The crisis in Iran became the unlikely avenue of bringing together conflicting factions within the United Methodist Church during its quadriennal General Convention here.
Social activist and conservative evengelical wings of the second largest body in American Protestantism still disagree sharply over such issues as homosexuality and abortion. But the 1,000 delegates to the 10-day legislative assembly here closed ranks behind the denomination's venture into international affairs.
On Wenesday a delegation designated by the General Conference called first on President Carter, counseling continued patience, then flew to New York for a session with Monsour Farhang, Iranian delegate to the United Nations, on a mission of reconciliation.
Delegates also approved a carefully phrased message to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, acknowledging "the agonies of your people" while at the same time appealing for the release of the hostages.
The church's unscheduled preoccupation with the Iranian crisis began last week with an address by Bishop C. Dale White of Princeton, N.J.
White was one of a group of clergy and Middle East scholars who went to Iran last December on what the churchman called "a quiet mission of understanding."
The group with whom White traveled to Iran did not see any of the American hostages, but they did meet with the Ayatollah, a number of Iranian officials and representatives of the students who are holding the hostages.
White recounted for the General Conference the Americans' conversation with the Ayatollah. "We prayed for mercy and compassion to be exercised by the early release [of the hostages] and we concluded with these words: 'We join in lamenting the fact that the ways of man so often distort the message revealing the intention of God. Both Christianity and Islam have experienced sad examples of hatred where love was meant to be . . .'"
The Ayatollah responded, White said, with "warm greetings to all the oppressed nations of the world," and with frank talk about the crimes he said were committed against the Iranian people by the ex-shah, with American support.
The interview with the Ayatollah, White said, proved to "open doors" in Iran to other government and religious figures.
"They believe that a bankrupt U.S. foreign policy kept the cruel dictator (the Shah) in power for two and a half decades and that rapacious U.S. interests siphoned off their oil money and ruined their economy," White said.
White said that the student militants at the U.S. embassy are aware that by their action they are violating not only intenational law but Islamic religious requirements of hospitality to strangers.
White said that the students, with which his group met for six hours, are willing to take the action because "they believe themselves to be engaging in a type of international civil disobedience . . . . They believe themselves to be struggling with the only weapons at their command -- to expose a vast network of international criminals supported by the great powers who systematically violate the human rights and the just aspirations of millions of third world people," he said.
White acknowledged that "the American people have much to regret, that many ugly things have been done in their name in the part of the world." At the same time, he added, "it is important to say that the Iranian people would like to shift the guilt for what happened there onto our shores," forgetting that the hated SAVAK torturers were Iranians.
In searching for "the faithful Christian response" to the "complex truths of Iran," the United Methodist bishop said he was disappointed "to see how timid church groups have been and how muted their voices on the social justice issues involved there."
He challenged his denomination to be "the first major church body to speak a word of understanding and reconciliation to the Iranian people," which, he said, "they long for."
"We . . . religious leaders who care about the poor and oppressed in the United States and the world, hear the agonies of your people," the General Conference said in its message to Iran; "we hear their cries for freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imerialism, from economic exploitation.'
The message closed with the words of Moses: "Let my people go!"
The convention also designated White to head an eight-person delegation to visit President Carter on behalf of the church to counsel continued restraint in dealing with Iran.
In a 25-minute conversation with the president Wednesday, the team urged him "to continue the same constructive and peaceful endeavor you have pursued thus far." They implored him "not to give in to those who counsel military intervention nor to take steps which will lead eventually to war," and stated their belief that "reconciliation with the Iranian people is still possible."