Features

Divided, They Stand

National | Methodist traditionalists hold off liberals for four more years, but how long can the nation's second largest Protestant church group continue to hold together?

Issue: "Sad stories, bad laws?," May 27, 2000

Cleveland was a Gettysburg of sorts this month for rebellious liberals in the 8.4-million-member United Methodist Church, the country's second largest Protestant denomination. They failed repeatedly in assaults on key conservative positions at the UMC's quadrennial General Conference, then limped home to tend to their wounds and ponder what to do next. Some said they probably will leave the church; others pledged to keep up the fight at local and regional levels for another four years. And they promised another shootout at Pittsburgh in 2004. By May 12, when the smoke cleared at the end of the two-week-long policy-setting conference, the 992 UMC delegates had:
1.Retained by solid two-thirds majority votes the church's official positions on homosexual-related issues dating back to 1972: Homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching"; practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained; and same-sex unions cannot be performed by UMC ministers or in UMC churches.
2.Elected three evangelicals to eight-year terms on the increasingly important nine-member Judicial Council, the UMC's supreme court; its recent decisions have led to suspension and defrocking of UMC clergy disobedient to church laws governing homosexual-related matters.
3.Requested-and received-from the Judicial Council a declaratory decision upholding the church's Book of Discipline as the supreme law of the church; local and regional "covenant" considerations cannot take precedence over churchwide law, as arch-liberal California-Nevada bishop Melvin Talbert had maintained in a recent discipline case where charges were dismissed against 68 clergy.
4.Revised delegate representation to reflect growth in traditionalist areas in the South; predominantly liberal western states will have eight fewer delegates-posing significant implications for representation on general church boards and agencies, and all but ensuring a stronger traditionalist vote in future General Conferences.
5.Showed surprisingly strong minority support for the establishment of an Evangelical Missionary Conference in the West as a haven for pastors and churches smarting under liberal leaders and practices there.
6.Resoundingly placed the UMC on record opposing partial-birth abortions (by a vote of 622 to 275), in contrast to its adamant pro-choice stance in years past. The primary mission of liberals who came to Cleveland was to remove or water down the restrictive language dealing with homosexuality in the denomination's Book of Discipline. Taking the point position was a coalition of four groups known as AMAR: Affirmation, the unofficial caucus promoting the homosexual agenda in the UMC; the Methodist Federation for Social Action; the Reconciling Congregation Program; and the hastily organized (and tiny) United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church. Also joining the campaign was Mel White and his Los Angeles-based Soulforce group. Mr. White, a member of the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Churches, says he organized Soulforce to press denominations and congregations to include homosexuals fully in church life and ministry. Conservative forces, too, came to Cleveland prepared. Several renewal groups, including the Confessing Movement and Good News, formed a coalition known as UMAction 2000. Studies by Good News had concluded earlier that a majority of delegates likely were traditionalists on key issues. So the coalition tracked legislation and sponsored briefing breakfasts to keep friendlies informed and inspired, handed out literature, held daily prayer sessions, and recruited "prayer delegates" to come to Cleveland. AMAR and Soulforce failed to produce the 2,000 bodies they said would take part in demonstrations in Cleveland. WORLD counted the hard-cores at the first rally, in a plaza behind the convention auditorium on a sunny Saturday halfway through the conference. Fewer than 125 were on hand; they were joined a few minutes later by some 250 delegates and visitors when the conference adjourned for lunch. Nevertheless, the protesters managed to catch everyone's attention. On May 10, 191 were arrested and fined $180 each for blocking a driveway in a plan carefully worked out in advance with police. The next day, 150 paraded in the balcony, and 50 trespassed onto the conference floor, disrupting deliberations on the homosexual issues. Delegates patiently permitted them to stay and even speak. But when a vote they asked for didn't go the way they wanted, 30 of them took over the podium, ignoring the appeals of the presiding officer, Bishop Dan Solomon of Louisiana, to leave. Police, again according to prearranged plan, arrested them and led them away peacefully to paddy wagons. They had to pay fines and court costs of $160. The disruption and arrests were a first in General Conference history, a UMC spokesman said. During the latter demonstration, a stocky middle-aged woman bounded down an aisle in the balcony and jumped onto the narrow front edge, almost losing her balance. It appeared she would jump or fall. Delegates sat horrified. Flailing her arms, she shouted that she had been "gay all my life," that she was not a United Methodist, and therefore she was free to say or do anything she wanted. Several other demonstrators sneaked up behind her and wrestled her to safety. Paramedics took her to a hospital. A leader of both the May 10 and 11 demonstrations was Greg Dell, who is nearing the end of a one-year suspension from his pulpit in Chicago for performing a same-sex union. The suspension, imposed reluctantly by his pro-homosexual bishop, C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago, has allowed him to remain on salary and work out of the church basement as head of In All Things Charity. Dedicated to changing the UMC's positions on homosexuality, the group has helped to staff AMAR organizations. Mr. Dell was arrested twice in Cleveland. Another familiar face was that of Jimmy Creech, a former Omaha pastor who was acquitted in a trial for performing a same-sex union but was defrocked in a second trial for doing it again. "This is a historic day," Mr. Creech said at the May 10 demonstration. "We are here to call the United Methodist Church away from bigotry." (Seemingly lost in the fuss are the many positive statements regarding homosexuals in the Book of Discipline. The UMC assures them of God's love and grace, supports their basic human rights and civil liberties, condemns violence against them, and commits itself to ministry to them.) At least 14 bishops took part in the demonstrations, and two of them-Bishop Sprague and Bishop Susan Morrison of Albany, N.Y.-were arrested (Bishop Sprague, twice). The 14 also included active bishops Judith Craig of Worthington, Ohio; William Dew of Phoenix; Albert Mutti of Topeka, Kansas; Donald Ott of Southfield, Mich.; Roy Sano of Pasadena, Calif.; Mary Ann Swenson of Denver; and Melvin Talbert of Sacramento. At the Saturday rally, Bishop Talbert, who will retire soon, was upfront with his bias. He told his listeners the UMC position on homosexuality "is wrong." He acknowledged that he and some other bishops "are working hard from within to change the heart and soul of this church." Many delegates were heard asking among themselves how bishops, who are sworn to uphold and defend church teaching and the Book of Discipline, can so blatantly speak out against the teaching and work so hard to sabotage it-and get away with it. Over and over the question was raised: "Where is accountability?" As for what lies ahead for the denomination, both sides seem pessimistic. "I think we'll see a significant number of people leave," said Marilyn Alexander of the Reconciling Congregation Program, with 165 churches. "How long do you stay in an abusive relationship?" "In the midst of the lie by some bishops that our church is one body united in hospitality and love, the people who risked arrest spoke the truth in love," said Katherine Johnson, head of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. "We are not one body, we are a broken and wounded body, and our wounds are bleeding." As a sop to the losing side, delegates agreed to have organized talks about homosexuality for another four years. Naperville, Ill., pastor Scott Field, one of the UMAction 2000 coordinators, was hoping the issue could be put to rest so the UMC can focus on evangelism and other priorities. "Dialogue used to mean the open engagement of exchanging perspectives," he said, "but now it means, 'Let's keep talking until I convince you I am right.'" "Essentially we have two irreconcilable theological positions in our denomination, and they lead to irreconcilable practices of ministry.... It's time to simply move on and let those who cannot affirm the covenant of the church be allowed to get out." Meanwhile, no rest for the weary. Mel White has declared war on UMC traditionalists. He said Soulforce will picket individual UMC congregations that support the Book of Discipline's statements, and some churches can expect to be targeted for civil disobedience. And count on at least 1,000 arrests in Pittsburgh in 2004, he added. "The church is headed south, listing dramatically to starboard," Massachusetts minister Robert Sweet complained. If so, it promises to be a long voyage. Liberals control most of the denomination's boards, agencies, and 13 seminaries. Traditionalist influence is growing in the pews, enough to make liberal administrators step more cautiously-and feel heat when they don't. Yet the face of United Methodism in the United States remains largely a liberal one both socially and theologically.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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