United Methodists need to learn how to talk about divisive issues in constructive ways that bring people together, says the director of the church’s JustPeace ministry.
For the last few years, United Methodists have been seeking ways to have debates on difficult issues without stopping dialogue on them. As the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly prepares to meet in Fort Worth, Texas, in April, bishops and other church leaders have called for a civil gathering that places more emphasis on common ministry rather than on issues such as homosexuality, which have divided previous General Conferences.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could experience holy conferencing in Fort Worth, if we could name the real issues in our church and talk about them, learn from each other and come to a better place together?" asked the Rev. Tom Porter, executive director of JustPeace.
At the risk of extending my reputation for grumpiness (h/t, ER), may I just say, rhetorically, that any sentence that begins "Wouldn't it be wonderful if . . ." just gives me hives.
[Douglas] Stone [co-author with Porter of the book Difficult Conversations] advised that delegates to General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking assembly, deal with hot-button issues by creating space for listening and inquiry, to take the role of understanding how others view issues instead of being purely an advocate.
Inquiry, he said, "is helping me understand not just what you see but why you see it that way. What goes into your point of view? What values and experiences, what assumptions, what fears, your predictions about the future, what do you care about?"
There is only one problem with this particular approach to conflict within the United Methodist Church. Conservatives are quite clear that they care about one thing, and one thing only - power. This warm and fuzzy approach to conflict only works if one's opponents deal in good faith, and we have had an entire generation's worth of experience to show us that is just not the case with the folks from Good News, The Confessing Movement, and so on. They aren't interested in coming to some kind of mutually-agreed-upon conclusion, because in reality there is no such thing. They know it, we know it, and trying to be nice - all that does is give the game away before the opening whistle.
Sorry, but I do believe that being clear about who we are as the Church, what the demands of the Gospel are - including love not being warm and fuzzy but sometimes hard, even brittle - and how we incarnate the openness of God to all creation in our lives is far more important than making sure we all get along.