Church women’s forum brings basic differences to surface
Sept. 22, 2005
|A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard
People gathered for the forum sing “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” before the dialogue begins.
By Erik Alsgaard*
WASHINGTON (UMNS) — Twelve leaders in
United Methodist women’s ministry gathered on the campus of Wesley
Theological Seminary Sept. 21 to talk to one another, find common ground and discuss issues they don’t see eye to eye on.
Six were from the United Methodist
Women’s Division, part of the Board of Global Ministries and the parent
organization of United Methodist Women. Six others were from the RENEW
Network, the women’s program arm of the Good News organization, a
renewal movement that seeks to strengthen evangelicals in the church.
RENEW has been openly critical of the
Women’s Division, from publishing a white paper in 2001 titled, “Our
Basis for Concern,” to placing a press release on its Web site Sept. 21
titled, “Push an Agenda or Lift up Christ? Which is the Top Priority for
Christians?” The network claims the Women’s Division is out of step
with its membership and that it promotes a partisan political agenda
rather than sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The forum, transmitted on a Web cast by
the Board of Global Ministries, was held in the Oxnam Memorial Chapel.
It resembled a debate, with six women sitting on either side of a
central podium, a fact that both sides quickly noted and disagreed on in
their opening comments. The forum was initiated by RENEW.
Jan Love, chief executive of the Women’s
Division since 2004, said in her opening statement that the Women’s
Division was not satisfied with the format because it was not conducive
to “Christian conversation.” The Women’s Division agreed to the format
because RENEW required it, she said.
Love added that she hoped the day would serve as a model for the church of people coming together and listening to one another.
|A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard
Jan Love, chief executive of the Women’s Division, addresses the forum.
Faye Short, president of the RENEW
Network since its founding in 1989, said in her opening comments just
minutes later that she considered the forum to be “Christian
conversation, despite the format.”
Before the meeting, both sides had
submitted questions, prepared answers and chosen speakers. A question
was answered in a five-minute response, followed by three minutes for a
rebuttal and a two-minute closing response.
Each side asked four questions, covering
such topics as the authority of Scripture, appropriate social engagement
in the world, what tenets of faith are “essential,” questions of
accountability, the role of women in the church and how people view the
person of Jesus Christ.
“We’re here to address some family
business,” Love said in her opening statement. “When we leave here
today, we’ll still disagree, but I hope that we’ll find areas in common
between Women’s Division and RENEW.”
Short’s opening statement noted that
RENEW had members in every state except Hawaii and that it was formed
with a two-pronged focus: renewal and accountability.
“We hope that this forum will engender
different perspectives on social issues between the Women’s Division and
evangelical women,” she said. “We are not strangers. We are grass-roots
United Methodist women.”
In its first question, the Women’s
Division asked RENEW if “conscientious Christians working to further the
mission of Christ can have legitimate differences about matters of
Short said yes, there can be legitimate differences of interpretation, “but the basic truths of the Scriptures are settled.”
|A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard
Faye Short, leader of the RENEW Network, speaks to reporters after the forum.
The Gospel, she said, should never be
reduced to just one of social holiness. “Social holiness flows out of a
deep relationship with Jesus Christ,” she said.
Joyce Sohl, former chief executive of
Women’s Division, agreed, but quickly noted that the Gospel of Jesus
Christ “is preached not only by word but by deed.”
In her life of faith, Sohl said, her eyes
had been opened to new realities. “Jesus challenged people of his day
to think differently, to engage and act,” she said.
The next question, asked by the RENEW
Network, dealt with the authority of Scripture in “matters of faith and
practice,” and asked “what tenants of the faith (were) essential in a
cultural climate where some identify ‘conservative,’ ‘evangelical,’ and
‘fundamentalist’” as the same thing.
Love, in her response, said she
considered herself evangelical and added that members of United
Methodist Women span the spectrum of theologies. “There is room for
everyone” in UMW, she said.
Love also noted that she does not
consider Good News, RENEW or another organization, the Institute on
Religion and Democracy, to be religious extremists. Instead, she said,
these groups are self-identified as “conservative” and “orthodox.” She
wondered aloud if these labels carried with them negative connotations
of placing restrictions on a woman’s possible leadership role.
RENEW’s response was offered by Janice
Shaw Crouse, a senior fellow at the Concerned Women for America in
Washington. She said labels are an issue. “In my experience,” she added,
“so many people from the left are talking the talk but not living it.”
Crouse, from Laurel, Md., said it was
distressing for her to pin specific definitions of fundamentalism or
conservatism on groups or people.
“When people equate conservatives with fundamentalists or extremists, it shows an appalling lack of understanding,” she said.
One size for all?
The issue of only allowing United
Methodist Women units to be the “official” women’s ministry at a local
church also surfaced in the forum. The RENEW Network has sought, through
petitions at General Conference — the church’s highest legislative body
— to allow “supplemental” women’s ministry in the church.
“A one-size fits all women’s ministry is
no longer sufficient for women’s ministry today,” said Elizabeth Kittle
of RENEW, a United Methodist from Augusta, Ga. “Our petitions were
clear. Will Women’s Division release us? We ask for this at this forum.”
Sohl agreed that “one size doesn’t fit
all” in her response for the Women’s Division. She encouraged people to
look at the broad spectrum of local UMW units and see the diversity
there. “We applaud and affirm that diversity,” she said. “We were
organized by and for women, and we believe God is still calling the
women of the United Methodist Church to become a part of a mission
The Women’s Division’s social witness and
agenda came in for its share of comments. The RENEW Network asked,
“What processes are followed to ensure that the political and social
actions … represent the values and belief of a broad spectrum of United
“Jesus was not afraid to confront the
principalities and the powers of his day,” replied Genie Bank of
Lexington, Mich., a Women’s Division president from 2000 to 2004. “And
neither are we.”
Bank noted the ample variety of books
read in the UMW’s reading program, the classes offered at its Schools of
Christian Mission, the organization’s feeding and clothing ministries,
and how the Women’s Division has partnered over the years with numerous
groups on basic human and civil rights. “The world is a better place
because of United Methodist Women today,” she said.
Kittle, in the RENEW Network reply, said
she has observed partisan political advocacy from the Women’s Division,
and that has “grieved our hearts so often.” She noted that money from
Women’s Division is given to “radical organizations whose purposes many
women don’t agree with. Women would be shocked and outraged to learn” of
Katy Kiser, from Carrollton, Texas, also
spoke about the partisanship around social concerns at the Women’s
Division. “We would see more biblical views (coming out of Women’s
Division) if more evangelicals were present,” she said.
Unpacking the forum
After the forum, both Short and Love expressed feelings of satisfaction and disappointment.
“I feel good about the forum,” said Short
in an interview. “We both aired some concerns, and we both did that
well. I was disappointed with the numerous comments about the character
of the RENEW Network and that we only attack Women’s Division. We are
United Methodist women, concerned about this organization. We haven’t
resolved our differences yet.”
And future steps or forums would have to
wait, she said, until RENEW could “unpack what took place here. We’ll
look at our options and see if further conversation is possible” in the
“I feel joyful, hopeful,” Love said after
the forum. “This was a demonstration that we are one body in Jesus
Christ. We can speak to each other and try to listen to each other in
love. This could be a model for the church — can we disagree in love?”
Love also said future steps would have to
wait, and she asked: “Will we be able to recognize ourselves in how
Good News, RENEW and the IRD portray this?”
*Alsgaard is managing editor of the
UMConnection newspaper and director of communications for the
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
Two Sides Dialogue on Divisive Issues
An Open Letter to the RENEW Network
United Methodist Women