Sometimes it is difficult, really difficult, to talk about tough issues. Churches know that first hand, especially when the issues are abortion on demand, same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
That's why more than 300 pastors and members of UCC congregations in the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference gathered at UCC-related Ursinus College on Sunday, Feb. 11, for an afternoon and evening Day of Dialogue. Another 100-150 persons wanted to come, but couldn't because the event was filled beyond capacity.
Aimed at continuing an exploration begun by the Conference's Theology Mission Team, the participants were seeking constructive ways for the church to process controversial issues. In spring 2000, the Theology Mission Team had begun to explore ways to help congregations do theological reflection, particularly when diverse viewpoints are present that often have led to mistrust and division.
The main focus of the Day of Dialogue was on finding a means by which the Conference could avoid divisive confrontation and experience real dialogue. This meant creating a safe space in which all participants could speak freely and listen carefully to one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect, even when viewpoints differed radically.
Worship helped us prepare our hearts and minds for what was to come. Then the convener, the Rev. Stephen Treat, Director of the Penn Council For Relationships, shared guidelines for the day that encouraged participants to risk hearing each other in deeper ways and to listen to God throughout the coming activities.
He encouraged us to listen to one another, not just talk to each other. He encouraged us to risk hearing points of view we did not like. He encouraged us to tell our stories, how we came to believe what we believe and what helped to shape our thoughts and convictions.
The discussion centered on three issues: abortion on demand, same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. (These three were the focus of resolutions presented to the Conference Annual Meeting last year by St. John UCC in Sinking Spring as objections to the signing of a SIECUS document in January 2000 by around 200 UCC clergy, including President John H. Thomas.)
Choosing one of the three issues, each person then heard two speakers offering different viewpoints on the selected topic. Following these presentations, small groups of about 12 persons offered an opportunity for everyone to speak, share, listen and question others about the issue.
People spoke and listened and wept and bristled and shared and wondered. We wondered how people could have such different ideas after reading the same Bible and belonging to the same church. How could they be so certain and yet in our eyes be so confused, so wrong? So we listened and we spoke and we prayed.
Then we came together to share feedback from our small groups, enjoy a box supper together and gather for worship to sing the hymns, share the liturgy, and listen to the scriptures that nourish us all. Many expressed an appreciation for the event, especially the opportunity to really speak and listen to one another without fear of intimidation or hostility.
Then, one by one, yet all together, we came forward to receive a small piece of bread broken from common loaves of all colors and consistencies and a tiny cup of grape juice, and were invited to continue the dialogue in our daily lives so that God might continue to transform the church.
While evaluations of the Day of Dialogue were overwhelmingly positive, it was just a small step in facing the diversity present in the church today. The Conference is continuing to explore next steps, both in encouraging continuing dialogue and in working through the concerns of local churches and their members.
The Rev. James D. Miller is Senior Pastor of Trinity UCC in Mt. Penn, Reading, Pa.