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Dialogue on Theological Diversity

Report on the Theological Dialogues - Dallas

by Les Longden, Chair,
Theological Commission of  The Confessing Movement
23 Feb. 1998


Many thanks to all those who were in prayer for the second half of the Dialogue on Theological Diversity in The UMC held in Dallas, Feb. 19, 20, 1998. The results were much more positive than expected, although no one should think that suddenly all our problems in the church have been solved. Let me share a few highlights here, and then urge you to be in prayer for what follows.

The final draft of the document will be completed in the next few weeks by the Design Team (made up of Don Messer, Linda Thomas, Billie Abraham, and Maxie Dunnam). There was virtually unanimous consensus among the participants that the Design Team would complete all the revisions made by the group and that no changes would be made that did not have the consensus of the Design team.

In the meantime there are concrete proposals already agreed upon by all those who participated. The document has, as its working title, "In Search of Unity." It acknowledges that unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit and that it is also a "calling and a challenge." The participants agreed together that there are threats to our unity and that there are some incompatible differences among us that must be named and addressed. As the  draft document states it: "We confess our brokenness. We often mistake uniformity for unity and confuse indiscriminate pluralism with the diversity of the Spirit's gifts."

The Dialogue partners agreed that many valuable ministries already exist within our church. As the draft document puts it: "There are a myriad of ministries which give us great joy.... We believe that unity fuels these ministries with greater energy and zeal; disunity puts them at risk and draws away vital resources, commitment, and dynamism."

The most serious challenges to unity that were identified by the Dialogue have to do with "different understandings of the authority of Scripture and the authority of revelation [and] the boundaries of the church" and that out of these disagreements arise the controversies over volatile issues like the place of homosexuality in the church's moral teaching and practice. The document tries to state clearly the fact of such differences within our church, realizing that for too long we have been arguing about whether or not these differences can be named instead of actually dealing with them.

The concrete proposals for action which have come out of the Dialogue include the following:

  1. A recommendation to the Council of Bishops that they create a Committee on Theological Dialogue which would include theologians, bishops, clergy and laity. It's purpose would be to foster doctrinal reflection and theological dialogue at all levels of the church and encourage the recovery of our church's distinctive doctrinal heritage. (This actually builds upon a proposal that was passed but not funded by the 1996 General Conference.)
  2. A recommendation that the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (which sponsored this dialogue) be responsible for bringing the dialogue document and its recommendations before the UMC and its appropriate bodies.
  3. A recommendation that the Council of Bishops prepare a teaching paper on the authority of Scripture and divine revelation which would be available throughout the UMC.
  4. A recommendation that the Board of Higher Education and Ministry encourage the publication of articles which explore the significance of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation for the unity and identity of the church today.
  5. A recommendation that the Council of Bishops pursue their own dialogue around the document "In Search of Unity" and following that, work with District Superintendents to lead their Annual Conferences and local gatherings of their churches in forums based on "In Search of Unity."
  6. A recommended list of guidelines for civil discourse within The UMC.

These are just beginning steps, and it will take some time for all this to make an impact. There will, of course, be all the spins on the Dialogue which we will hear in the press. I ask that all those who pray for the unity of our church be prepared to think past the press reports toward a new time of honesty in searching for the renewal of our church.


Note about the author:
  • Meeting in Memphis Jan. 3, the board of the Confessing Movement appointed a Theological Commission to "reaffirm Wesleyan theology as established in the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church."
  • The Rev. Leicester Longden, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lansing, Mich., was elected chairman of the commission.

Biographical Information

    Dr. Les Longden (Leicester R. Longden) is a:

  • Elder in W. Michigan Annual Conference
  • Graduate of Union Theological Seminary (New York) , B.D.
  • Graduate of Drew Graduate School, Ph.D. (historical theology)
  • John Wesley Fellow
  • Sr. Pastor of Trinity UMC in Lansing, MI
  • Serves on Board of Directors of The Confessing Movement
  • Chair of the Theological Commission of The Confessing Movement

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