The annual Bishop’s Days on the Districts are intended to enable clergy and laity to dialogue with their episcopal leader. The clergy assembling across six districts throughout October are dialoguing with each other as well.
Their topic is the 2014 book Finding Our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Church. In it nine bishops address the dispute between clergy adherence and defiance to their Book of Discipline’s prohibition against same-gender weddings.
Asked to read the book in preparation, clergy participants are seeking to reconcile conservative views about biblical and church law with the growing acceptance of marital equality for same-gender couples. Meanwhile, their lay counterparts are engaged in the same quest during their evening district meetings with the bishop.
Following worship Bishop Peggy Johnson begins each meeting by highlighting important conference news, including the recent “just resolution” of a complaint against 36 clergy who officiated a same-gender wedding last November. She then reads the Bible story of King Solomon mediating the conflict between two women who both claim to be a baby’s mother. When he threatens to sever the baby in half so the women can share it, the one who surrenders her claim to save the newborn’s life is deemed to be the real mother.
The story offers an apt metaphor for the two sides in the church’s often contentious debates over whether to sanction same-gender weddings and homosexual clergy. Many fear, and some long for, denominational schism if there is no lasting compromise that can resolve the prolonged disagreement.
To each gathering Bishop Johnson explains four options suggested in Finding Our Way for resolving these disputes:
• Enforce the Discipline to maintain order and honor clergy covenants;
• Emend the Discipline appropriately through legislation;
• Disobey the Discipline to uphold biblical precepts of unbiased love and acceptance; or
• Disarm conflicts “between personal and social holiness” and seek agreeable solutions.
Groupings of clergy in each district engage in roundtable talks about these four options for 45 minutes governed by rules of holy conferencing and mutual invitation. Each person holds an object, akin to a Native American talking stick, that empowers them to talk initially for two minutes, before inviting someone else to speak. Then there is open dialogue guided by a table facilitator to prevent the usual pitfalls that hinder honest, productive sharing by all.
At two of the initial clergy gatherings the rooms hummed with quiet, measured discourse as participants appeared to listen intently to whoever held the talking piece. Many complied with the request to write their opinions on 3-by-5 cards that were given to Bishop Johnson to read and share with her Cabinet.
By mid-October Bishop Johnson had met with four clergy assemblies in the Northeast and Northwest districts and one in the Central District. She also is sharing information with laity in each district and then responding to their questions.
Comments by some lay and clergy participants suggest displeasure with the book, which was edited by Bishop Rueben Job and Neil Alexander, head of the United Methodist Publishing House.
“It doesn’t solve anything,” complained one Northeast District laywoman who said she was “deeply disappointed” when she did not find “scriptural tenets” in the book. “Our conversations can’t be just about finding our way,” she said to the plenary lay gathering. “We need to follow God’s heart.”
In response, Bishop Johnson recommended another book, For the Sake of the Bride, by Steve Harper.
Some held out hope that compromise and the wisdom of Solomon might eventually save the denomination’s unity. But others seemed resigned to its ultimate division, seeing compromise on Scriptural views as unlikely.
“Don’t just listen to each other’s words,” pleaded the bishop before conversations commenced. “Listen to each other’s hearts.”
Several table groups of clergy appeared to take her words to heart, as they listened attentively and spoke respectfully to one another about their concerns, beliefs, principles and observations. As a result, when all is said and done, the dialogues may not change any made-up minds; but they may likely open some.
By John W. Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director