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Dialogues on theological diversity end, search for unity continues by Tom McAnally, DALLAS (UMNS)

Feb. 23, 1998 NOTE: A full text of the "In Search of Unity" document mentioned in the following story will be released by United Methodist News Service as soon as it is available from the steering committee, probably March 2. Check our World Wide Web page: http://umns.umc.org.html


Participants in the second and final United Methodist dialogue on theological diversity closed their two-day sessions here Feb. 20 with a prayer for "the opening of doors and the emergence of models whereby all of us can live as a family in the same house."

The 23 participants worked on "In Search of Unity," a document of about a dozen pages, which is being edited by a steering committee and will be released about March 2 (see separate story). In their document, the participants describe the two dialogues as only a beginning, and they call on the Council of Bishops to lead the way for continued conversations at every level across the denomination. The first dialogue with the same equal number of  participants from both liberal and conservative wings of the church was held in Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 20-21. The two events were sponsored by the denomination's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, with funds provided by the General Council on Ministries.

In addition to the "In Search of Unity" document, the group proposed that:

  • the Council of Bishops create a 24-member Committee on Theological Dialogue to help the council foster "doctrinal reflection and theological dialogue";
  • the Commission on Christian Unity help the council with staffing and ensure that recommendations from the two recent dialogues be brought to the attention of appropriate bodies within the church;
  • the Council of Bishops conduct its own dialogues "in order to model for the church our journey toward unity," and that subsequently the bishops and district superintendents provide a forum for dialogue throughout each annual (regional) conference and at the local church level;
  • the Council of Bishops prepare a teaching paper on the authority of scripture and the authority of divine revelation for study throughout the church;
  • time in a non-legislative session be provided at the 2000 General Conference for discussion or "holy conferencing," using a teaching document produced by the bishops;
  • the editorial board of Quarterly Review, produced by the church's Board of Higher Education and Ministry, consider publishing articles to promote unity and to help individuals understand the "classical faith of the church."

In addition, the dialogue participants produced "Ten Guidelines for Civility in the United Methodist Church" for use when discussing theological diversity (see separate story).

For its proposed Committee on Theological Dialogue, participants here resurrected a petition approved in the final hours of the 1996 General Conference but deleted from legislation because funding was not provided.

If the original legislation is followed, the 24-member committee would include five active bishops, five people with doctorates in a theological discipline, five clergy, five laity, and four members at large. The group would meet twice a year to assist the Council of Bishops "in finding ways of fostering doctrinal reflection and theological dialogue at all levels . . . thereby helping the church recover and update our distinctive doctrinal heritage . . . and enabling doctrinal reinvigoration for the sake of authentic renewal, fruitful evangelism and ecumenical dialogue."

The design team directing the dialogues includes the Rev. Donald E. Messer, president of Iliff School of Theology in Denver; the Rev. Billy Abraham, professor of Wesley studies at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; the Rev. Linda Thomas, assistant professor of theology and anthropology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.; and the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Messer and Abraham are co-authors of Unity, Liberty and Charity: Building Bridges Under Icy Waters, a book that deals with theological diversity in the United Methodist Church.

At least six participants in the dialogue 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.

Four bishops have also participated: Judith Craig of the church's Ohio West Area; Marion M. Edwards, Raleigh (N.C.) Area; Richard C. Looney, South Georgia Area; and Joseph H. Yeakel, retired, Smithsburg, Md.

At the close of the dialogue here, each participant gave a positive evaluation. At the same time, it was clear participants were no closer to agreement on substantive matters than when they started. "The experience has been positive," said the Rev. Eradio Valverde Jr., a pastor from Mission, Texas. "This is a big house with many rooms called the United Methodist Church."

Steering committee Messer said some had worried that the dialogues might exacerbate differences. "That hasn't been true," he said.

The imagery of liberals and conservatives trying to live in the same house, used frequently at the Nashville meeting, continued here.

For some, it was likened to the biblical reference of "in my Father's house there are many mansions." But for others, it was compared to an unwanted guest who came into the house and stayed.

The Rev. Joy Moore, director of women and ethnic ministries at Asbury Theological Seminary, said United Methodists have been given a house from generations past, a house they have come to like.  "We've opened it to everybody," she said. "One of our neighbors came and chose to stay . . . we spent a lot of time cleaning up their mess. They don't follow the same rules we do . . . they have changed their address to our house."

As a result of these unwanted guests, Moore said many United Methodists don't want to live there anymore. She said many members are leaving the denomination because, like the house, "the people living there don't represent who the church used to be." The Rev. McCalister Hollins, a pastor in Atlanta, agreed and disagreed with the metaphor.

"It's God's house, not our house," he said. "Everybody in it is messy. All of us are saved by the grace of God."  On the other hand, he said determining house rules are important so "we can determine what God's house is going to look like."

In what he called "musings", Looney pointed to reformed and orthodox Jewish groups and wondered aloud if United Methodists might become a common stream with "branches that recognize and respect one another." Emphasizing that he is not recommending dividing the church, Looney asked, "Can we recognize differences and try not to fight for control?" He expressed regret that tensions within the church are preventing it from doing God's work.

The Rev. Kent Millard, a pastor in Indianapolis, warned against collapsing the poles too quickly. "It is important for us to live with the tension. God didn't put us together by accident." If there is a quick "divorce," he said, "we would fail to learn what God is trying to teach us."

In a society that is polarized, Millard said, "we should model how people can live together in the same house, who think radically different but who live with the creative tension."

The possibility of a third dialogue, suggested at the first meeting in Nashville, was eliminated when the steering committee surveyed the participants and found that a significant majority could not meet at the same time during the remainder of 1998. A 1999 gathering would be too much of a distance from the Dallas meeting, said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, New York, staff executive for the Commission on Christian Unity.


McAnally is director of United Methodist News Service, headquartered in Nashville and with offices also in New York and Washington, D.C. United Methodist News Service (615)742-5470 Releases and photos also available at http://umns.umc.org/


United Methodist dialogue participants suggest 'guidelines for civility' in church

by Thomas S. McAnally,Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 23, 1998


DALLAS (UMNS) -- Ten "Guidelines for Civility in the United Methodist Church" were developed by participants in two theological dialogues that ended here on Feb. 20:

  1. Respect the personhood of others, while engaging their ideas.
  2. Carefully represent the views of those with whom we are in disagreement.
  3. Be careful in defining terms, avoiding needless use of inflammatory words.
  4. Be careful in the use of generalizations; where appropriate, offer specific evidence.
  5. Seek to understand the experiences out of which others have arrived at their views. Hear the stories of others, as we share our own.
  6. Exercise care that expressions of personal offense at the differing opinions of others not be used as a means of inhibiting dialogue.
  7. Be a patient listener before formulating responses.
  8. Be open to change in your own position and patient with the process of change in the thinking and behavior of others.
  9. Make use of facilitators and mediators where communication can be served by it.
  10. 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.

United Methodist News Service (615)742-5470 Releases and photos also available at http://umns.umc.org/


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