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.
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.
The task force produced a scathing 38-page report covering a variety of doctrinal issues. Among other things, it said UMC seminaries no longer adhere to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. They tolerate, if not promote, some non-Christian theologies. "This hold that feminist theology has on United Methodist seminaries cannot be underestimated," the board warned.
Likewise, the report said, many leaders-from bishops down-exhibit a reluctance to adhere to basic doctrines such as the deity of Christ and the authority of the Bible. Some espouse feminist theology and acceptance of homosexuality, it noted: "An emphasis on social gospel has eclipsed the need to preach Jesus and Him crucified." And, it alleged, agency executives and staffs are so isolated from the laity they act with almost no regard for the beliefs or wishes of the majority of church members. "All efforts at renewal by organized clergy and laity," it concluded, "have failed to elicit significant improvement in these problems."
To "send a message" to the denomination, the church's Board of Stewards voted last year to redirect about $60,000 of its national giving, or apportionments, to "appropriate" projects in the local conference instead. Earlier, outgoing board chairman Robin Burress, incoming chairman Bucky Smith, and First's long-time pastor, Charles Sinneath, discussed the impending action with Bishop Davis and area superintendent Jamie Jenkins. As Mr. Burress and Mr. Smith remember it, Bishop Davis objected to the diversion of national funds, but "promised" there would be no punishment of the church or the pastor if they took a stand of conscience.
"We took that promise to the bank," Mr. Burress told WORLD.
For this year's budget, the board voted to withhold $67,000 of its $268,087 apportionments from "objectionable" programs. Meanwhile, some influential lay leaders in the congregation saw a dead end ahead. They quietly began to draw up contingency plans for a new church outside the confines of the UMC.
In March, Bishop Davis informed Pastor Sinneath, 60, he would be reassigned elsewhere after 22 years at First, effective this month. (In the UMC system, pastors are considered itinerants, subject to reappointment annually.) The pastor later said he would retire instead.
First's leaders were outraged. The Board of Stewards on April 11 voted 108 to 56 to place its entire apportionment, excluding ministerial pension payments, into escrow. Pastor Sinneath disapproved, saying that much of the money supports work that is "pleasing to God." He defended partial withholding "because conscience compels us not to be part of what is displeasing to God."
Conservatives across the country were stunned. "Bishop Davis was known as the friend of evangelicals on the Council of Bishops," a spokesman for the Good News renewal movement told WORLD. "First Marietta is one of our strongest churches." Many leaders, he added, believe Bishop Davis was under considerable pressure from his fellow bishops to nip the fiscal rebellion in the bud. (Bishop Davis declined WORLD's request for comment.)
Pastor Sinneath told Good News magazine: "We've been part of a system for 38 years that prides itself on its tolerance and tolerates many things we believe God has declared unacceptable. Yet that same system has demonstrated its absolute intolerance of any dissent that has a dollar sign attached to it."
Bishop Davis announced that another popular evangelical preacher in the conference, Joe Peabody of 3,600-member First UMC in nearby Norcross, would be First Marietta's new pastor.
The fledgling breakaway movement nevertheless proceeded with plans. More than 700 people, mostly members of First Marietta, showed up at a borrowed church hall for an "organizational meeting" of the independent Wesleyan Fellowship on April 27. The group promptly called Mr. Sinneath as its pastor. That same day, the bishop relieved Pastor Sinneath of all his duties at First Marietta and gave him several hours to clear out.
Pastor Sinneath says he respects the bishop and harbors no ill will toward him. Their relationship has been cordial, he said.
The Wesleyan Fellowship has been meeting Tuesday nights at a Presbyterian church building, with attendance nearing 1,000. Leaders are looking for permanent quarters.
Officials at First Marietta late last month announced they were cutting 18 of 45 employees and $1 million of its $3.5 million budget.
As of now, it appears Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes will continue to call First Marietta his home church. But U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) will switch to Wesleyan Fellowship. Said he: "I don't feel comfortable staying with a particular church that penalizes its pastors for living by what they believe is the Word of God."
If evangelicals fail to get relief at next year's General Conference, and if the conference fails to send a signal that it is serious about matters of doctrine and discipline, renewalists in the UMC warn, large numbers of Methodists will head for the exits.