confessing Movement members in September approved a proclamation welcoming "serious attention to the denomination's unity and the basis of that unity." Unity requires official doctrine, careful teaching of the apostolic faith by the leaders of the church and the maintaining of the Book of Discipline as a covenant of trust, the document says.
The three bishops agreed that achieving unity requires more than a resolution.
"Many are asking, can we get to unity by talking about it?" Schol said. "What is the method for getting there? Is it about shared mission: getting clear about mission, living it out and working on issues around that mission?
"Unity had always been necessary to carry out the mission," Schol said. "We needed unity and harmony in the faith community so we could model Christ to the world. Unity and harmony had not been the goal; our mission was the goal."
Simply identifying mission as the location of unity is not enough, Schol said. "I think many people in the Confessing Movement would agree that we need to be unified by common mission, but would add that there must be a common understanding of doctrine as to how we carry out that mission. And many in the Reconciling Movement would also agree that we need to be unified in mission, but if not everyone can fully participate in that mission, do we have a common mission? We are talking about the same thing - mission - but different groups look at it through different lenses."
Further, promoting unity can appear insensitive to people's deeply felt concerns. "There were people in both the Confessing Movement and Reconciling Ministries who expressed that an emphasis on unity subverts their concerns," Dyck said. "Many who are part of Reconciling Ministries believe that the unity emphasis stops us from moving forward on justice. Others believe that unity talk stops us from moving forward in doctrinal purity.
"Maybe unity should not be the focus, but mission and ministry," she said. "Sometimes unity talk emphasizes what we don't have in common rather than what we do have in common."
The heated nature of conversation around controversial issues is failing to shed light, Dyck said. She urges church members to be more judicious in how they speak - and how they listen.
"Toning down the rhetoric is key to renewing the spirit vitality of the church," Dyck said. "There is no room for calling people homophobes or damning them to hell because they hold different perspective than ourselves.
"Rather, we should seek to understand the personal journey that brings people to their perspectives," she said. "When you find out what brought people to their perspective, it helps to see what that brings to the table of the whole church. It is another piece of the answer on how we move forward."
That road forward is a demanding one, Jones said. "Strengthening the unity of the church is a difficult process and will require intentional effort and great deal of patience. It's important that we continue the dialogue among leaders of the church. And we need to include centrist groups in the dialogue."
Response to the three bishops' visiting both groups was mostly positive. The three intend to continue visiting with groups that advocate change in the United Methodist Church.
"We think this is something bishops ought to be doing," Jones said. "It is important to demonstrate our concern as bishops for the whole the church. I am deeply grateful for Bishops Schol and Dyck for making this journey with me."
*Rebeck is director of communication for the United Methodist Church's Minnesota Annual Conference.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally posted Nov. 1, 2005.