A Commitment to Unity

Harriett Jane Olson addresses United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group

A Commitment to Unity
General Secretary Harriett J. Olson at the Program Advisory Group meeting, March 2016.

United Methodist Women General Secretary and CEO Harriett Jane Olson addressed the final gathering of the 2013-2016 United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group March 4, 2016, at Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Without the Lord by our side, where would be?” Olson asked group members. “As I read the history and the stories on the Living Timeline, I see amazing work accomplished by this community of God-following women. I also see struggle and challenge as the organization makes a place for itself in the changing life of our United Methodist Church and in the work for justice, for compassion and for creating a world in which women, children and youth have access to what they need to flourish, to know that God loves them and to love God back.”

In both a reflection on the past four years and a look to the future, Olson spoke of our presence at the 2016 General Conference and the work, listening and collaboration that went into our legislation to be presented in May.  

Beginning after Assembly 2014, an “At the Table” gathering facilitated by United Methodist Women with national and international partners—including members, national mission institutions, worldwide women’s desk coordinators and project leaders, Link opens in a new window. World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women and sister United Methodist agencies—worked in groups to look at issues important to women around the world.

“[We do] not intend to substitute our voice for the voices of women around the world … we expect that our voice will be informed and shaped by our global connections,” Olson said. “You already know this, because you saw how those issues and how they affect women around the world showed up in our legislation. This is a pattern of practice. It has shaped our identity for a long time, and I expect it may lead us to more change as the whole church grapples with its global nature.”

United Methodist Women is marking 15 years of our own regional missionary work and look forward to what the next 15 years will bring as the church grows into a more global context. Other United Methodist agencies are working in new arrangements. We look forward to how our missional connection with the Board of Global Ministries will develop through their plan for regional offices.

Many issues bring us together with the Link opens in a new window. United Methodist Commissions on Status and Role of Women, on Link opens in a new window. Religion and Race and Link opens in a new window. Board of Church and Society. We’ve also been meeting with the Boards of Link opens in a new window. Pension and Health Benefits, Church and Society and Link opens in a new window. Global Ministries to review the connections between investments, human rights and the impact on our churches and mission partners around the world, Olson said. United Methodist Men is a partner in work against domestic violence, and the Link opens in a new window. Commission on Archives and History has helped with our 150th anniversary work.

“All of the agencies are seeing working together as one of the ways we can enhance the impact of the Church and carry out our responsibilities,” she said.

General Conference has begun to examine what a church growing worldwide will look like.

“The proposal for a general (or global) Book of Discipline to state the things that bind us together and a revised Social Principles developed in a global context instead of a U.S. context are current expressions of this negotiation,” Olson said. “We need not fear these changes—I see this as a mostly healthy process in the family.

“We do have a responsibility as United Methodist Women, however, and that includes giving attention to how changes will affect United Methodist Women around the world as well as in the United States,” she said.

Changes, however, can and have led to splits within the church. Other General Conference proposals deal with how congregations or clergy can or should be supported in leaving the denomination.

“Of course, splits within Methodism are nothing new. You could argue that splitting is in our DNA. However, each of the splits came at a cost. We would be a different church today if we could have built bonds with the laity and clergy who formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, African Methodist Episcopal and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches. We would be a different church today (and perhaps the whole country would be different) if we could have bridged the divide between north and south, rather than dividing,” Olson said.

“[T]he question of how the church engages with homosexual persons is the flash point for this [current] conflict. The debates about this are heart-breaking and difficult, and it is unclear at this moment how we can live out our conviction that all persons are persons of sacred worth and at the same time have conversations about polity, practice and discipline that do not turn “persons” into “issues.”… [W]e need wise, expansive and reflective approaches to how we will go forward. Unity is by no means the only value, but it is an important value.

“While there have been costs for all of us, we know that this has exacted a special cost for gay and lesbian persons and their families. … If we find a way to stay together toward a new future, it will be costly, and we will not experience the cost equally. Unity is only one of the values in the mix, and it must not merely be asserted to take us to stalemate or preserving the status quo.

“United Methodist Women, if you agree with me, and you see unity as an additional commitment and not just a stalemate or a strategy, you have the opportunity to speak a word for unity at this time. Not unity at the expense of all else, but an engaged unity where we are actively seeking ways forward that honor all participants.”

Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 3/31/2016 11:00:00 PM
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