Opposing Groups Share Similar Experiences, Bishops Learn
- Opposing Groups Share Similar Experiences, Bishops Learn
Nov. 1, 2005
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
"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.
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