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NEWS STORY: Divided Methodists End Meeting With Vows of Unity

c. 2004 Religion News Service PITTSBURGH _ Conservative leaders on Friday (May 7) insisted there is no organized campaign to force a split in the United Methodist Church, but said the denomination can no longer ignore deep divisions over homosexuality and other issues. As delegates wrapped up their General Conference legislative meeting, evangelicals downplayed a […]

c. 2004 Religion News Service

PITTSBURGH _ Conservative leaders on Friday (May 7) insisted there is no organized campaign to force a split in the United Methodist Church, but said the denomination can no longer ignore deep divisions over homosexuality and other issues.

As delegates wrapped up their General Conference legislative meeting, evangelicals downplayed a call issued Thursday by one of their own for an “amicable separation” within the 10 million-member church.

“I don’t want us to talk about separation,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and a conservative leader. “That’s not a game where our energy needs to be focused.”

Dunnam said a resolution circulated Thursday that urged a churchwide divorce was premature. Officials said it was drafted to spur discussion between the church’s left and right wings but was never a formal proposal.

The statement, along with a Thursday morning speech by Confessing Movement President Bill Hinson urging an end to “our cycle of pain and conflict,” caught many in the church off-guard. It also prompted a great deal of soul-searching.

Delegates, linking arms and singing United Methodism’s national anthem, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” on Friday overwhelmingly endorsed a last-minute statement that upheld church unity.

“As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and reaffirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the world,” said the statement, approved 869-41.

Hinson’s call for schism was not embraced by all conservatives. The Rev. Eddie Fox, who led the effort to maintain church policy on homosexuality, said, “I’ve not left this church, nor has this church left me.” Dunnam agreed.

Hinson, the former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston, said his “shot heard ’round the world” simply acknowledged that Methodists are two churches living uncomfortably under the same roof.

“The division of our church has already happened,” said Hinson, who called the church’s divisions irreconcilable. “It just hasn’t been named or formalized yet.”

Though divisions were obvious, delegates earlier this week rejected a move to “recognize that Christians disagree” on the sinfulness of homosexual activity. Instead, they pledged to “seek to live together in Christian community.”

Delegates voted to leave unchanged policy that calls gay sex “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church’s highest court also made clear that bishops may not appoint openly gay pastors to Methodist pulpits.

The March 20 acquittal of the Rev. Karen Dammann, an openly lesbian pastor in Washington state, outraged conservatives and fueled a drive to tighten the language of the denomination’s gay policy.

Delegates and the court made explicit that being an openly gay, noncelibate homosexual is a “chargeable offense” for clergy. They also said that “not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage” is grounds to charge heterosexual ministers.

Progressive groups worried that the church is sailing into a stormy season of “inquisition” as gay clergy _ and even the bishops who support them _ face church trials under the stricter policies.

“How do you prove someone is a self-avowed practicing homosexual? That’s the yuck factor,” said the Rev. Monica Corsaro, a leader of the gay-friendly Reconciling Ministries Network. “Are we really going down that road?”

On balance, the church leaves its General Conference meeting largely maintaining the status quo, with a slight tilt to the right. Both sides agree that the church’s highest court, the Judicial Council, will play a crucial role enforcing church policy until Methodists gather again in 2008.

While the church maintained its conservative policies on sexuality, the policies it adopted regarding stem cell research, abortion and a boycott against Taco Bell continued its left-of-center tradition on social policy.

“Conservatives are usually so drained and exhausted from fighting on sexual issues that they tend to take a pass on political and social issues,” said Mark Tooley, who monitors the church for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

But on Friday, delegates refused to allow time to consider a short statement drafted by a small group of bishops that said the U.S. war in Iraq did not meet “just war” criteria.

The statement, referring to recent reports of prisoner abuse at the hands of American soldiers, said the “cycle of violence in which we are engaged has set a context for un-American and un-Christian violations of human beings who are Iraqi prisoners of war.”

DEA/PH END ECKSTROM