Two groups of United Methodist women met this week in an unusual public debate, seeking common ground in a long-running theological battle that has been tearing the fabric of their denomination.
The Women's Division, the national policymaking body for Methodist women, and the RENEW Network, the women's arm of the Good News organization founded in the 1960s to promote evangelicalism among Methodists, met Wednesday in the campus chapel of Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington.
Relations between the groups have been tense because of their widely different perceptions of their Christian mission. Given the bitterness of the years-long feud, the debate was seen by some Methodists as a potentially significant turning point.
It reflected not only the growing presence of conservative evangelicals within Methodism, but also a desire for some type of reconciliation between the two groups.
"A weariness of polarization" brought the two sides to the meeting, said Amy G. Oden, professor of church history at Wesley, who served as moderator for the event.
In a 2001 document, RENEW alleged that the Women's Division, which is part of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, supported "a politically left-leaning ideology," including a "pro-abortion position" and an "endorsement" of homosexual practice.
RENEW also criticized the Women's Division for "questionable theological teaching and social justice mission."
In an interview, RENEW President L. Fay Short said the Women's Division "does not hold a high view of Scripture" and considers "other religions as being equally valid to Christianity."
The event opened with a prayer and hymn, "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." Jan Love, chief executive officer of the Women's Division, said that the groups had gathered "to address some family differences" and that her side had "come with open hearts and open minds."
Love asked RENEW representatives not to "draw caricatures of us" when criticizing her group.
In her opening remarks, Short thanked the other side for accepting an invitation to debate publicly. "We hope this meeting will engender widespread conversation" within the church, she said.
There were six panelists on each side. The format, which Love said was suggested by RENEW and only reluctantly accepted by the Women's Division, involved four questions posed by each side to the other -- eight questions in all.
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."