Countdown to schism?
February 1998. A UMC scholarly dialogue forum in Dallas issues a paper, "In Search of Unity." It warns the clash over homosexuality is "so deep as to harbor the danger of explicit disunity or schism" in the church. March 13. A church jury in Nebraska acknowledges Pastor Jimmy Creech of 1,900-member First UMC in Omaha had performed a "covenant" or union ceremony for two lesbians, but fails by one vote to determine he was guilty of disobeying the church's Book of Discipline. It says the Social Principles, the section containing the 1996 bans on such unions by clergy, are merely guidelines and not binding. The ruling creates a furor throughout the UMC. At Omaha First, many members leave in protest to attend "laity rallies" organized by Mel and Virginia Semrod. Mr. Creech is not reappointed as pastor by his bishop and is succeeded by the former associate pastor, who shares many of Mr. Creech's views. The dissidents refuse to return; they move to set up a separate UMC congregation. As of early July, 475 are attending services. Mr. Creech is granted a leave of absence and moves to North Carolina. April 18. The Confessing Movement, a group of conservative churches, clergy, and other leaders committed to remain within the UMC and press for renewal, issues a warning from Tulsa, where 1,000 of its members are gathered. "If the Judicial Council [the UMC's high court] does not confirm and clarify the intent of the General Conference [in the 1996 Book of Discipline], then we are fearful that there will be a radical hemorrhage of members leaving the denomination, and a significant loss in financial support for the general structure of our church." Many of the UMC's largest churches belong to the Confessing Movement. The Movement also has a novel suggestion for those "unwilling to live under the doctrinal and ethical standards of the Book of Discipline." It calls on the General Conference, which meets in 2000, to allow them an "amicable exit" from the UMC with "an equitable settlement concerning pensions, property, and institutional resources." April 30. The UMC's Council of Bishops, meeting in Lincoln, Neb., issues a pastoral letter saying the bishops are "committed to uphold" the church's positions on homosexuality and homosexual unions. They quote from passages in the Book of Discipline that contain three key points: Homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching"; homosexual union ceremonies "shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches"; and "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve" in the UMC. The 57 active UMC bishops unanimously vote to reaffirm those passages. Bishop Melvin Talbert of the California-Nevada conference is one of the last to agree. May 14. Bishop Talbert issues a pastoral letter to his conference that seems to run counter to the Council of Bishops' pastoral. In it, he says he doesn't consider a pastor's performing a "holy union" to be in violation of "church law." He acknowledges same-sex unions "go against the spirit of the Social Principles" section of the Book of Discipline, but the Principles are only intended to be "instructive and persuasive," not binding law. Bishop Talbert's cabinet is on record supporting the decision by Bethany UMC, San Francisco, to allow same-sex unions in its facility. May 19. The executive committee of Good News in Wilmore, Ky., the oldest evangelical caucus in the UMC, accuses Bishop Talbert of betrayal of the covenant he made with other bishops at the Council of Bishops' meeting. The committee urges him to resign as bishop and take early retirement. July 2. Affirmation, the main pro-homosexual advocacy group in the UMC, announces 329 clergy so far have signed its Statement of Commitment. In it, signers vow not to be bound by the statements on homosexuality in the Social Principles, and to "celebrate rites of union with all couples, regardless of gender." Bishop Talbert's California-Nevada Conference has the largest contingent of signers (40). August 7-8. The UMC's Judicial Council in special session in Dallas will rule on a request as to whether a violation of the homosexual-union ban in the Book of Discipline constitutes a chargeable offense under church law.
Glide: An unruly domestic partner
The streets around Glide Memorial United Methodist Church at the edge of San Francisco's tough Tenderloin district are as crowded with the down-and-out as ever. The church operates as one of the country's best-known social-service agencies. There are feeding, substance abuse, recovery, tutoring, medical, and other programs for the poor. A nine-story, 52-unit housing project for the homeless is going up next door. Cecil Williams, the church's soon-to-retire senior pastor, is the man overseeing it all, as he has done for more than three decades.
Sundays are something else. The Sunday morning services are packed, mostly with white young adults whose singing and swaying can make the place rock sometimes. Some services seem almost Pentecostal. In the pulpit, Mr. Williams, 67, can match some of the best black preacher oratory. He tries to offer hope on a personal level. Critics say he offers a vague, feel-good-about-yourself, emotion-based prescription. In a sermon on the birth of Christ at a service last year, Mr. Williams acknowledged he is not "a literalist." Was it a virgin birth? "I'm not interested in facts, I'm interested in truths."
In an interview at the back of the church during choir rehearsal, Mr. Williams said his moorings are in Liberation theology. "Rules and doctrines aren't what's important; relationships are," he said. He told WORLD he has been performing union covenants for homosexual couples for more than 30 years. Asked where he'd be if the 1996 UMC statements on homosexuality had been placed higher in the Book of Discipline, in an unmistakably binding section, he thought for a moment and said: "Probably in disobedience." He added that much of the California-Nevada Conference likely would be in rebellion, too.
Across the street from Glide is a building used by Youth With a Mission for outreach to the street people. Getting there from Glide after dark usually means stepping over men zonked out from booze or drugs or both, and avoiding the arguments and pitches of people still on their feet next to a parking lot. In the middle of the confusion sits a city-sponsored table, where a man is handing out free needles and condoms.
Providence Christian Center, an outreach and rehabilitation project sponsored by the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), rents space in the YWAM building for Sunday and Wednesday night services. As people mill about after a service ends, rehab pastor Ron Hooks and Baptist seminarian Alan Cross, 23, speak of how difficult it is to reach people for Christ in this neighborhood. The homosexuals, for instance, tend not to be very responsive to a message of transformation rather than acceptance and accommodation.