Prominent United Methodist polity expert Dr. Thomas E. Frank has called upon the Council of Bishops to put a stop to church trials for clergy who disobey The Book of Discipline by blessing same-sex unions. Frank would prefer to see the Bishops lead the Church in “open conversation” with the aim of preserving the unity of the Church, which he believes is in peril if the trials continue to be prosecuted. I offered a response to Dr. Frank yesterday, and since then I’ve been thinking more about the call for conversation and the deep divide over human sexuality in the UMC. Here are a couple of reasons for why I wonder whether further fruitful conversation is a real possibility.
We’ve already done it
The call for open conversation about human sexuality seems to imply that this is a new route aimed at solving our problem. However, we’ve been having this conversation for over forty years. The conversation has taken place in our local churches, on the floors of our Annual Conferences, in our seminaries, in social media, blogs, and denominational publications. At the last General Conference, Adam Hamilton, Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, and others stood and engaged in open conversation. Like previous General Conferences, the variety of perspectives were put on the table. Suggestions for compromise were made. And, in the end, the authoritative body made a decision. The decision is not satisfying to all, but it is, nevertheless, a decision. And it is a decision not made without conversation. Frankly, it’s been a very, very long conversation. Given our history, do we really think that further “open conversation” is going to produce something that four decades of dialogue has not already produced?
Conversation is for non-essentials
One of the things we’ve learned in our extended dialogue over human sexuality is that both sides take their own view to be essential to their identity as followers of Christ. Advocates of changing the UMC incompatibility language are convinced their view is the faithful view; proponents of keeping the language think their view is the faithful view. Regardless of where we stand on the issue of human sexuality, surely we can agree that the both sides think their conviction is not only right but essential. In light of that we need to understand and agree that conversation is for secondary and peripheral matters, not essentials. If both sides think their view is essential to faithful ministry, further attempts to engage in dialogue are likely to lead only to more frustration, hurt, and damage to the people and the mission of the United Methodist Church. We need to be discerning and mature enough to recognize and admit when we come to an impasse.
Not an end in itself
Finally, we need to recognize that conversation serves the purpose of finding direction and making decisions. Once we have listened to the other side and articulated our own view, it’s time to decide how to move forward. Conversation is not an end in itself. It is a tool, an instrument, a means to the end of discerning what to do next. We’ve had the conversation. Our authoritative body has made decision after decision. Some are persuaded that those decisions are wrong and unjust. So, what do we do next? Do we expect further conversation to bring real results that will satisfy all the concerned parties? Or will further conversation be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on the deep, deep wound of division in the UMC?
Let me conclude by saying that I’m all for fruitful conversation. If we can find a way to engage one another and authentically preserve the unity of the United Methodist Church, then, by all means, let’s do that. The problem is that I find it difficult to imagine both sides coming to the table and working out a mutually satisfying arrangement, because preserving authentic unity means that one side will have to yield what they take to be essential.
What do you think? Is there a way for forward for the United Methodist Church? Can we have a fruitful dialogue at this point?