Protestant Leaders Unwavering in Commitment to 'Conversation'

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori defended the use of "conversation" especially in matters of disagreement.

In a commentary posted on the Episcopal News Service Tuesday, the Episcopal head rejected "uncivilized interactions" when debating issues and promoted conversation as a better way.

"The peace we share in church today is often a pale imitation of such a deeply meant promise to uphold the other, even in the face of potentially competing claims," she wrote. "It is that willingness to stand together in difficulty that we are continually challenged to relearn."

"I commend the practice of more patient and intimate conversation," she added. "The kind of patient, time-consuming conversation that our forebears and spiritual guides knew and still know can bring unexpected discoveries about our neighbors, ourselves and our purported enemies."

Since her installation as the first female presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church in 2006, Jefferts Schori has made continuous calls for conversation amid debates over homosexuality and the Bible.

The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism – caused an uproar in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop. Since then the U.S. body practiced restraint with regards to matters of homosexuality. But this year, Episcopal leaders approved resolutions opening the denomination's ordination process to all individuals, including practicing homosexuals, and calling for the development of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships.

Following the votes, Jefferts Schori encouraged Episcopalians to again enter into dialogue, stating, "We are called by God to continue to wrestle with the circumstances in which we live and move and have our being, and to do it as carefully and faithfully as we are able, in companionship with those who disagree vehemently and agree wholeheartedly."

On Tuesday, she explained the meaning of "conversation" as "to spend time with." The conversation she has been encouraging within the Anglican Communion is more about "being with" rather than "using words," she said.

"It has the connotation of being in community, coming to know others in the intimate way that only is possible in proximity, sharing food, business dealings, likes and dislikes, even prayer and Eucharist."

Similar calls for conversation have recently been made by the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson. The ELCA's vote last month to allow partnered gays and lesbians to be ordained have left the denomination divided and congregations have threatened to sever ties.

In the aftermath of the controversial vote, Hanson has made several pleas to the denomination to remain in conversations.

The church, he said, should be a place for "rich theological conversation, inquiry and faith expressions and explorations" where people feel safe to preach and serve "in ways that they believe are consistent with the vows one takes in ordination and the promises one makes in the affirmation of Baptism."

But such conversations in mainline Protestant circles and evangelical ones seem to lead to nowhere, says one conservative minister.

"The goal isn't to arrive at any common understanding or settled conviction about what's true and what's false," John MacArthur points out in The Jesus You Can't Ignore. "Instead, the whole point seems to be to get as many different opinions into the mix as possible, and then perpetuate the lavish, lighthearted friendliness of the discussion indefinitely."

Differences over biblical and theological matters "are supposed to remain blithely congenial and complacently detached from any sort of passion in a purely academic-style exchange of ideas and opinions," MacArthur notes.

Rather than seeking consensus or even Truth, believers are more interested in civility and disagreeing agreeably, the author argues.

He cautions, "When peaceful coexistence 'with our deepest differences' becomes priority one and conflict per se is demonized as inherently sub-Christian, any and every false religious belief can and will demand an equal voice in the 'conversation.'"

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