Conflict mediators explore communion’s role in healing schism
April 11, 2005
|A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose
communion chalice, broken in protest of the church's stance on
homosexuality, is mended and returned to the 2004 General Conference
By Linda Green*
Tenn. (UMNS)—United Methodists must engage conflict constructively if
the church is to find peace, according to a group of people who practice
mediation and conflict resolution.
30 United Methodist mediators and other leaders met in Nashville April
5-7 to explore how holy conferencing and Holy Communion can be used in
response to talk about schism and as a way to deal with the church’s
do we become a church that becomes a beloved community?” asked the Rev.
Tom Porter, executive director of JUSTPEACE. “By dealing with
differences, learning from them, transcending them and reaching higher
an organization of practitioners of conflict resolution and mediation,
organized the Nashville meeting. The group, with headquarters in
Washington, is affiliated with the United Methodist Board of
Discipleship in Nashville.
2000, members of JUSTPEACE have been trying to help the denomination
deal with divisiveness, develop peace-builders and offer strategies for
2005 JUSTPEACE gathering included conversation in circles, sharing
stories and best practices, and tapping into the group’s collective
“The gathering of this wisdom is to work on different and better ways of
healing our brokenness, of ways of bringing people to the table for
transformation in spite of differences,” Porter said.
The Rev. Tom Porter
group explored how the church can embody Holy Communion by practicing
the ministry of reconciliation, which includes naming and addressing
conflicts and differences and offering bread to one another.
JUSTPEACE Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation,
headquartered in Washington, is a mission of the United Methodist Church
to engage conflict in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation,
resource preservation and restoration of community. It was created by
the churchwide Council on Finance and Administration in 2000 and
affirmed by the denomination in 2004, Porter said.
the context of the meeting, Porter referred to the calls for schism by
some United Methodists at the 2004 General Conference, the
denomination’s top legislative assembly. At the time, some unofficial
church advocacy groups discussed the possibility of “amicable
separation” over theological differences, but the assembly instead
adopted a unity resolution on the last day of its 2004 meeting in
meeting’s context “also comes out of the fact that we have deep
differences and we need to deal with them,” said Porter, a United
Methodist pastor from the New England Annual Conference. He told United
Methodist News Service that Holy Communion informs conflict and also
Rev. Dan Benedict, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of
Discipleship, told the gathering that the communion table is about
reconciliation and forgiveness. “Holy Communion is an enactment of an
alternate way of being in the world,” he said. JUSTPEACE is affiliated
with the Board of Discipleship.
schism talk reflects “fast-food individualism,” or contempt for the
church in which people ignore the diversity of those who make up the
assembly, he said. The church is not self-defined, but Christ
constitutes the church, he said. “The church is not something we
in church, including the United Methodist Church, hold it too tightly
and feel such a deep responsibility to manage it and get it where they
think it is supposed to be. “This is not our responsibility,” he said.
conflict must be named before peace can be attained, according to
Porter. Sacred space is created around the “table” so that differences,
issues, hurts and needs can be aired clearly and directly to overshadow
any hidden agendas, he said. “The lack of naming is in part what causes
schism,” he said. “I don’t think we have ever had the opportunity to
have the full conversation where people can really name the issues that
are between us and get below them.”
lesson from conflict transformation is that people take positions, he
said. “Positions cannot be resolved, but what you try to do is get
beneath the positions to what are the interest and needs and getting
beneath what people are responding to. At that point, we can have a
conversation that is profound and not one that assumes we are going to
agree but one where we can understand each other.”
to the schism talk at the 2004 General Conference and the subsequent
adoption of a unity document, Porter said the denomination’s communion
liturgy notes that all are one in Christ, one with each other and one in
ministry to the world. “We believe in community. We believe that we can
live with our differences.”
General Conference, the church moved from talk of schism to unity but
did not examine what was in between, he said. “How do we say to folk
that we need to talk about a lot of things in ways that are authentic
and have integrity?”
|A UMNS photo by Linda Green
Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of JUSTPEACE, speaks at a meeting on schism and conflict resolution in Nashville, Tenn.
self-oriented society is characterized by loneliness, alienation and
hostility, which are also found in the church, he said. “We are
alienated from and strangers to one another,” Goodpaster said. “Not only
do we find ourselves being parted from that prayer that Jesus uttered
about being one, we are divided in the family itself.”
Like the early church, United Methodists find themselves in a fragmented
and multicultural society that yearns for relationships, identity and
meaning, said Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, bishop of the Alabama-West
Florida Area, president of JUSTPEACE and chairperson of the Council of
Bishops’ Task Force on Unity and Bridge-building.
is not just a United Methodist concern, he said, noting that Lutherans,
Episcopalians, Baptists and others also deal with it. “We all have our
special interests and pieces of the whole that cause confusion and make
unity seem a distant dream.”
than wasting time blaming or lamenting, the church should invest time
in finding the best way to move forward, Goodpaster said. As part of
that, the symbol of the table must be carried forward because it tells
the story. The power and significance the table has for all people must
be rediscovered, he said.
bishop based his talk on the biblical David’s question of whether
anyone was left in the house of Saul to whom he could show God’s
kindness. The focal point in the story is hospitality, Goodpaster said.
David, he said, wanted to be nice and show kindness.
today’s world and in church, what passes as hospitality is a condition
called “terminal niceness,” or formalized kindness that masks what
people really think, Goodpaster said. “Hospitality is vitally important
to living out the gospel. It is much deeper. It is reaching out to those
who are marginalized or neglected. It is about inviting and including
those who have nothing and who cannot and will not return the favor next
week. It is about risking ourselves and being vulnerable to what God
might do for us.”
said that if United Methodists want to reframe the conversation,
overcome differences and be agents of grace, they must look around to
see where, how and toward whom they practice kindness and hospitality.
“We tear down the barriers and dare risk a relationship with people we
do not know or agree with,” he said. The practice of hospitality
enriches the faith and helps align Christian practice with basic values,
another round of gatherings, JUSTPEACE will offer a unity and peace
document to the Council of Bishops’ Task Force on Unity and
Bridge-building, as well as to the group’s network of practitioners and
to the church at large.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.