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Dialogue participants share views on what unites, divides the church

Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.

CONTACT: Thomas S. McAnally (Release #660) (10-21-28-30-71B){472} Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 Nov. 24, 1997

NOTE: This story may be used as a sidebar to UMNS story #659 {471}

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- First on the agenda of a dialogue on theological perspectives in the United Methodist Church here Nov. 20-21 was identification of factors that have created and preserved unity in the denomination and points of tension and difference that threaten to undermine that unity.

Points of unity, in no order of importance and with no approval by the entire group, included the following:

  • connectionalism, including itineracy, episcopacy, institutional life, conferencing and common worship resources and sacraments;
  • shared doctrinal and theological heritages;
  • loyalty to denomination;
  • personal piety and social holiness;
  • Wesleyan distinctives or emphases;
  • love of God;
  • catholic spirit;
  • evangelism and missions;
  • Bible and role of scripture;
  • inclusiveness;
  • affirmation of laity;
  • work of the Holy Spirit.

Points of disunity fell generally into categories related to the authority of scripture, essential doctrines, matters of conscience and an understanding of mission. Specific items listed, again in no order of importance, included:

  • doctrine, dogma and essentials of the faith;
  • lack of agreement about how doctrine interacts with theology;
  • different views about source of religious authority, specifically scripture;
  • how sin is understood and dealt with;
  • differences in theology;
  • scripture and biblical authority;
  • reasons given for loss in membership;
  • authority of Social Principles;
  • sexuality, including homosexuality;
  • stereotyping, misrepresentations, name-calling;
  • community vs. individual conscience as illustrated by responses to actions taken by the General Conference;
  • alienation of people who feel disenfranchised, including evangelicals and homosexual people;
  • "non-negotiable" essentials of the faith including the divinity of Jesus Christ;
  • mission and how it is done around the world;
  • role of bishops and understanding of the episcopal office;
  • language, particularly the traditional reference to the trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost);
  • relationship of church to culture;
  • role and authority of General Conference.

Several items fell in both categories of issues that unite and threaten unity. They included the relationship between personal piety and social holiness and what often is referred to as the Wesleyan quadrilateral. The latter is found in the "Our Theological Task" portion of the church's Book of Discipline. It encourages United Methodists to do theology, keeping in tension Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. The most significant issue surfaced here related to the primacy of scripture within the quadrilateral formulation.

Before the close of their first meeting, participants began to discuss what would be necessary for the unity of the church to be sustained and disunity avoided.

Suggestions from individual participants, included:

  • accountability of general agencies to General Conference;
  • accountability of bishops to support General Conference actions;
  • consensus on central doctrines of the church;
  • celebration of differences without compromising basic theological foundations;
  • openness to the Holy Spirit as old truths are formulated in new metaphors and language;
  • greater trust and mutual respect;
  • toned down rhetoric and stereotyping;
  • willingness to listen;
  • membership of General Conference related to population of church;
  • acceptance of the authority of scripture;
  • cessation of press conferences and reports that seem to take isolated occurrences and make them look like widespread happenings;
  • development of consensus on mission and work of the church as a whole;
  • genuine compassion for people who may be hurt by the positions taken by the church, specifically gay and lesbian Christians;
  • meaning of the lordship of Jesus Christ;
  • trusted, credible forum to discuss differing theological issues;
  • willingness to coexist;
  • discipleship that reflects a desire for shared standards of beliefs, not just description of some thoughts and feelings;
  • bishop and district superintendents cease punitive actions against congregations and pastors who can't, because of conscience support giving to apportionments which support some church agencies;
  • renewal of the office of bishop as crucial agent for unity of the whole church;
  • restraint in the use of inflammatory rhetoric and institutional power to silence and stigmatize individuals who disagree.

United Methodist diversity evident at first of two planned dialogues

Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.

CONTACT: Thomas S. McAnally (Release #659) (10-21-28-30-71B){471}Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 Nov. 24, 1997

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- Can theological liberals and conservatives live in the same United Methodist house?

Some of the 22 participants in an extraordinarily diverse meeting here Nov. 20-21 weren't so sure. They had difficulty even being in the presence of people with highly different world views and theological perspectives. On the other hand, one individual expressed the hope they might at least coexist under the same roof, even if in separate rooms, and that they might have an occasional meal together.

That metaphor was but one that surfaced here in the meeting sponsored by the denomination's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Financial support for this and another meeting planned for Dallas Feb. 19-20 is coming from churchwide funds administered by the denomination's General Council on Ministries.

The United Methodist Church has one of the most theologically diverse memberships of any denomination in the nation. That, for some, is a strength and asset while for others it is problematic.

Many of the individuals here are affiliated with unofficial caucuses and renewal movements on the right and left that have for decades castigated one another. That name-calling and stereotyping must stop, according to several individuals here.

The issue surfaced most dramatically on the second day when retired Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel objected to criticisms and charges against him as one of 15 bishops who signed a statement at the 1996 General Conference expressing "pain" about the church's stance on homosexuality.

Several participants had alluded to the action of the bishops as something that cannot be tolerated, even in a church that allows members to think and let think. When the bishops took the action at the Denver legislative gathering, caucuses on the left applauded and caucuses on the right urged the bishops to step down.

"It is interesting that only a couple of you have talked to me personally," Yeakel said. "You have formed an opinion about me. You have written about me. But you didn't ask me about the God I believe in." He expressed a willingness to talk about any of the issues, but not in a public forum.

That comment then prompted a lengthy discussion about whether the remainder of the meeting and the Dallas sessions should be open to observers and the news media. After reading the open-meeting policy for the church in the Book of Discipline, it finally was agreed that meetings would be open but that informal conversation between individuals would be encouraged.

The 22 members participating in the event were selected by a steering committee composed of two conservatives -- Billy Abraham of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and Maxie Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore Ky., and two liberals -- Linda Thomas, faculty member at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and Donald Messer, president of Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

Staff executive of the commission that initiated the dialogues is the Rev. Bruce Robbins of New York, one of the 22 participants. John Stephens, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who teaches mediation, is serving as facilitator for the dialogues.

Possibly the most significant breakthrough at the meeting came well into the second day when members pushed for identifying and dealing with issues that threaten the unity of the church.

With few exceptions, the group agreed with Bishop Judith Craig who described two "divergent world views, ways of coming at reality" related to God's revelation to humanity. The first, she said, believes that the "Holy Spirit's activity is such that we continue to receive new revelation of God" while the other "believes the Holy Spirit is active in helping us comprehend what has already been revealed."

People who support the first view believe "God is still unfolding truths that have not yet been disclosed and live comfortably with a wide variety of convictions," she said, while those in the second group "need to have delineated an understanding of God's intent."

Many participants agreed with Craig that this point of difference is a the center of many theological controversies in the church.

"Bishop Craig has stated the issue very clearly," said Dunnam. "It is the point that threatens to undermine the unity of the church."

While most of the discussions were polite and civil, direct confrontation did occur. One of the most outspoken proponents of a clear core of beliefs with strict limits and delineated theological boundaries was John Gardner, a layman who teaches at the University of Wisconsin.

Responding to Craig's analysis, Gardner said, "If your view prevails, a number of us will exit the church." He attacked her position as "empty pluralism" and "terribly wrong," but he later apologized publicly for the sharpness of his remarks.

The Rev. Philip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, said revelation is not revelation until it is received. "Is no new light to be shed in our age?" he asked.

During a closing evaluation, many individuals expressed appreciation for the dialogue and hope that a third session might be held if money is available. That decision was left to the steering committee. No location in Dallas for the second dialogue has been secured.

Some participants expressed joy at meeting others with whom they have long disagreed. Several said they intend to pursue private conversations with individuals in the group before the Dallas meeting. Hope was also expressed that the group could be a model for diverse theological conversations across the denomination. Ernest Swiggett, a layman from New York, shared a printed report of two congregations in his conference that had two entirely different opinions about the issue of homosexuality. Through a series of meetings and conversations the two congregations retained their same basic positions but learned to listen and respect one another, he said. Introducing that report was a quote from Methodism's founder John Wesley that may have been instructive for the gathering here: "Beware of impatience with contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see just as you see . . . "

Identified here were factors that have created and preserved unity in the United Methodist Church and points of tension, which threaten to undermine that unity. The group began to identify conditions that would be needed to satisfy unity and avoid disunity. That discussion will continue in Dallas.

Some doubt was expressed that the group would be able to fulfill the final goal of the dialogue, that of producing an advisory, action report for church members, particularly district superintendents and bishops. Even if no report is developed, some participants said the dialogues would be a success if they showed the church that people of diverse points of view could meet and disagree with respect.

It was agreed that specific issues of tension will be discussed in depth at the Dallas meeting.

When introducing themselves at the beginning of the meeting the 22 individuals carefully avoided identifying themselves with unofficial groups they support such as the Confessing Movement, Good News or Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Twenty-three people were invited to the dialogue but the Rev. Naomi Southard, a pastor from Oakland, Calif., could not attend. Despite some objection, it was agreed Southard would be invited to the Dallas meeting even though she had not been able to attend the Nashville meeting.

Participants here included four bishops, 13 clergy and five laity. Noting that no members from other countries in the United Methodist family were present, the group agreed that the focus would be on the United States but expressed hope that at some point the dialogue could be expanded.

Participants in theological dialogues

Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.

CONTACT: Thomas S. McAnally (Release #661) (10-21-28-30-71B){473} Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 Nov. 24, 1997

EDITORS NOTE: This may be used as a sidebar to UMNS #659 {471}.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- Participants in a discussion of theological differences here Nov. 20-21 and in Dallas Feb. 19-20 were chosen by a design team consisting of the Rev. Billy Abraham, professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas; the Rev. Donald E. Messer, president of Iliff School of Theology in Denver; the Rev. Maxie D. Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.; and the Rev. Linda Thomas, assistant professor of theology and anthropology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

At least six participants are identified with the Confessing Movement, an unofficial group calling the church to doctrinal conformity. Another five are longtime activists who have supported issues such as the acceptance and participation of homosexual people in the life of the church.

Other participants, in addition to the design team members, are:

  • the Rev. Bruce Robbins, New York, staff executive of the churchwide Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns;
  • Bishop Judith Craig, Ohio West Area;
  • Mary Daffin, an attorney who is a member of First United Methodist Church in Houston;
  • Bishop Marion M. Edwards, Raleigh (N.C.) Area;
  • John Gardner, a layman who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in LaCrosse;
  • the Rev. McAlister Hollins, senior pastor of Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta;
  • the Rev. Les Longden, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lansing, Mich.;
  • Bishop Richard C. Looney, South Georgia Area;
  • the Rev. Kent Millard, pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis;
  • the Rev. Joy Moore, director of women and ethnic ministries at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.;
  • Twick Morrison, Vicksburg, Miss., a laywoman active in churchwide leadership;
  • Shirley Parris, Brooklyn, N.Y., a laywoman active in churchwide leadership;
  • the Rev. Naomi P.F. Southard, pastor of United Berkeley Methodist Church in Oakland, Calif.;
  • the Rev. Gregory Stover, pastor of Sharonville United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio;
  • Ernest Swiggett, White Plains, N.Y., a layman and treasurer of the New York Annual Conference;
  • the Rev. Mark Trotter, pastor of First United Methodist Church in San Diego, Calif.;
  • the Rev. Eradio Valverde Jr., pastor of El Mesias United Methodist Church in Mission, Texas;
  • the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington;
  • retired Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel of Smithsburg, Md.

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