From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Why should church have dialogue?

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Wed, 26 Jun 2002 14:09:05 -0500

June 26, 2002   News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville,
Tenn.  10-28-71BP{271}

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Gregory D. Stover is
available at online.

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Gregory D. Stover*

For the past two years, I have been working with the Commission on Christian
Unity and Interreligious Concerns' Task Force on Homosexuality and the Unity
of the United Methodist Church to develop dialogue across the denomination.

In the process, we have heard from a number of people with divergent and
sometimes contending views about homosexuality. Sometimes the conversation
has focused on whether we should have dialogue at all.

Advocates for giving up further dialogue about homosexuality do not fit
neatly into one theological or convictional camp.

Some, who passionately support the current position of the church's Book of
Discipline, argue that the General Conference has spoken clearly during the
last eight quadrennia, a period spanning more than 30 years. They assert
that further discussion only serves to stir up discord about a matter the
church has resolved. Now is the time to live out the stance of the Book of

Others, who ardently are working to convince United Methodists that the Book
of Discipline must change, believe that further dialogue only diverts
attention from needed actions for advocacy, and that it demeans gay and
lesbian people and delays their full inclusion.

Still others express concern that the continuing conversation about
homosexuality draws scarce resources and energy away from the true mission
of the church. There are people on all sides of the issue who are convinced
that dialogue is a clever political ploy designed to buy time for "the other
side" to get its way.

So a key question is, "Why dialogue"?

First, we need to stay in dialogue because living according to the truth and
seeking unity are both biblical mandates for the church. 

Some Christians seem to think that a biblical call to fidelity to the truth
is all that matters. Others act as if the Bible's call for unity in the
church means unity at any price. But Paul seems to find no dichotomy between
the two as he calls the Christians at Ephesus to a unity grounded in the
truth of Christ. He writes, "You were all called to travel on the same road
in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You
have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who
rules over all, works through all and is present in all. Everything you are
and think and do is permeated with Oneness ... God wants us to grow up and
know the whole truth and tell it in love - like Christ in everything."
(Ephesians 4:4-5; 15, The Message)

In The Conversation Matters, Henry Knight and Don Saliers point out that
none of us can fully mature in Jesus Christ by ourselves. We can grow up
into Christ only in conversation with other Christians who listen to us,
pray for us, challenge and correct us, and most of all love us.

This maturing kind of conversation is what true dialogue is about. Dialogue
is not about just setting aside our differences so we can all get along, or
equivocating about our convictions. I, for one, am not interested in
conversations that merely set aside important distinctions in the name of
peace and unity. Dialogue holds in tension two biblical calls: fidelity to
the truth in Christ and pursuit of unity in the church.

In dialogue, we explore what we believe, how we have come to those
understandings, and why we hold the firm convictions we do. This kind of
conversation, even with those whose convictions we may find offensive, helps
us to clarify our own understandings and challenges us to discover how we
can express and live out the teaching of Christ more fully.

Second, we need to stay in dialogue because our Christian character is
defined not just by our understanding of the truth but also by our
relationships with others - even those whose convictions may be deeply at
odds with our own. 

Simply labeling others as "homophobic" or "fundamentalist," or treating
others who claim Christ's name with scorn, falls short of the grace with
which God treats us. Basic Christian courtesy demands more. Dialogue helps
us to know others more fully - and not just from their positions on one or a
few controversial issues.

In a similar way, dialogue helps us stay in relationship with one another
across the church because it provides settings to explore controversial
issues without the pressure of having to decide. Legislative sessions at
General Conference and annual conferences are settings in which decisions
must - and will - be made. By their nature, legislative processes invite us
to choose and contend for our positions in an effort to persuade others and
win a majority vote. If we talk about difficult issues only at moments when
we are required to make decisions, wedges of anger and separation are more
easily driven into the church.

After the Council of Bishops' dialogue session on homosexuality and the
unity of the church in early May, many bishops expressed appreciation for
the civil and helpful tone of the conversation. Several commented that the
members of the full council had never before had an opportunity to talk
among themselves except in the heat of decision-making.

Dialogue cannot and should not replace needed decision-making structures and
opportunities in the church. But dialogue can supplement our times of
decision-making and allow us to develop more open relationships and deeper
understanding of those with whom we will again and again come to the table
of decision. 

In the process, we may even find common ground and uncommon community where
we at first were certain none was possible.

Some people seem to hold enormous expectations for dialogue, even hoping it
will bring us to agreement at last and save the United Methodist Church from
further division over homosexuality. I have less grandiose expectations. I
view dialogue as one helpful process along the way.

If through dialogue we can lift up truth and give honor even to those with
whom we deeply disagree; if we can allow God's grace in Jesus Christ to
manifest itself in ongoing ways in our relationships with all; if we can
keep sprinkling the debate and conversation with grace and civility; and if
the church is helped to demonstrate the character of Christ in the midst of
controversy, then dialogue will have served its purpose.

In the last analysis, we dialogue because God's Spirit baptized us into the
one Body of Christ together. When controversy threatens the unity of
Christ's body, or the ability of the church to give witness to the truth in
Christ, the time has come for more talk, not less, with God and one another.

# # #

*Stover is Cincinnati District superintendent and a member of the United
Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. This
commentary originally appeared in the West Ohio News, the newspaper of the
denomination's West Ohio Annual Conference.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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