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British Methodists seek life together with ‘Contradictory Convictions’

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A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera

The Methodist Relief and Development Fund celebrates its 21st anniversary during the British Methodist Conference.
June 30, 2006

By Kathleen LaCamera*

EDINBURGH, Scotland (UMNS) — As the more than 400 representatives to the British Methodist Conference tackled high profile issues such as nuclear disarmament and the blessing of same sex relationships, they also were aware that their diverse convictions could make for contentious debate.

The June 23-29 conference marked the first time the official British Methodist policy-making body has ever been held in Scotland.

The church lives with diversity and disagreement, said Clive Marsh as he presented a report entitled "Living with Contradictory Convictions." The report was commissioned by the denomination in 2005.

“The church is the Body of Christ and carries the conflict of disagreement within it,” he said.

Reflecting on the “theological implications of being a church that has to live or contend with different and mutually contradictory convictions,” the report acknowledges that diversity and disagreement have been a catalyst for growth and new life as well as pain and division ever since the church began.

It also points to the limited understanding any one person can possess, encouraging the church to reflect long and hard on whose personal stories it listens to and how willingly it engages with diverse people and communities.

During a plenary discussion of the report, lay representative Peter Smith cautioned the conference on the dangers of simply going through the motions of listening.

“Sometimes telling the story becomes a diversion to those listening from what [those telling the story] are saying to us,” said Smith. As an openly gay man, he added, he would like be asked a question other than “how long have you been gay?” by fellow Methodists.

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A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera

British Methodist Vice President, Dudley Coates (left) and President, the Rev. Graham Carter, attend the British Methodist Conference in Edinburg, Scotland.
“We must ask how stories challenge us and our experience in the past and in the present,” Smith said. “Ask yourselves, ‘what do these stories say to me and to the church.’”

The Rev. John Walker, a clergy representative, called the report a “cool document for a cool church.”

A minister in the Stock-on-Trent area of central England, he felt the report didn’t address his “post bag in which we are dealing with the blood and guts of Methodism.”

Another clergy member from London, the Rev. Samuel McBratney, thought the report needed to go further. He said he would like to see more specific recommendations about how to go about being the Body of Christ together in the midst of profound disagreement. He also wondered why the experience of other denominations had not been included.

Conference members had the chance to test their resolve to “live with contradictions” during plenary debate over the church’s blessing of same-sex partnerships.

After several hours of debate in which personal experience, Biblical tradition, theological ambiguity and world church relations were touched on, the conference voted to accept the denial of official church blessing to same-sex couples.

The conference grappled with the role of funding in supporting the search for peace in the Middle East, noting issues of land and security still dominate relations between Israel and Palestine.

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A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera

Rabbi David Rose (from left), Professor Frank Whaling and Dr. Elizabeth Harris attend a conference interfaith event at Nicolson Square Methodist Church in Edinburgh.
During debate on peacemaking and the ethics of modern warfare representatives - which included retired and active British armed forces personnel - the conference took an official stand against replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines fleet.

Conference youth were highly visible during a session on ethical investment, particularly voicing concerns over a move to allow the Methodist Church to invest in the Nestle Corporation.

Youth President Kevin Jones said he and other young people found attempts to clean up Nestle’s corporate image by selling fairly-traded coffee unconvincing. Jones explained only 200 of the 3 million farmers providing coffee to Nestle are fair trade coffee producers.

Many churches, including British Methodist, have boycotted Nestle products in the past because the organization’s history of questionable corporate practices, including the selling of baby milk formula to mothers in areas where the safe water supply, needed to make the formula, was in question.

Despite the concerns raised, the conference voted to allow investment of church funds in Nestle citing the potential benefits for influencing change through engagement with Nestle as an investor.

Taking time out from decision-making, the representatives celebrated the 21st birthday of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund. Director Kirsty Smith thanked all present for support, which allows the fund to work with marginalized people and small groups who struggle to find assistance from big aid agencies. She then invited everyone to have a piece of birthday cake made from fairly traded chocolate.

The Rev. Graham Carter, newly appointed British Methodist president, told United Methodist News Service that he experienced a real sense of “people sharing in a journey together” at the conference.

“We have widely differing opinions,” observed Carter, “but wide difference doesn’t stop people wanting to hold together, even if you feel the ‘other side’ is wrong.”

Bishop William Oden, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops and a U.S. representative at the meeting, said he found the conference “vigorous and good humored.”

“There’s good debate. Our (U.S.) debate is not so civil,” he admitted.

Oden also said he appreciated the way British Methodism deals with unanswerable questions.  “(British Methodists are) asking if there can be a space between condemning and condoning. … There are some things for the good of the church that can’t be decided. Given time and prayer, the church can find solutions.”

American John Squares, a clergy representative to the conference who is serving a British Methodist church, wondered if the United Methodist Church is even capable of having the kind of open debate seen here.

“I like the open nature of this church,” remarked Squares. “I’m proud to be a part of this British Methodist Church.”

*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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