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'In Search of Unity'

A Conversation with Recommendations for the Unity of The United Methodist Church
Dialogue on Theological Diversity within The United Methodist Church Nashville, November 20-21, 1997; Dallas, February 19-20, 1998

I. Preamble

The unity of the church is a gift of the Triune God through the working of the Holy Spirit. As such this gift is a great treasure which is intrinsically worthwhile. It also brings great benefits, not least its role to make Christ more manifest in the world (John 17). In giving us unity the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to create a disposition to seek unity. Thus we find ourselves with a common desire to be united together in truth, love, and justice, with a common affection and concern for one another, and with a steady resolve to work through those things which divide us and create dissension in our midst. These dispositions are gifts of the Holy Spirit in our midst, which we cherish and celebrate.

The gift of unity fosters our celebration of the diversity which the Holy Spirit brings into the fellowship of the church. There are differences of calling, varieties of gifts, and distinct orders of ministry. There are also differences of race, gender, temperament, opinion, and modes of thinking and operating. These contribute to the richness and manifold bounty of the people of God. They spur our creativity and praise; they challenge us to deeper reflection, action, and commitment; they are vitally important in our mission and work in the world. We cherish the diversity that belongs together in the one body of Christ.

Not only is unity a gift given to us, it is also a calling and a challenge. We yearn for the time when we are truly one in Christ so that the whole world may believe. We confess our brokenness. We often mistake uniformity for unity, and we confuse indiscriminate, theological pluralism with the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts. The unity we seek is not only to be united in name and body; it is a unity of community, of communion with one another, worshipping and proclaiming the same Jesus Christ who frees and unites us.

Pausing to think through the challenge of maintaining our unity does not prevent us from celebrating the valuable ministries that are currently being carried out by our church. 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. We trust that God’s presence through the Holy Spirit will guide us as we examine our unity and disunity.

II. Unity Gained and Sustained

The Holy Spirit works in, with, and through human actions and institutions to create and sustain unity in the body. It is through worship and the sacraments that we have most consistently experienced the Spirit’s unity. We believe that as a people we have been guided over the years in the ordering of the church’s institutional structures and decision-making. Fallible and abused as any human endeavors are, they have been means whereby the Holy Spirit has held us together and has kept us accountable to the task and challenge of unity in one body.

We have identified a host of factors, which have created and sustained unity across the years. These range all the way from our love for the church, through our system of itinerancy, and our faith in God, to our complex means of meeting in conference, our commitment to evangelism, our Wesleyan and Evangelical United Brethren heritage and our pledge to seek justice, particularly as it relates to racism, sexism, and the environment. We pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work through these means, just as we pray that the Holy Spirit will use our deliberations to be of service to the church as a whole.

III. Unity Challenged

There are many ways in which the unity of our church has come under strain over the years. Some of the factors at work are easy to identify; some are not. Some are relatively isolated and independent; others are deeply intertwined in complex and even enigmatic ways. It is useful to distinguish between three kinds of challenges to unity: 1) Some challenges are those that we associate with the human condition (the fall from original righteousness); 2) Other challenges extend from disagreements that harm the quality of our existence in a variety of ways; and 3) Yet other challenges run so deep as to harbor the danger of explicit disunity or schism.

A.  Challenges Stemming from the Fall from Original Righteousness

The most basic challenge stems from how far we have fallen from an original righteousness that was a gift from God. Continually we are inclined to do that which distances us from God and from each other. Scripture continually calls us to accountability for the way we live and act towards one another. We need to repent continually and patiently strive to implement the vision our Savior has given to us.

We can identify some of the failings we seek to correct:

  • our impatience with one another;
  • our tendency to believe rumor and innuendo;
  • our lack of love;
  • our lack of trust in God and each other;
  • our ignorance of each other’s trials and tribulations;
  • our lack of humility concerning our own knowledge and wisdom;
  • our adoption of strategies to further our particular concerns and causes in the church as a whole.


B. Challenges to the Quality of our Existence Together

There are other challenges to unity which affect the quality of our existence in disturbing ways. The list includes:

  • our inability to agree on how to relate our commitment to justice and to God’s sovereign purposes for creation to the task of making disciples.
  • a lack of agreement on the boundaries of assent and dissent;
  • a lack of trust in the general agencies of the church;
  • the politicization of our commitments, resulting in stereotyping, misunderstanding, the attribution of unworthy motives to those who do not share our judgments, and the manipulation of the courts and processes of church life to serve partisan ends;
  • a sense of alienation among various sectors of the church, both "conservative" and "liberal."

C. Challenges that Harbor the Danger of Explicit Disunity or Schism

There is no easy or fully agreed way to describe those factors which threaten explicit disunity or schism. Some think that naming them either helps bring them into existence or magnifies them. Others are convinced that we face a formidable set of problems which must be named and described as best we can. For them failure to name and describe is not just a failure of nerve; it may be an unacknowledged or deliberately concealed strategy for excluding the voice of a significant number of people. Clearly we enter troubled waters at this juncture.

We believe that we may experience substantive disagreement around a variety of theological issues: the nature of Trinitarian faith; the meaning of incarnation; and our views of the saving work of Christ, to name a few. All these arise out of differing understandings of scriptural authority and revelation. However, in this document, we have turned to the practice of homosexuality as illustrative of our divergence because it is the one most visible presenting issues in United Methodism today.

Some see the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the adoption of same sex union ceremonies akin to marriage as consistent with or commanded by the Christian faith. Others see these practices as inconsistent with the Christian faith; they involve a breach of Christian conscience and a failure to provide appropriate ministry in an area marked by sensitive pastoral challenges.

1. Different Understandings of the Authority of Scripture and Divine Revelation

These moral and theological commitments about sexuality, like many issues that divide us, are linked to deeper convictions about the warrant for Christian moral behavior. They involve the issue of the authority of scripture and divine revelation.

Those who see no barrier to full admission of homosexuals who are morally responsible and committed Christians to the church’s orders and rites believe this to be consistent with Christian teaching, or required by the love and compassion expressed by Christ in the Bible. Some believe that this is what the Word of God, or God’s definitive revelation, or what scripture supports. The precious words and actions of our Lord and Savior compel them to support these practices.

Others believe themselves to be the recipients of new and expanded revelation from God that is beyond the canon of scripture; or, they believe that the scriptures properly understood in the light of reason and experience permit homosexual practices under some circumstances.

Those who oppose the admission of homosexuals to the Church’s orders and rites believe that such a proposed practice is inconsistent with Christian teaching. They believe themselves to be either explicitly or implicitly forbidden by scripture or by the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ as reliably witnessed in scripture to accept this practice. From their point of view, to accept or condone these practices would be to undermine the authority of scripture and of Christ. It would be to reject the healing authority or the Word of God, or of God's definitive revelation, or of scripture in the church.

The aforementioned convictions about divine revelation and scripture are set in the context of beliefs about the boundaries of the church in our day.

2. Disagreement Over the Boundaries of the Church

The consensus of the Committee is that the boundaries of what is acceptable opinion within the United Methodist Church may vary depending on the issue, historical context, conviction, and the person. However, in the case of the issue of homosexuality before the church in our time, we believe the following distinction is helpful. It is one approach in describing the complexity of our differences.

There are those who in conscience can accept the continuation of divergent points of view within the church structure and those who in conscience cannot. Within each of these groups -- compatibilists and incompatibilists -- we can identify people representing perspectives which are both "more liberal" and "more conservative." In the following we will try to articulate different points of view within this delineation.

Compatibilists are convinced that the diversity of points of view can remain together within the denomination. Incompatibilists are convinced that the divergent points of view as they understand them are in such conflict that they cannot be sustained within the same denomination.

Compatibilists believe that both sides on the issues of the morality of homosexual behavior and the nature and status of divine revelation, can be held together within the same denomination. Such unity will be no easy achievement. It will require great skill, humility, and patience. In principle it can be achieved and in so far as it exists, bears witness to the diversity of the body of Christ. Compatibilists believe the church can and should live with its disagreements.

Some compatibilists on the more liberal side of the church go further. They believe that the failure to include homosexual persons in the full life of the church, including ordination, means the exclusion of many faithful members who have been for much too long oppressed by the limited interpretation of traditional church teaching and practices. For these compatibilists, liberation of the oppressed is a sign of the coming of God’s rule. They await its fuller realization in the future. Many of these compatibilists believe themselves called to exercise a prophetic and pastoral reform within the church today. In the meantime Christian love and doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church require that they work towards relevant changes in practice and church legislation. Moreover, they believe, to preach the Word of God taught and lived by Christ Jesus necessitates support of these practices. Fundamentally for them, it touches on the identity, calling, and visible manifestation of the Church of Christ Jesus. The adoption of these practices will enhance the spiritual health and future growth of the church.

Some compatibilists on the more conservative side are more cautious. While they are happy with the official position of the church, they desire to make room for those who disagree with them. They regret that the church remains divided on the morality of homosexual practices. Without abandoning hope that the church will reach agreement, and without disengaging from supporting the church’s current position, they believe that the best way forward is to agree to disagree. At this point in history they are committed to fostering mutual respect and to cultivating loyalty to the common good of the church.

They continue to be confident that the Holy Spirit will guide the church to discern God’s will on these matters of disagreement. They especially urge restraint on the part of those who hold strong views on both sides of the issues at stake. Mutual love, sustained conversation, joint service, and further study of scripture and relevant evidence, they believe, may yet provide a way forward that all can embrace with integrity. For the moment conservative compatibilists feel they can live with the potential difficulties they foresee.

Incompatibilists do not believe that these divergent judgments can be housed indefinitely within the same denomination. They believe that the church is faced with a difficult choice many will want to avoid but which cannot ultimately be ignored. The difference with the compatibilists goes beyond the issues of sexual morality and authority. In part, the difference is ecclesiological; it concerns the nature of the church as the body of Christ. At stake is a crisis of conscience about the very identity and continuity of the church. It is a question of ecclesiological integrity. Incompatibilists with completely different points of view regarding the morality of homosexual practice join together in believing that the continuation of the position opposing their own will lead to the further erosion of loyalty to the church, to the possible departure of many faithful members, and, ultimately, to the internal fracturing of the denomination. They realize that this is not always easy to grasp on the part of those who do not share their conviction; yet, unless it is acknowledged, a matter of the highest consequence is ignored.

Many incompatibilists believe that there is a limit to the amount of cognitive dissonance any group can endure on the issues of sexual morality and the nature and status of divine revelation. In this instance, the limit is breached. It is best that this judgment be openly acknowledged and worked through carefully. It is precisely in so far as this judgment is openly acknowledged that the depth of the problem of unity is uncovered and that due fairness is given to all sides of the discussion.

In addition, many incompatibilists, both liberal and conservative, believe that failure to face up to the issues constantly inhibits the freedom to practice ministry in ways which are fully consonant with their moral, theological, and pastoral convictions. This inhibition arises either because of opposition to their particular ministries or because they do not want to undermine the church’s unity.

Incompatibilists on the more liberal side believe that the exclusion of anyone from the full life of the church is completely unacceptable because it is contradictory to the gospel. For them, homosexual persons, practicing or not, are persons of sacred worth living according to the gifts and evidences of God’s grace given to them. To deny such persons a full place in the church is a violation of the holiness and catholicity of the church. For these incompatibilists, to continue to participate in such an exclusive and oppressive organization only serves to legitimate the incomplete worshipping community and perpetuate the sin of exclusion. Commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ requires active resistance and the commitment to stand prophetically against the injustices perpetuated by the institution.

Incompatibilists on the more conservative side have very different perspectives. For the United Methodist Church to accept homosexual practices either officially in its courts or unofficially by condoning widespread practice would be to forfeit its designation as a body of faithful people where the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance. For these incompatibilists their stance is a matter of conscience as formed by scripture and the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church.

Furthermore, most incompatibilists on the more conservative side believe that the classical teaching of the Christian tradition is a much-needed word of healing. It is a precious medicine that the Holy Spirit can use to transform and redeem all our sexual sins and wounds. Hence they cannot but proclaim and implement the full liberty from all sin promised in the gospel and warranted by the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

IV. Sustaining Unity and Avoiding Schism

The challenges facing the church in the preservation of unity are daunting. Our judgments, of course, are fallible; but we would not have given ourselves so thoroughly to our conversations if we felt that nothing of substance was at stake.

Foremost in the preservation of unity is the love of Jesus Christ and the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in the life of the church as a whole. To this end we urge persistent prayer, fasting, rigorous thought, and compassion through Christ-like dialogue. This is not a pious comment but a lasting judgment derived from our conviction that it is God who holds us together in the church and not we ourselves. We depend upon grace from beginning to end, in this, as in every other venture of Christian service and pilgrimage. We hold, moreover, that with grace there comes truth, love and justice, each of which is essential for unity. Further, we believe that the quest for unity will be greatly enhanced by the practice of faith, hope, and love.

We come to the task of unity with treasures brought with us from our own history as a church. We recommend the reading of the writings of John Wesley as they relate to the topic of unity. We have found the following sermons especially pertinent: On Schism, A Caution Against Bigotry, Catholic Spirit. We recommend also the exploration of the history of our tradition, as of the wider Christian tradition, for help in understanding and resolving the complex issues related to unity. We further recommend a thoughtful reading of the history of racial ethnics and women in the United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies, including the tragic Methodist schism over slavery.

Receiving and creating the unity that Christ wills for us will always be a task. Yet there are differences in the kind of challenges we face which we should observe as best we can. As already noted, there are some factors which are always with us because we are human, others which inhibit the quality of our life together in a significant way, and others which seriously threaten to undermine unity itself. We deem it especially important to focus upon actions that can be taken to preserve unity.

Proposed Action Steps

1. Since our reflection indicates diverse differences that have deep theological bases, we recommend that the Council of Bishops immediately create a Committee on Theological Dialogue. The proposal was adopted at the 1996 General Conference. [See full text of the proposal in Appendix A.] The committee would include theologians, bishops, clergy and laity.

The purpose of the committee would be to assist the Council of Bishops in finding ways of fostering doctrinal reflection and theological dialogue at all levels of The United Methodist Church, thereby helping the Church recover and update our distinctive doctrinal heritage -- catholic, evangelical, and reformed -- and thereby enabling doctrinal reinvigoration for the sake of authentic renewal, fruitful evangelism, and ecumenical dialogue.

We urge implementation of the proposal during the current quadrennium with funding requests by the Council of Bishops to the General Council on Finance and Administration and/or the General Council on Ministries. We recommend that the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns staff be available to assist the Committee on Theological Dialogue and to assist the Council of Bishops in disseminating the work of the committee.

2. Since our reflection indicates diverse differences that have deep theological bases, we request that the Council of Bishops prepare a teaching paper on the authority of scripture and the authority of divine revelation which:

a. reflects, but is not confined to, our historic Wesleyan understanding;

b. focuses on the implications of scripture and revelation for discussions of  unity/disunity in The United Methodist Church;

c. would be available for study throughout the church.

3. We request that the Commission on General Conference provide a time for open discussion in a non-legislative session of the teaching paper from the Council of Bishops.

4. We request that the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the Editorial Board of the Quarterly Review publish articles on the significance of the Trinitarian and Incarnational faith as contained in the classical creeds.

a. for the unity of the church, for understanding the classical faith of the church today.

b. for understanding the classical faith of the church today.

5. In order to model for the church our journey toward unity, we (a.) urge the Council of Bishops to conduct their own dialogue around the document coming out of this dialogue, "In Search of Unity," and that (b.) subsequent to this, they and the District Superintendents provide a forum for dialogue around "In Search of Unity" through the Annual Conference and at the local church level.

6. We recommend "Guidelines for Civility in The United Methodist Church"

a.  Respect the personhood of others, while engaging their ideas.

b.  Carefully represent the views of those with whom we are in disagreement.

c.   Be careful in defining terms, avoiding needless use of inflammatory words.

d.   Be careful in the use of generalizations; where appropriate offer specific evidence.

e.   Seek to understand the experiences out of which others have arrived at  their views. Hear the stories of others, as we share our own.

f.  Exercise care that expressions of personal offense at the differing opinion of others not be used as means of inhibiting dialogue.

g. Be a patient listener before formulating responses.

h. Be open to change in your own position and patient with the process of change in the thinking and behavior of others.

i.  Make use of facilitators and mediators where communication can be served by it.

j.  Always remember that people are defined, ultimately, by their relationship with God—not by the flaws we discover or think we discover in their views and actions.

7. We further recommend that a copy of "In Search of Unity" be sent to the Connectional Process Team for serious consideration as an important component to be included in their restructuring discussions.

8. We recommend that the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns be responsible for ensuring that the recommendations from the Dialogue of November 1997-February 1998, contained in "In Search of Unity," be brought to the attention of The United Methodist Church and its appropriate bodies.

V. Conclusion

As we conclude our dialogue, it is very evident that it is only a beginning. Our document is imperfect. It reflects the start of an open and honest conversation. This conversation must be continued. Given the reality in our church of compatibilists and incompatibilists on both liberal and conservative sides, we pray for the Holy Spirit’s leadership in the opening of doors and in the emergence of models whereby we can live as one family in the same house. Therefore, we call upon the Council of Bishops to prayerfully provide leadership in pursuing dialogue and in providing such models.

What we have offered here is a set of considered judgments concerning the unity of the United Methodist Church. We do not presume to be right. The only requests we make are that our motives to serve the church be taken seriously and that our deliberations be given the weight that truth and love require. We have had serious conversations together. We have done our best to seek God’s will, to be faithful to our convictions, and to be fair to everyone. We offer this report to the church as a whole, bearing testimony to what we have found, and trusting the Holy Spirit to use our work together for the good of all. We commend to the church the words of John Wesley, who declared that "happy" was the person "that attains the character of a peacemaker in the church of God." In his sermon On Schism of March 30, 1786, he urged:

Why should not you labour after this? Be not content not to stir up strife, but do all that in you lies to prevent or quench the very first spark of it. Indeed it is far easier to prevent the flame from breaking out than to quench it afterwards. However, be not afraid to attempt even this: the God of peace is on your side.

Dialogue Participants

1. Rev. William J. Abraham
2. Bishop Judith Craig
3. Ms. Mary Daffin
4. Rev. Maxie D. Dunnam
5. Bishop Marion M. Edwards
6. Mr. John Gardner
7. Rev. McCalister Hollins
8. Rev. Les Longden
9. Bishop Richard C. Looney
10. Rev. Donald E. Messer
11. Rev. M. Kent Millard
12. Rev. Joy Moore
13. Ms. Martha (Twick) Morrison
14. Mrs. Shirley Parris
15. Rev. Bruce W. Robbins
16. Rev. Naomi Southard
17. Rev. Greg Stover
18. Mr. Ernest Swiggett
19. Rev. Linda E. Thomas
20. Rev. Mark Trotter
21. Rev. Eradio Valverde, Jr.
22. Rev. Phil Wogaman
23. Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel


Dr. John B. Stephens

Commission Staff Support

Rev. Betty Gamble, Associate General Secretary


Committee on Theological Diversity

[This was a proposal for disciplinary change adopted by the 1996 General Conference and yet not included in the 1996 Book of Discipline.]

The Council of Bishops shall appoint a Committee on Theological Dialogue to inform the Church through the Council of Bishops on matters of doctrine and theology. The committee shall report to the council in an advisory capacity, and all decisions about the use of its work shall be made by the council.

a.) The committee shall be composed of 24 persons chosen for their competence in reflecting on the doctrine of the Church and its contemporary theological task as follows: five active bishops, five persons with a Ph.D. (or equivalent) in a theological discipline, five clergy, five laity and four at-large members. In determining the makeup of the committee the council shall take care to make it as representative as possible of the whole Church.

b.) The committee will meet twice a year, with the following responsibilities:

(1)  to assist the Council of Bishops in the tasks given to it in Paragraphs 514.2 and 527.2; and

(2)   To assist the Council of Bishops in finding ways of fostering doctrinal  reflection and theological dialogue at all levels of The United Methodist Church, thereby helping the Church recover and update our distinctived doctrinal heritage -— catholic, evangelical, and reformed -— and thereby enabling doctrinal reinvigoration for the sake of authentic renewal, fruitful evangelism, and ecumenical dialogue.

c.) The agenda of the committee will be determined by the Council of Bishops, or in absence of direction from the council, by majority vote of the committee.

d.) The committee will rely on its members for secretarial and support services. It will have no employed staff of its own.

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