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Bishops plan to model relationship-building at caucus events

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Bishop Scott Jones
Aug. 31, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Victoria Rebeck*

Amid questions and protests from United Methodists and others, Bishops Sally Dyck, Scott Jones and John Schol will participate in a panel discussion at an event being held by a group that advocates the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the denomination.

The three bishops aren’t stopping there, though. A few weeks later, they will attend a conference being held by a conservative group that advocates for doctrinal precision in the United Methodist Church and opposes the ordination of homosexuals.

The first convocation, set for Sept. 2-5, is sponsored by the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group supporting the participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the church.

That annual event has stirred emotions around the denomination, in part because it’s being held at Lake Junaluska, N.C., a United Methodist facility and a bastion of the church’s largely conservative Southeastern Jurisdiction. Some United Methodists have protested the meeting being held there, and the furor has attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which has said it will picket the event.

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Bishop Sally Dyck
The second conference is the Sept. 22-24 national gathering in Cincinnati of the Confessing Movement, an unofficial United Methodist group that disagrees with the Reconciling Ministries Network.

Dyck, leader of the Minnesota Area, is attending the meetings of both of these very different groups because she believes bishops, as leaders of the whole church, have a responsibility to “do a new thing” in response to denominational conflict.

“The prophet Jeremiah says, in a time of religious and political turmoil, that God is going to do a new thing,” she said. “Building bridges across divides of opinion, through conversation and listening, is a ‘new thing,’ an alternate way to address division in our church. When there is this kind of animosity toward an event, it indicates we need to do a new thing, and that is the role of episcopal leaders.”

Bridging differences

The “Bishop’s Plenary” on Sept. 4 will begin with an address by retired Bishop Richard Wilke on the Jerusalem Council, recorded in Acts 15, and how it might serve as a model for Christian discernment and dialogue. Afterward, bishops on the panel will respond to previously submitted questions around the 2008 General Conference theme, “A Future with Hope.” The panel will comprise bishops Dyck; Jones, who leads the church’s Kansas Area; Schol, Washington (D.C.) Area; Susan Morrison, Albany (N.Y.) Area; Melvin Talbert, retired, of Nashville, Tenn.; and Minerva Carcaño, Phoenix Area.

“We will be asking these bishops questions about how we might see the United Methodist Church having a future hope,” said the Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of Reconciling Ministries. “How do the bishops see their role in these times of conflict, in finding a new way, and in being bridge builders?”

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Bishop John Schol
Dyck said a purpose of the panel discussion is to help bishops bridge their own differences.

“The Council of Bishops can more effectively enhance church unity and lead the church forward if we are able to relate and talk to each other about matters upon which we differ, such as sexuality,” she said. “Although we differ, I believe we all sense a strong mandate to provide leadership in unity as well as discipleship. And many of us have begun to establish strong bonds with each other across those divisions, bonds that I believe God will use for the good of the whole church.”

Jones will be a keynote speaker at the Confessing Movement conference. He is not a member of either the Confessing or Reconciling group, but he is attending both meetings as a member of the Council of Bishops’ Unity Task Force, formed after the 2004 General Conference—the church’s top legislative assembly. He will also attend an upcoming United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns meeting, and will convene meetings with other interest groups in the church.

“Too many people draw hard and fast lines, demonizing those who disagree with them. That is not the spirit of Christ,” Jones said. “For me to attend both meetings doesn’t mean I am in full agreement with either group, but reflects my recognition that both groups are composed of my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church, and I care about them and want to be in dialogue with them.”

The bishops believe that modeling these conversations, and meeting with United Methodist groups that have conflicting agendas, is crucial to their episcopal role.

Handling conflict

Conflicting theologies have been part of the church since the first century, the bishops noted. Yet the church rarely faces those differences in a healthy way.

“We can take three steps to deal better with conflict,” Schol said. “First, we can recognize there is ongoing conflict in the life of our denomination. Conflict often points to growth and development. Organizations that have no conflict aren’t doing anything significant.

“Second, we need to identify and develop processes that help us engage in conflict in healthy ways. Third, we must de-personalize conflict and identify what the real issues are for us and work on those real issues,” he said.

When facing conflict, “we need to take our doctrine very seriously; we need to take the authority of Scripture very seriously, and to engage in holy conferencing to discern God’s will as revealed in our doctrine and our Scripture,” Jones said.

“Unity within the life of the church is critical and important because we are the body of Christ,” Schol said. “Unity is a critical demonstration to the larger society. While we do not all think alike, we can have a unity of purpose.”

Pursuing dialogue

Dyck said she asked the Confessing Movement’s executive director, Patricia Miller, to meet with her during the conference to talk about church unity. Miller agreed to do so.

Miller said she is glad some bishops are attending both events. “It is important that the bishops know what is going on in the church.”

“However, I am disappointed that bishops would participate in the (Reconciling Ministries) event at Lake Junaluska,” Miller says. “The content of its programming is in clear violation of church doctrine and discipline, and the bishops pledge at their ordination and consecration to uphold the church doctrine and discipline.”

The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that gays are people of sacred worth but that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The book forbids the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the performance of same-sex unions in the denomination’s churches or by its ministers.

Plummer, of Reconciling Ministries, and Miller both expressed support for dialogue among differing groups such as theirs — but with qualification.

“I think there is value in dialogue if we are able to resolve differences or to come to a meeting of minds,” Miller said. “I participated in a number of such sessions, and we have not been able to do that. At times I felt we were so far apart, short of God performing a miracle, we could not make that happen. But I pray that it could occur.”

“I believe there is value in Christian conferencing that allows the Spirit to move and that is open to surprises,” Plummer said. “There is no value in dialogue with people with entrenched positions who use the dialogue to delay justice. I do believe Christian conferencing has a place if we are willing to listen to each others’ hearts.”

*Rebeck is director of communication for the United Methodist Church’s Minnesota Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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