There they were – Sally and Steve – ready to lead this workshop as a part of the Missouri Annual Conference. Sally, who is well known around the Conference for her outspoken liberal viewpoint; and Steve, who is equally well known around the Conference for his outspoken conservative viewpoint; leading a workshop together. And they were going to talk about, or so it said on the agenda “how your congregation can learn to work with our Social Principles.”
“Oh, this ought to be good,” we thought! Better than Rocky and Apollo! They had pitched the workshop using the familiar “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things, charity” quote which has been attributed to just about everyone, it seems, but often is attributed to John Wesley. The presenters were asking if we could still follow this challenge, given the divisive contemporary cultural atmosphere, especially on social issues.
First off, it was hysterical! Steve and Sally were making all of the stereotypical “liberal” and “conservative” comments to one another. Hearing the stereotypes spoken out loud, face to face, in a room full of people, illuminated just how asinine they are. (I mean the stereotypes, not Steve and Sally.) Yes, Sally does love Jesus. Yes, Steve does have a heartbeat. Yes, Sally does read the Bible. Yes, Steve does think about people other than himself sometimes. And so forth. It was very fun on that level.
On another level, it was very healthy and liberating to have a conversation that was framed with the understanding that, in spite of our differences, we love one another. Neither presenter was out to prove the other one wrong. Neither presenter was trying to convince the other to change her/his mind. The starting point was their disagreement, and as such they “named the elephant in the room,” which freed them up to actually have a respectful conversation.
However, on yet another level, the workshop was a perpetuation of the myth that there are only two points of view in the world – liberal and conservative. The reality is that things are much less cut and dried than that, opinions and beliefs are way more diverse than either/or. But because there were two presenters, one from the “left” and one from the “right,” the workshop itself succumbed to the myth that it was, in a sense, trying to bust.
Another observation (which might get me in a bit of trouble, so please hold me accountable if I am mistaken here): Sally asked Steve if his friends who are on the conservative end of the spectrum would have issues with his participation in a dialogue like this. The question got a few chuckles, but was a serious one. Steve had to admit that, yes, some of the more conservative people out there would not agree with his decision to engage in a conversation like this. But Steve did not ask Sally the same question. I think that was because everyone in the room already knew what the answer would be.
In general (go with me here), liberals have no problem with a conversation like this, precisely because it is a part of being liberal to have conversations like this! That is, in part, what liberal means – freethinking, open minded, not limited to set patterns or ideas. So naturally this workshop is right up their [our] alley. If you don’t take great joy in a conversation like this, you’re probably not a liberal! But it may be a bit difficult for a more conservative person, favoring traditional values and ideas, resistant to change, and tending to go with the establishment, to enter into such a risky conversation.
Now, I’m sure all my conservative friends reading this are just chomping at the bit to comment, and I hope that you all do so with respect and love. But before you do, I just want to give out some big time thanks to Steve and Sally for taking a bold step out in faith to lead this workshop. It was a risk for both of them, I am sure. I vote with Sally more often than I vote with Steve, but what difference does that make? Steve is my brother, a valued colleague in ministry, and a fantastic pastor! I hope the conversation held here in Missouri will trickle up to Jurisdictional and General Conference and we can together remember the words of Wesley (or whoever it was): Unity – Liberty – Charity.