Why Dialogue Isn’t Working

As the talk about separation in The United Methodist Church becomes more prominent, there are increasing calls from moderates and progressives for more dialogue to resolve our differences.  In fact the settlements of the two most recent complaints against pastors who performed same-sex weddings (New York and Pacific Northwest) included a commitment to an annual conference dialogue on the issue.

The reality is that such dialogues may make some people feel better that they are doing something to avoid separation, but they are unlikely to resolve the conflict that exists within the church.  Here’s why.

The attitude that many progressives take toward dialogue and toward homosexuality makes it clear that they are not in favor of true dialogue.  That fact came through loud and clear in the recent controversy over the forced resignation of the new CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, because he does not support same-sex marriage.  One of the Mozilla officers involved in the controversy summed up the “winning” argument this way:  “The equality argument is that this isn’t a matter of speech. That believing that 1/n of us aren’t entitled to the same rights as the rest of us isn’t a ‘belief’. That the right to speech is only truly universal if everyone is equal, first.”

In other words, if you will agree with our point of view, we’ll let you talk.  This is a secular situation, and to their credit, a number of progressives have condemned the decision to force Eich out.  However, the attitude that one is entitled to be fully heard only if they agree with the pro-gay perspective is alive and well in the church.

When I served in ministry in Wisconsin, I was told on several occasions by colleagues that, even though they believed in tolerance and inclusion as first-order values, they couldn’t tolerate or include my voice because I was not for tolerance and inclusion.  The voice defending church teaching was not allowed, at least on the same footing with the pro-gay voice, because exclusion of any kind had to be ruled out of order

This attitude appeared in a recent dust-up at Boston University, where a Korean United Methodist clergyperson gave a sermon in which he shared his struggle over the issue of homosexuality, coming down on the side of the church’s teaching being the faithful way of interpreting the Bible.  The BU student body evidently responded immediately with anger toward the sermon.  The day after the sermon, the Community and Spiritual Life Committee issued an apology for the sermon and set up a series of events to deal with the pain the sermon caused.

In their statement, the committee said this:  “While we recognize that denominations are divided on this issue, we are not. We, as a school are clear that the gifts that the church needs today will come from all of us. And we are convinced that there is no room for messages of exclusion and calls for Christian unity at the expense of our LGBTQIA sisters and brothers.”  In other words, we have made up our minds, and we have no interest in listening to an opposing perspective.  And this in an academic institution that prides itself on academic freedom and is training future pastors for United Methodist ministry.

Another current example of the failure of dialogue is the proposed May 10 “Conversation on Covenant and Human Sexuality” to be held in the New York Annual Conference.  This event is part of the settlement of the Thomas Ogletree complaint.  Of the four panelists, three appear to come from a pro-gay perspective.  One positions himself as a moderate, but has identified Good News and other renewal groups as “enemies” on his Twitter account.  Another panelist is on the board of Reconciling Ministries Network, an outspoken national pro-gay group.  The third panelist is on the board of Methodists in New Directions, a pro-gay advocacy group in the New York Annual Conference.  There is one evangelical on the panel, a professor of Old Testament interpretation from Asbury Theological Seminary.  (As a side note, I don’t understand why the event is limited to only 200 participants, if it is an attempt to help the whole conference have a conversation on this issue.)

This unbalanced approach to “dialogue” on this issue is typical. A number of years ago, the Wisconsin Confessing Movement offered to facilitate a one-on-one dialogue between a spokesperson for the Confessing viewpoint and a spokesperson for the Reconciling viewpoint (chosen by them).  The Reconciling people refused to participate because they didn’t want to expose people to the “hateful” language of the Confessing viewpoint.

As long as people on the progressive side are unwilling to listen to a fair presentation of the evangelical viewpoint, true dialogue cannot occur.  Given the entrenched positions on both sides, it is fair to wonder if even true dialogue could bring resolution to the conflict we are experiencing.  But let’s not keep clamoring for dialogue and then substitute a rigged conversation that biases the outcome.

8 thoughts on “Why Dialogue Isn’t Working

  1. Thank you, Tom. My own experience in talking with pro-homosexuality advocates just adds weight to the idea that future dialogue is not going to be real dialogue or fruitful. I try to stick to the issues at hand, engage on the level of biblical interpretation and application, asking about their view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and the question of fidelity to the clergy covenant and our promises to uphold the UM Discipline. In return, they rarely will engage in that level of conversation, but instead I get called “hater,” “fundamentalist,” “narrow minded,” “backward,” “legalist,” “homophobe,” etc. (None of which is factual, btw) Ad hominem attacks tell me they’re really NOT interested in true dialogue with anyone who has a different understanding than theirs.

  2. Why is it called “tolerance” when I need to adopt someone else’s point of view, but I’m “intolerant” when they won’t accept mine. I’m more about pleasing God than man……..

  3. Tom,

    As the unnamed moderate/alternative perspective panelist, I must challenge your characterization. I have blogged and spoken out against the left-leaning caucuses on multiple occasions; I am concerned about groups on both sides not being open to discussion (and I did not understand the outrage at BU over that particular sermon, either). I did refer to those seeking schism as “enemies,” though it was in the context of prayer for my enemies: http://pastormack.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/a-prayer-for-those-considering-schism/

    I have appreciated your engagement with our work at Via Media Methodists and I look further to more dialogue in the future. Peace to you.

    1. Thank you, Drew, for your comments clarifying your perspective. I think we should resist calling others in the church “enemies,” and I try to do that. I do think a very few Progressives would rather destroy the church than submit to its teaching. But I think most Progressives are sincerely trying to follow Christ, to the best of their understanding, and want the best for the church, so I do not consider them enemies. It did not give me a lot of confidence that you would be friendly to the church’s position when you had labeled Good News in that way.

      I pray that the dialogue in New York will exceed my expectations. Have a blessed Easter.

  4. You do know that many thoughtful supports of gay rights condemned the treatment of Brandon Eich. See Andrew Sullivan and others. Why do you always refer to those you disagree with as “Progressives”? I strongly disagree with you and do not consider myself a progressive. Please take our heartfelt concerns seriously enough to not label us.

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