This article, written by Amory Peck, originally appeared in Channels Newsletter. Photo by Jesse Love.

I’m sitting in my room at the Archbishop Alex J. Brunett Retreat Center as I write this. I’ve loved this room – it is simple, uncluttered, and has a wall of windows overlooking Puget Sound. The desktop altar that I created from small items from home feels just right: a “walking cross” made for me by a friend, my favorite greeting card that I received when I was first diagnosed with heart failure, an art piece from my niece last Christmas, and a wooden and brass Jesus that my father used to carry with him whenever he would travel. This quiet, soothing place has been my home while attending the Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation.

This year’s theme has been “Healing – Personally and Between Religions.” Dr. Le Xuan Hy, from Seattle University, has been leading us through an exploration of personal health. Dr. M. Thomas Thangara, a visiting professor at Boston University, has us considering what it means to heal relationships between the world’s religions. I have been moved and challenged by both men, as well as the comments and questions from the participants. I’ve been especially intrigued, as Dr. Thangara has talked us through our world of religious pluralities. He is passionate about inter-religious dialogue and his passion is contagious.
This is going to sound like an abrupt leap from one topic to another, but here I go. As I’ve listened to Dr. Thangara, and observed his deep belief in the necessity and possibility of conversation among the diverse religious believers of the world, I keep thinking about General Conference and the discussions waiting for us there.

When David Valera, Craig Parrish and I attended the Pre-General Conference Briefing in Tampa last January, we heard Bishop Sally Dyck say that many approach General Conference with a sense of dread. That dread comes from our General Conference history of rancorous debate and the likelihood that the same discord will be present at this spring’s gathering as well. Dr. Thangara devotes his life to thoughtful conversation among Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Christians. The United Methodist family often has trouble playing nice with one another when it gathers.

The designers of General Conference 2012 are determined to change that pattern of behavior. Three times, early on during our two weeks together, the 988 delegates are going to gather into small groups for Holy Conversation. Late afternoon on the first full day, we will gather into small groups to discuss “Identity and Theology.” Following a break, we’ll discuss homosexuality, and later in the week we’ll have our third time of Holy Conversation, talking about the worldwide nature of the church. The hope, of course, is that thinking about, and practicing how, we talk with one another will give us the skills we need when we are doing the work of General Conference.

Those times of Holy Conversation will be more than just talking together. Facilitators will help us understand and use a number of key principles. We’ll be prompted to:

  • Listen before speaking
  • Strive to understand from another’s point of view
  • Reflect accurately the view of others
  • Speak about issues, not people
  • Disagree without being disagreeable
  • Pray, in silence or aloud, before decisions
  • Let prayer interrupt our busyness.

Then, once we’ve added those skills to our conversational toolkit, we’ll each be asked to follow a five-step process as we participate in our legislative committees. As we consider all the issues before us, we’ll be asked to Listen, Educate (ourselves) Assess, Discern, and Decide.

It is the hope and prayer that attention to these basic concepts will turn around the behavior of too many previous General Conferences – turn around the dreadful stuff.

Dr. Thangara is convincing us that conversation across the great divides of religious differences can be accomplished. Surely the United Methodist family can do as well. May it be so.

Amory Peck serves as the conference lay leader for the PNWUMC


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