Three Lessons About Embracing Difficult Conversations from The Methodist Church
As you may have read in the last few weeks, a deep conflict within the Methodist Church has surfaced once again. More than 750 congregations within the Church have formed the Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for the inclusion of LGBT people in a denomination that has barred them from being ordained, and from marrying a person of the same sex.
“It’s the perennial issue that will not go away, and for better or for worse, it’s the main battle flag issue between the liberal side of the Church and the conservative side of the Church,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion & Democracy, as quoted in the Religion News Service.
Understandably, this conversation has a history of being emotionally and politically fraught, disrupting conversations, gatherings, and relationships. The narrative I’ve noticed emerging from major media outlets about this movement is that it’s a sign of struggle, of irrevocable conflict, of failure. But I look at this story and I see something beyond a deeply emotional, and seemingly intractable conflict. I see resilience, a willingness to come to the table in the midst of deep differences, and an intentional approach, not only to the outcome of this critical discussion, but to how those conversations take place and how relationships can be preserved. Here are three strengths I think we should celebrate amidst this very difficult—and very public—divide.
1. A perennial conflict isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a fundamental reality of being part of any human community: there are differences we have to live with, not overcome.
The mainstream media has drawn out notes of exasperation in its coverage of this resurfacing issue. From within the U.S., where same-sex marriage is legalized and supported by the majority of the American public, the Church’s struggle is being criticized as backwards and behind the times. Research reveals, however, that almost two-thirds of church members accept homosexuality in society, simply not within the Church (i.e. would not want the Church to ordain someone who identifies as LGBTQ). Broader social acceptance of gays and lesbians in American society is complicated by the Church’s recent expansion into regions of the world where homosexuality is flatly banned.
In other words, it’s far more complicated than “liberals vs. conservatives,” as a number of factors are pulling factions of the church in different directions. That it is once again up for debateis not a sign of the Church’s failure to engage in a difficult conversation, or a sign that previous conversations have failed. There will always be differences in identity: in sexual orientation, faith, and relationship to scripture. What matters most is the community’s continued willingness to engage in these difficult conversations; to keep listening through the hard conversations.
2. How the conversation happens is just as important as the outcome.
Before diving into the specifics of the issue, the Church’s top lawmaking assembly (the Commission on the General Conference) decided to define a structure for discussing this divisive and often emotional issue. “We need to expand the ways that we can make decisions and be in conversation with each other,” said Judi Kenaston, the commission’s chair. The resulting “Group Discernment Process” called for smaller committees to meet and draft petitions to be submitted to a larger body of elected members. On Wednesday, however, that process was voted down.
While deep disagreements persist around how to even have this conversation, at least the “how” is being broached with intentionality and transparency. That’s not the case for so many divisive community issues. So it seems the Methodist Church acknowledges something critically important: no constructive conversation can proceed without an effective process in place.
3. “Togetherness” isn’t a monolith, and it doesn’t mean consensus.
In such a divided environment, talk of schism or splintering has inevitably arisen. Prominent leaders in the Church have openly admitted that it’s a possible outcome, especially in the midst of such a polarized age, when the “nation’s third-largest denomination and many of the political and theological divisions that divide America into its red and blue camps.” Those same leaders, and many more, are also exploring the nuances of what “unity” means and are unwilling to prematurely name the future of the Church. Said the president of the Methodist Council of Bishops, “we remain open to new and innovative ways to be in unity. We will remain in dialogue with one another and others about how God may be leading us to explore new beginnings, new expressions, perhaps even new structures for our United Methodist mission and witness.” So what we have here is messy. It’s the hard, raw stuff of deep differences and human pain. But it’s worth noticing when public conflicts are handled with resilience and curiosity instead of posturing and accusation. This is a community struggling to remain intact and understand exactly what that means, how to reconcile individual beliefs with a community’s story. Let’s not shame them; let’s name what they’re doing right.