With all the internal disagreements and controversies in the United Methodist Church, particularly over sexual morality, the reflexive response of many denominational leaders is “Let’s have a dialogue!”
The portion of the recent North Central Jurisdictional gathering led by the Connectional Table (CT) of the United Methodist Church, on which I reported earlier, embodies one common type of the sort of dead-end dialogue already tried many times in our United Methodist Church at the denomination-wide and annual-conference level in the United States: Advance the Liberal Agenda under the Pretense of Dialogue.
Here’s the cookie-cutter pattern of how it works:
Organizers insist it is so important for us to dialogue about sexuality and listen to each other. But they take care to prevent key traditionalist concerns and ideas from being allowed into the discussion, and to structure the event to marginalize and/or outnumber traditionalist voices. Organizers of such “dialogues” show little interest in truly listening to more orthodox believers (let alone to Scripture or 2,000 years of consistent church tradition). But all the evidence points to them using the pretense of “dialogue” to seek to badger, pester, and pressure, if not persuade, orthodox believers into allowing the liberal agenda to move forward. More honest organizers of such dialogues rather openly acknowledge this goal.
And even with such blatant bias and pandering, this will never be enough for liberal activists. This was especially seen in May 2014 when an activist from Amy DeLong’s “Love Prevails” group accused the CT of committing “violence” in its liberal-weighted dialogue panel, for allowing a single panelist to very mildly suggest that maybe the Love Prevails agenda is wrong. And so the majority of CT members subsequently fell over themselves to try to atone for this alleged offense.
Obviously, this variety of “dialogue” favored by the CT and others is a major step down from the Fairly and Equally Represent Both Sides model of dialogue. But church-sponsored events giving equal opportunity to promote the church’s historic, biblical teaching and contrary secular Western teaching are also very problematic.
Imagine a professedly Christian church giving “equal time” in teaching the pros and cons of believing in the Trinity. Or a business spending just as much money running ads promoting its competitors as promoting itself. Or the National Association to End Racism devoting an equal amount of its programming to opposing and promoting racism. Or a school devoting equal resources to education and to promoting illiteracy. Or the Democratic Party devoting equal effort to supporting Republican and Democratic candidates.
When any church or any other organization acts like this, it has clearly lost sight of its basic mission.
A third kind of dialogue could be called the Can’t We All Just Get Along model, which has also been tried at different times in our denomination. For example, a couple of years ago, the United Methodist Association of Communicators (UMAC), a professional association for annual conference newsletter editors, hosted a sexuality dialogue with the Rev. Tom Lambrecht of the Good News caucus and Matt Berryman of the aforementioned RMN. That dialogue was set up not as a format for scoring points, or for debating which side was wrong, but rather to help the assembled communicators better understand and represent each side. It was moderated by the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS).
Both Tom and Matt kept their interactions calm and civil. But then during the Q&A time, a senior GBCS staffer arose to use a rather loud and angry voice to denounce Tom’s criticism of covenant-breaking liberal clergy. Even some liberals in the room were taken aback by the GBCS representative’s injecting such divisive hostility into this GBCS-moderated event.
There are limits to how well such dialogues can go when the GBCS staffers and caucus activists in the room (is there a difference?) cannot be trusted to behave within even the most basic boundaries of respect.
Of course, with all the talk about and failed attempts at dialogue over sexuality, there is one sort of dialogue that our United Methodist Council of Bishops, CT, and denominational agencies apparently dare not try: Teach the Faith.
Here’s how it could work: the Council of Bishops, the CT, and general agencies would assemble a panel of some of our church’s brightest and most articulate theological voices to all explain and defend our church’s historic, biblical teaching on marriage and sex. Recognizing that some people have different opinions, there could be a controlled time to address questions, particularly from those individuals who are humble and open-minded enough to be potentially willing to learn something from our church’s faith. The panelists would respond with grace as well as clarity, maintaining a firm commitment to helping people understand the life-giving value of relevant biblical and historic Christian teachings.
Since this model of dialogue appears to be unknown in much of our denominational hierarchy, our bishops and general agency officials could first take lessons from effective, growing United Methodist congregations that have some better experience and understanding of this model.
Now THAT would truly be “A Way Forward” for our United Methodist Church!