Wednesday, June 26, 2002
Commentary: Why Should Cchurch Have dialogue?
A UMNS Commentary by the Rev. Gregory D. Stover*
For the past two years, I have been working with the Commission on
Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns' Task Force on
Homosexuality and the Unity of the United Methodist Church to develop
dialogue across the denomination.
In the process, we have heard from a number of people with divergent
and sometimes contending views about homosexuality. Sometimes the
conversation has focused on whether we should have dialogue at all.
Advocates for giving up further dialogue about homosexuality do not
fit neatly into one theological or convictional camp.
Some, who passionately support the current position of the church's
Book of Discipline, argue that the General Conference has spoken
clearly during the last eight quadrennia, a period spanning more than
30 years. They assert that further discussion only serves to stir up
discord about a matter the church has resolved. Now is the time to
live out the stance of the Book of Discipline.
Others, who ardently are working to convince United Methodists that
the Book of Discipline must change, believe that further dialogue
only diverts attention from needed actions for advocacy, and that it
demeans gay and lesbian people and delays their full inclusion.
Still others express concern that the continuing conversation about
homosexuality draws scarce resources and energy away from the true
mission of the church. There are people on all sides of the issue who
are convinced that dialogue is a clever political ploy designed to
buy time for "the other side" to get its way.
So a key question is, "Why dialogue"?
First, we need to stay in dialogue because living according to the
truth and seeking unity are both biblical mandates for the church.
Some Christians seem to think that a biblical call to fidelity to the
truth is all that matters. Others act as if the Bible's call for
unity in the church means unity at any price. But Paul seems to find
no dichotomy between the two as he calls the Christians at Ephesus to
a unity grounded in the truth of Christ. He writes, "You were all
called to travel on the same road in the same direction, so stay
together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one
faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all,
works through all and is present in all. Everything you are and think
and do is permeated with Oneness ... God wants us to grow up and know
the whole truth and tell it in love � like Christ in everything."
(Ephesians 4:4-5; 15, The Message)
In The Conversation Matters, Henry Knight and Don Saliers point out
that none of us can fully mature in Jesus Christ by ourselves. We can
grow up into Christ only in conversation with other Christians who
listen to us, pray for us, challenge and correct us, and most of all
This maturing kind of conversation is what true dialogue is about.
Dialogue is not about just setting aside our differences so we can
all get along, or equivocating about our convictions. I, for one, am
not interested in conversations that merely set aside important
distinctions in the name of peace and unity. Dialogue holds in
tension two biblical calls: fidelity to the truth in Christ and
pursuit of unity in the church.
In dialogue, we explore what we believe, how we have come to those
understandings, and why we hold the firm convictions we do. This kind
of conversation, even with those whose convictions we may find
offensive, helps us to clarify our own understandings and challenges
us to discover how we can express and live out the teaching of Christ
Second, we need to stay in dialogue because our Christian character
is defined not just by our understanding of the truth but also by our
relationships with others � even those whose convictions may be
deeply at odds with our own.
Simply labeling others as "homophobic" or "fundamentalist," or
treating others who claim Christ's name with scorn, falls short of
the grace with which God treats us. Basic Christian courtesy demands
more. Dialogue helps us to know others more fully � and not just from
their positions on one or a few controversial issues.
In a similar way, dialogue helps us stay in relationship with one
another across the church because it provides settings to explore
controversial issues without the pressure of having to decide.
Legislative sessions at General Conference and annual conferences are
settings in which decisions must � and will � be made. By their
nature, legislative processes invite us to choose and contend for our
positions in an effort to persuade others and win a majority vote. If
we talk about difficult issues only at moments when we are required
to make decisions, wedges of anger and separation are more easily
driven into the church.
After the Council of Bishops' dialogue session on homosexuality and
the unity of the church in early May, many bishops expressed
appreciation for the civil and helpful tone of the conversation.
Several commented that the members of the full council had never
before had an opportunity to talk among themselves except in the heat
Dialogue cannot and should not replace needed decision-making
structures and opportunities in the church. But dialogue can
supplement our times of decision-making and allow us to develop more
open relationships and deeper understanding of those with whom we
will again and again come to the table of decision.
In the process, we may even find common ground and uncommon community
where we at first were certain none was possible.
Some people seem to hold enormous expectations for dialogue, even
hoping it will bring us to agreement at last and save the United
Methodist Church from further division over homosexuality. I have
less grandiose expectations. I view dialogue as one helpful process
along the way.
If through dialogue we can lift up truth and give honor even to those
with whom we deeply disagree; if we can allow God's grace in Jesus
Christ to manifest itself in ongoing ways in our relationships with
all; if we can keep sprinkling the debate and conversation with grace
and civility; and if the church is helped to demonstrate the
character of Christ in the midst of controversy, then dialogue will
have served its purpose.
In the last analysis, we dialogue because God's Spirit baptized us
into the one Body of Christ together. When controversy threatens the
unity of Christ's body, or the ability of the church to give witness
to the truth in Christ, the time has come for more talk, not less,
with God and one another.
*Stover is Cincinnati District superintendent and a member of the
United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious
Concerns. This commentary originally appeared in the West Ohio News,
the newspaper of the denomination's West Ohio Annual Conference.
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not
necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United
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