For 68 Methodist ministers in Northern California, the news arrived in $11.75 overnight Express Mail envelopes on Feb. 11: They would not have to face trial and possible defrocking for participating in a union ceremony of two lesbians in Sacramento in January 1999 (WORLD, Jan. 30, 1999). A seven-member investigative panel of "peers" ruled their defiance of the United Methodist Church ban on such ceremonies would not be prosecuted.
"No further steps or actions will be taken or pursued," Bishop Melvin Talbert of the California-Northern Nevada regional unit of the UMC said in a statement from Sacramento. He acknowledged the decision "may appear to have broken covenant with the Book of Discipline [the UMC book of laws]." But, he argued, a UMC regional conference is the basic unit of the church, and its covenantal standard for ministers "has precedence over this one narrow focus of law."
In effect, Bishop Talbert and his ruling regime of fellow liberals decided they need not obey any church law with which they disagree. This position appears to be in conflict with the vow of UMC bishops to "uphold the law of the church," an issue the bishop did not address.
The action sets the stage for a showdown at the 8.5-million-member denomination's quadrennial General Conference at Cleveland in early May. Cleveland could well turn out to be the Gettysburg of UMC history. If liberals throughout the UMC are successful in their vigorous lobbying to relax the laws, a major schism will result for the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. Numerous pastors and congregations, including many of the UMC's largest, are poised to leave if this happens.
However, a survey by the renewal group Good News finds 65 fewer liberals among the 1,000 delegates who will be in Cleveland than were at the 1996 conference, where conservatives held the line. Some renewal leaders predict not only enough votes will exist to withstand a well-orchestrated liberal assault, but also perhaps enough to set in motion procedures to create a "missionary" conference for evangelicals in the West who seek relief from discrimination and the disregard for Scripture and church laws that pervade their conferences. Pro-homosexual forces announced that if conservatives prevail, demonstrators will engage in "non-violent direct action" in Cleveland to "condemn their untruth."
Meanwhile, back in Northern California, evangelicals are trying to hold their ranks together until Cleveland.
"If this decision to dismiss charges is allowed to stand, the church owes Greg Dell and Jimmy Creech an apology," declared John Sheppard, pastor of a large Methodist church in Yuba City, Calif., and a leading evangelical advocate for reform in the conference. (Mr. Dell was suspended from the ministry and Mr. Creech was defrocked in two widely publicized trials last year. Both had conducted homosexual unions in deliberate defiance of the ban, following rulings by the UMC's highest court that the laws involved were constitutional and violations of them were chargeable offenses.)
The action "is going to inflame Methodists across the country," warned Bakersfield pastor Robert L. Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship in Bishop Talbert's conference.
Indeed, within five days of the Talbert announcement, three renewal groups announced the formation of a Coalition for United Methodist Accountability to press for doctrinal, fiscal, and "procedural" accountability. It will "assemble a team of eminent attorneys and legal advisors who will be prepared to respond to ensure accountability in the order and administration of the church," a news release said. The coalition includes the Confessing Movement, which represents more than 1,200 congregations and 500,000 United Methodists.
Bishop Talbert told reporters that anybody who doesn't like what's going on in the conference is welcome to leave. "There is room for diversity here, there is room for a difference of opinion," he said. However, when WORLD questioned him earlier about his failure to appoint any evangelicals to key committees and positions of power in the conference, he said he wanted only people he could trust to represent his views and positions.
On a related front, Good News asked the UMC Council of Bishops to take corrective action regarding two other bishops. Bishop Susan Morrison signed a public statement Jan. 19 supporting proposed Vermont legislation to recognize "committed" relationships between same-sex couples as "marriage." And in Southern California, Bishop Roy Sano took part in a public rally Jan. 23, speaking out against Proposition 22, an anti-gay marriage initiative on a March 7 state ballot.
Good News asked the council to inform swiftly the Vermont and California legislatures that the bishops' statements did not represent the UMC's official position. It also asked the council to clarify what upholding the church's Book of Discipline means.