Homosexuality and Church Unity

The Christian Century, March 11, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Homosexuality and Church Unity


Issues related to homosexuality represent a fundamental challenge "so deep as to harbor the danger of explicit disunity or schism" in the United Methodist Church, according to a document developed in Dallas February 19-20 during the second of two theological dialogues sponsored by the UMC's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Participants worked on a draft of the paper, titled "In Search of Unity," and sent it to a four-member steering committee for final editing.

Several of the 23 dialogue participants resisted using homosexuality as an illustration of disunity and possible schism. Others, however, insisted that it remain.

"We're all weary of being preoccupied with the issue of homosexuality, but that is the issue the church is preoccupied with, and to ignore that is to ignore what is going on out there in the church," said Maxie Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Gregory Stover, a pastor in Cincinnati, said homosexuality is not a "bedrock issue, but from a practical perspective it is the most divisive at this particular time." John Gardner, a layman from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, warned against seeking unity by "watering down or papering over our differences."

One participant suggested that a call be made for a moratorium on legislation related to homosexuality at the denomination's next General Conference in the year 2000. Philip Wogaman, a pastor in Washington, D.C., said he would support such a moratorium if all legislation related to homosexuality, which began at the 1972 General Conference, could be removed.

Consensus was finally reached with an explanatory statement in the paper: "We believe we may experience substantive disagreement around a variety of theological faith issues; the meaning of the incarnation; and our views of the saving work of Christ, to name a few. All these arise out of differing understanding of scriptural authority and revelation.

However, in this document, we have turned to the practice of homosexuality as illustrative of our divergence because it is one of the most visible presenting issues in United Methodism today."

The introduction to the same section of the paper acknowledges that there is no easy way to describe factors that threaten disunity or schism. "Some think that naming them either helps bring them into existence or magnifies them," the paper states. "Others are deeply convinced that we face a formidable set of problems, which must be named and described as best we can. For them, failure to name and describe is not just a failure of nerve; it may be an unacknowledged or deliberately concealed strategy for excluding the voice of a significant number of people.

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