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Dialogues planned on homosexuality, church unity

4/23/2001 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Tim Tanton*

CHICAGO (UMNS) - A United Methodist agency is proposing a series of dialogues on homosexuality and church unity in response to a mandate from last year's General Conference.

The dialogues will be aimed, in part, at bringing together people with different viewpoints on homosexuality, engaging them in civil conversation and exploring what their differences mean for the unity of the church. General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, issued a resolution last year calling for the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to develop the dialogues.

The commission's governing directors approved a proposal for the dialogues during their April 19-22 meeting. The proposal will go to voting directors of the General Council on Ministries (GCOM), who will be asked to approve up to $200,000 in funding for the dialogues. The GCOM directors will meet May 4-8 in Phoenix. The Commission on Christian Unity will chip in another $10,000 annually during the next four years.

"The decisions of the 2000 General Conference relating to homosexuality have resulted in a range of responses, from deep satisfaction to pain and anguish," the commission's proposal stated. "At the same time, persons of all perspectives grieve for the disunity of the church."

The commission "believes that continuing conversation is critical to the pursuit of unity," according to the statement, drafted by the agency's Task Force for Dialogue on Homosexuality and the Unity of the United Methodist Church.

The process would begin with listening sessions in each of the five U.S. jurisdictions. The task force will invite one cabinet from each jurisdiction to provide input. A group of task force members will meet with each cabinet, which will be extended to include lay people. Through the commission, the task force will also work with the denomination's Council of Bishops and GCOM to find ways to ensure central conference participation in the process.

After the cabinet sessions, four more dialogues are suggested, focusing on:
· Ecclesiology and authority. This dialogue would address questions such as "What does it mean to be the church, when we so obviously represent the brokenness of the church?" "What is unity, and what does it mean to live in unity in a denomination with a settled position?" What part does conscience have in the body of Christ, and what part does the authority of the church have? "How do we say mutually that we intend to stay together when our differently held, authentic self-understandings of the faith offend each other so deeply?" How do we keep the connection when different parts interpret [church] law and discipline so differently?"
· Ministries affirming the sacred worth of gay and lesbian people. "Can we and how can we do ministry together?" "Can we find areas of shared ministry and mission around homosexuality?" "How do we embrace homosexual persons without affirming homosexual practice?" "How do we live out the disciplinary affirmation of homosexual persons being 'of sacred worth'?"
· Youth. The task force expects that "discussion among young people will build on and reflect differences in life experiences than those in older generations."
· Ethnic minorities. This dialogue will engage key ethnic minority groups in the U.S. church, namely African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Based on the dialogues, the commission will develop resources for use in annual conferences, districts and local churches.

The proposal calls for completing the extended cabinet dialogues by the end of this year, and holding two more dialogues in 2002. The remaining two dialogues would be in 2003.

The commission's goals are to:
· Provide open space for people with different viewpoints "to learn to know each other authentically, to explore their divergent understandings through prayerful and civil dialogue, and whenever possible to experience healing and reconciliation."
· Explore underlying issues related to homosexuality and the unity of the church.
· Address wounds and anger generated by disagreements over homosexuality.
· Examine cultural particularity by providing opportunities for youth, racial ethnic communities and regions to discuss the issue among themselves.
· Encourage local dialogues within annual conferences, districts and congregations.

The United Methodist Church has wrestled with issues related to homosexuality almost since the formation of the denomination in 1968. The assembly in Cleveland was marked by protests against official church policies related to homosexuality. Delegates reaffirmed that "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth," but retained language saying the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Self-avowed practicing homosexuals are barred from the ordained ministry and clergy are prohibited from performing homosexual union ceremonies.

The Rev. Gregory Stover of Cincinnati, co-chair of the task force, told the commission that the dialogues would not resolve all of the church's problems regarding homosexuality issues.

"For me, personally, one of the values of dialogue is it keeps our relationships open rather than walking away," he said. "... Does dialogue work? Yes. We can do these processes."

Task force co-chair Janice Love of Columbia, S.C., said that while she doesn't expect resolution, she does expect "careful exchange of our authentic positions that come, really, from the depths of our faith."

"Anybody who claims the name of Christ is worthy of my attention and respect, even if I disagree with them wholeheartedly on this issue," she said.

It's important for the participants to go beyond civility and to acknowledge the Christ in one another, even if someone else "holds a point of view that you find hard to stomach," she said.

The task force expressed the hope that the Council of Bishops and GCOM would consider serving as venues for dialogue. The United Methodist Youth Organization, the Commission on Religion and Race, the Inter-ethnic Strategy Development Group and others might also be involved.

The Rev. Marianne Niesen, of Helena, Mont., asked how the commission can get the conversation as close as possible to the people in the church. "It doesn't matter how well we do this, people will not feel heard," she said. "How do we get at that? That, to me, is fundamental."

The Rev. Sudarshana Devadhar, of Baldwinsville, N.Y., said he hoped the youth dialogue would be given high priority and held early in the process. "Forty percent of the global population is under the age of 19, so we need to hear that voice very seriously," he said. "They are today's church for us. They are not the future; they are the present."

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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service

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