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Methodist Women Air Differences to Heal Their Rift

Jan Love of the United Methodist Church's Women's Division, left, speaks at the debate in Washington, which also drew L. Fay Short of RENEW Network.
Jan Love of the United Methodist Church's Women's Division, left, speaks at the debate in Washington, which also drew L. Fay Short of RENEW Network. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

Each presentation was limited to a few minutes and there was no opportunity for the women to engage one another directly.

The questions -- publicized in advance -- revealed deep differences over evangelical styles, theology, interfaith relations, how to put faith into action for social causes and the proper political role of women's ministries.

For example, the Women's Division panel asked RENEW members whether "you believe that conscientious Christians . . . can have legitimate differences about matters of Biblical interpretation and . . . appropriate social engagements in the world?"

RENEW's respondent, Katy Kiser, said differences are possible but that Christianity's basic beliefs are "settled truth," adding that "the Gospel should never be reduced to a mere message of social justice."

The RENEW group asked the other panel to explain "what role does the authority of Scripture play in matters of faith and practice" and to specify how "cultural, political and religious conservatism are perceived by the Women's Division as major deterrents to women's work and ministry."

Love replied that her group had no bias against conservatives or evangelicals. Then she asked why RENEW promoted a ministry whose participants had to ask their husbands' permission to serve.

Later, RENEW panelist Elizabeth Kittle decried "radical feminism" as "a road to nowhere" and said the Gospel message of Jesus "was the exact opposite of the feminist worldview . . . that pervades . . . the Women's Division."

Both sides supported their arguments with quotes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

Afterward, Love said the debate had exposed disagreement and convergence.

While "we both leave to God the job of who's going to heaven and who's going to hell," she said, there is disagreement "on the style of evangelism."

Short noted "wide points of divergence" between the sides, adding, "I believe that it will be necessary to continue to work toward reform and reconciliation."

The impetus for the debate came late last year when RENEW suggested a meeting about the same time that Love, then newly elected, cited healing disputes within the church as one of her priorities.

Although both sides had expressed hope for greater mutual understanding, the carefully scripted format of the debate made for stilted presentations that left many listeners with unchanged minds.

"It was pretty much what we expected," said Mary Jane Padgett, a Women's Division member for 35 years who was among about 150 people in attendance.

Kelly C. Martini, spokeswoman for the Women's Division, said the organization "will continue to dialogue with [RENEW] in different arenas but maybe not necessarily in this type of setup again."

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