UMNS: Communion’s Role in Healing Schism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)—United Methodists must engage conflict constructively if the church is to find peace, according to a group of people who practice mediation and conflict resolution.

Nearly 30 United Methodist mediators and other leaders met in Nashville April 5-7 to explore how holy conferencing and Holy Communion can be used in response to talk about schism and as a way to deal with the church’s differences.

“How do we become a church that becomes a beloved community?” asked the Rev. Tom Porter, executive director of JUSTPEACE.

“By dealing with differences, learning from them, transcending them and reaching higher ground together.”

JUSTPEACE, an organization of practitioners of conflict resolution and mediation, organized the Nashville meeting. The group, with headquarters in Washington, is affiliated with the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville.

Since 2000, members of JUSTPEACE have been trying to help the denomination deal with divisiveness, develop peace-builders and offer strategies for reconciliation.

The 2005 JUSTPEACE gathering included conversation in circles, sharing stories and best practices, and tapping into the group’s collective wisdom.

“The gathering of this wisdom is to work on different and better ways of healing our brokenness, of ways of bringing people to the table for transformation in spite of differences,” Porter said.

The group explored how the church can embody Holy Communion by practicing the ministry of reconciliation, which includes naming and addressing conflicts and differences and offering bread to one another.

The JUSTPEACE Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation, headquartered in Washington, is a mission of the United Methodist Church to engage conflict in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation, resource preservation and restoration of community. It was created by the churchwide Council on Finance and Administration in 2000 and affirmed by the denomination in 2004, Porter said.

Describing the context of the meeting, Porter referred to the calls for schism by some United Methodists at the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative assembly. At the time, some unofficial church advocacy groups discussed the possibility of “amicable separation” over theological differences, but the assembly instead adopted a unity resolution on the last day of its 2004 meeting in Pittsburgh.

The meeting’s context “also comes out of the fact that we have deep differences and we need to deal with them,” said Porter, a United Methodist pastor from the New England Annual Conference. He told United Methodist News Service that Holy Communion informs conflict and also transforms it.

The Rev. Dan Benedict, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, told the gathering that the communion table is about reconciliation and forgiveness. “Holy Communion is an enactment of an alternate way of being in the world,” he said. JUSTPEACE is affiliated with the Board of Discipleship.

The schism talk reflects “fast-food individualism,” or contempt for the church in which people ignore the diversity of those who make up the assembly, he said. The church is not self-defined, but Christ constitutes the church, he said. “The church is not something we organized.”

People in church, including the United Methodist Church, hold it too tightly and feel such a deep responsibility to manage it and get it where they think it is supposed to be. “This is not our responsibility,” he said.

The conflict must be named before peace can be attained, according to Porter. Sacred space is created around the “table” so that differences, issues, hurts and needs can be aired clearly and directly to overshadow any hidden agendas, he said. “The lack of naming is in part what causes schism,” he said. “I don’t think we have ever had the opportunity to have the full conversation where people can really name the issues that are between us and get below them.”

A lesson from conflict transformation is that people take positions, he said. “Positions cannot be resolved, but what you try to do is get beneath the positions to what are the interest and needs and getting beneath what people are responding to. At that point, we can have a conversation that is profound and not one that assumes we are going to agree but one where we can understand each other.”

Referring to the schism talk at the 2004 General Conference and the subsequent adoption of a unity document, Porter said the denomination’s communion liturgy notes that all are one in Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to the world. “We believe in community. We believe that we can live with our differences.”

At General Conference, the church moved from talk of schism to unity but did not examine what was in between, he said. “How do we say to folk that we need to talk about a lot of things in ways that are authentic and have integrity?”
Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of JUSTPEACE, speaks at a meeting on schism and conflict resolution in Nashville, Tenn.

A communion chalice, broken in protest of the United Methodist Church's stance on homosexuality, is returned to the General Conference altar after being mended with wire. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number GC04XXX, 5/7/04
A communion chalice, broken in protest of the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality, is returned to the General Conference altar after being mended with wire. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number GC04XXX, 5/7/04

Like the early church, United Methodists find themselves in a fragmented and multicultural society that yearns for relationships, identity and meaning, said Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Area, president of JUSTPEACE and chairperson of the Council of Bishops’ Task Force on Unity and Bridge-building.

Today’s self-oriented society is characterized by loneliness, alienation and hostility, which are also found in the church, he said. “We are alienated from and strangers to one another,” Goodpaster said. “Not only do we find ourselves being parted from that prayer that Jesus uttered about being one, we are divided in the family itself.”

Schism is not just a United Methodist concern, he said, noting that Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists and others also deal with it. “We all have our special interests and pieces of the whole that cause confusion and make unity seem a distant dream.”
Rather than wasting time blaming or lamenting, the church should invest time in finding the best way to move forward, Goodpaster said. As part of that, the symbol of the table must be carried forward because it tells the story. The power and significance the table has for all people must be rediscovered, he said.

The bishop based his talk on the biblical David’s question of whether anyone was left in the house of Saul to whom he could show God’s kindness. The focal point in the story is hospitality, Goodpaster said. David, he said, wanted to be nice and show kindness.

In today’s world and in church, what passes as hospitality is a condition called “terminal niceness,” or formalized kindness that masks what people really think, Goodpaster said. “Hospitality is vitally important to living out the gospel. It is much deeper. It is reaching out to those who are marginalized or neglected. It is about inviting and including those who have nothing and who cannot and will not return the favor next week. It is about risking ourselves and being vulnerable to what God might do for us.”
Goodpaster said that if United Methodists want to reframe the conversation, overcome differences and be agents of grace, they must look around to see where, how and toward whom they practice kindness and hospitality. “We tear down the barriers and dare risk a relationship with people we do not know or agree with,” he said. The practice of hospitality enriches the faith and helps align Christian practice with basic values, he said.

After another round of gatherings, JUSTPEACE will offer a unity and peace document to the Council of Bishops’ Task Force on Unity and Bridge-building, as well as to the group’s network of practitioners and to the church at large.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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