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Dare not to discipline?

National | Disagreements over theology and discipline move United Methodists a step closer to crackup

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Is the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination hellbent on self-destruction?

Judging by recent developments in the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church over the issue of homosexuality and church discipline, it would appear so. Hundreds of UMC clergy are in open rebellion against church law. Liberal bishops in Illinois, Iowa, and northern California, with the responsibility to discipline lawbreakers, instead seem determined to protect them-with the tacit support of fellow bishops. And outgunned evangelical leaders throughout the UMC are dumbfounded at events in conservative Georgia, where the bishop reputed to be their best friend has acted more like a Judas.

At issue are the positions the UMC's governing body, the General Conference, took regarding homosexuality in 1996: Homosexual conduct is incompatible with Scripture, and same-sex unions will be neither performed by UMC clergy nor conducted in UMC churches. The UMC's highest court ruled last summer that the same-sex union bans are part of binding church law. Dismayed, many liberals vowed to defy the law and work for its repeal.

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Conservatives accused them of bucking biblical authority.

In Chicago next month, defiant Pastor Greg Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church will become the first paid director of "In All Things Charity," a group dedicated to overturning the UMC ban on same-sex unions at next year's General Conference. Pastor Dell performed a ceremony for two homosexual men last September. A jury of fellow clergy in March found him guilty and suspended him as pastor until he signs a pledge promising not to do it again.

In a plan agreed to by Bishop Joseph Sprague, who also opposes the church law, Pastor Dell will continue to receive his salary from the church: three-fourths for work with the Broadway-based group, and one-fourth for acting as a consultant to the church. Conservatives across the denomination protested the arrangement as a mockery of church justice.

In Iowa, Bishop Charles Jordan parsed the language and dismissed a formal complaint against Pastor David Holmes of Council Bluffs. The minister was one of nearly 100 clergy who answered a call to co-officiate at a union of two lesbians in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 16, in mass defiance against the ban (WORLD, Jan. 30). Bishop Jordan ruled that Pastor Holmes's participation "consisted of being in the processional and sharing in a prayer.... He did not conduct nor did he have a leadership role in any part of the service. His presence was one of witness and solidarity."

Using that logic, Bishop Melvin Talbert of the UMC's California-Nevada regional conference could dismiss charges against almost everyone who took part in the Sacramento service except the pastor who instigated it, Don Fado. However, the bishop and his cabinet earlier had replaced all the individual complaints with a single one they wrote covering all conference participants in the service, including Pastor Fado. They have taken no action on it yet. Evangelicals in the predominantly liberal conference say they hope there is no action. It could help unify conservatives, underscore the need for the General Conference to call the bishops to accountability, and help make the case for a separate conference for evangelicals, said Pastor John Sheppard of Yuba City.

Meanwhile, the California-Nevada conference continues to hemorrhage as pastors and congregations chafe at the liberal dominance. They accuse the liberals of tainting the denomination with an embarrassing public image, making it difficult to attract new members. In the Fresno area, Pastor Rick Harrell became the fifth evangelical minister within the past year to leave the conference for a different denomination. Under his ministry, the church at Susanville more than doubled in size. Two small congregations nearby voted to leave the UMC and take their property with them, an action the conference may contest in court.

Conference officials agreed to allow its former congregation at Kingsburg, which bolted last year (WORLD, July 25), to keep its property in exchange for $227,562.53 and half the $20,125 bank account. Many in the congregation had objected to having to pay a dime; they had built, maintained, and improved the property with their own money. Ironically, a proposal at this month's annual meeting of the conference will call for $100,000 of the Kingsburg amount to be set aside to finance lawsuits to fight churches that withdraw from the denomination and try to keep their property.

In the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, Ga., 5,300-member First United Methodist Church, long an evangelical bastion, has split. The story has a long foreword, but the final chapter began in 1997. That was the year the board of trustees of UMC-related Emory University in Atlanta, including five UMC bishops, voted unanimously to allow same-sex unions in the university's chapel. Although heavy restrictions limited such ceremonies in effect to two of 24 religious groups on campus, many people at First were furious that the bishops-including their own Bishop Lindsey Davis- should allow any at all. The church commissioned a task force to study the denomination.

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