A Conversation in the Midst of Conflict

As many of you know, my denomination, the United Methodist Church, recently held a special General Conference to try to find a way to enable its far-flung membership in the North Atlantic, Africa, and the Philippines to live in the same church connection in spite of their deep differences over the full inclusion of people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.

You may also know that the Conference failed in that effort, tightening its restrictions and setting up the conditions for major splintering of an organizational form last re-shaped in 1968.

As a prelude to that Conference, my own congregation fostered a month of conversations at round tables using a circle conversation format to help people “listen with love” across differences about these sensitive issues. No matter what happened at the General Conference we wanted to be prepared to live and work together as a church seeking full inclusion of people.

As part of that program I spent two evenings in a public conversation with my dear friend Wilson Strickhausen exploring these issues from very different vantage points rooted in our very different biographies. While we have been in this kind of conversation for some years, we hoped that it might offer people a model for deepening mutual understanding among our fellow Methodists.

The 30-minute conversations were recorded and are available to view on YouTube. The first conversation focused on how our very different backgrounds have shaped the way we approach these matters. In the second conversation we took up questions about Biblical teachings submitted to us by the some 200 people participating in this series. (Click the highlighted segments in this paragraph to see them.)

It is too early to discern the outcomes of this traumatic General Conference, in which people who had prayed and worshipped together ended up deeply hurting one another, subjecting Christ’s Body once again to the trauma of our alienations. Some major structural changes will probably result in order to enable people nurtured in the Methodist tradition to work on common projects and respect very different approaches to the status and role of sexual minorities in the church and society.

Two things have struck me in these recent debates. First has to do with the role of circle conversation in dealing with social conflict. Over the past 25 years circle conversations have become for me a kind of sacrament in which the spirit of reconciliation can find a purchase in our daily relationships.

It is a practice of mutual respect, affirmation of equality, articulation of deep understandings and hopes — the indispensable ground for just and lasting covenants of restoration. That is, it is a good in itself, grounded in our character as human beings and in God’s character as the source of all creation and renewal.

That being said, those of us supporting circle conversations also hope that it can solve our conflicts in a more direct manner. By weaving it into institutional life we hope that it can immediately and tangibly resolve deep disputes. Clearly, this did not happen for the Methodists in General Conference.

As powerful as the experience of conversation in circle may be, it too can be perverted or rejected in the cauldron of fears, ideological certainty, cultural commitments, and zero-sum democratic process that characterize our institutional life.

We can respond to this fact in part by rehearsing how we move from conversation to argument. The capacity to argue, to persuade through appeal to commonly held facts and beliefs, is essential to the political ideal of governance through councils, congresses, and conventions.

Too many of us have lost the capacity to argue because we have retreated to claims based on our personal feelings, on special beliefs, or the appeal to biologically-rooted identities. We can at least start there. How to repair and reshape our decision-making processes to enable argument to proceed is yet an additional step.

The second thing I have been thinking about is a theological matter affecting arguments over sexuality, faith, and the church. In our differences and often confused conversation about sexuality and faith we are confronting what theologians call the relationship of “nature” and “grace.”

What is “natural” for human beings? Is there a single natural form for sexual relationship? Are there numerous natural forms that arise from a deeper natural impulse for enduring union with another? We confront here various understandings of the “natural,” whether from the standpoint of Genesis, of St. Paul’s teachings, or contemporary science.

We then have to ask whether our understanding of human nature defines the shape of God’s “grace.” Is our nature the container of God’s grace or does God’s grace overflow and redefine our understanding of our nature? St. Thomas argued that God’s grace “perfects” or completes our nature. What does this mean with regard to our sexual relationships?

Moreover, what does “grace” mean? Is it simply the grace of a judge that forgoes punishment? This is the classic forensic notion permeating so much of Christianity. Or is grace the continual operation of God’s creativity in bringing the whole creation to some kind of unimaginable fruition?

The movement of Christian renewal inaugurated by the Wesleys in the 18th century did not tarry long with reflections over our nature, flawed and incomplete as it is. They emphasized the overwhelming grace of an accepting God who is seeking to perfect our lives toward a promised new creation.

It seems to me, in the midst of this trauma, conflict, and confusion, it’s a claim worth lifting up and celebrating. Whatever are sexual natures may be, I want to keep on celebrating that grace.