Media ignores Methodists' vote to affirm laws supporting biblical model of marriage; conservatives weigh schism

PITTSBURGH (BP)--United Methodists "support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman," according to a petition adopted by a 624-184 vote of delegates to the denomination's top decision-making body, the General Conference, which meets every four years.

Neither the national news media nor the United Methodist News Service reported on the action to amend the Book of Discipline, the denomination's all-encompassing guide on Methodist beliefs and governance.

During the April 27-May 7 sessions in Pittsburgh, the nearly 1,000 delegates also voted to reaffirm such stances as homosexual practice being "incompatible with Christian teaching," perhaps signaling an impending schism among United Methodists.

The action to support laws that protect the biblical view of marriage pushes the United Methodist Church into a national debate about same-sex "marriage" that includes Congress, where a Federal Marriage Amendment is pending, and numerous states, where marriage amendments have been proposed for their respective constitutions.

The maker of the motion, Mark Tooley, a Methodist layman and staff member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative organization that monitors and challenges mainline religious bodies, publicized the action through a news release. Tooley is director of the IRD's UM Action Committee (with UM referring to United Methodist).

According to an IRD news release May 3, the United Methodist Church action "is perhaps the first instance of a mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. taking a specific position on this issue."

Tooley was quoted in the news release as saying that the action, adopted May 1, "will send a powerful message to American society and other nations where there is a Methodist presence that our church affirms traditional marriage as a vital part of every human society."

"Marriage as the union of one man and one woman is not a sectarian or partisan issue," Tooley said. "It is an innate part of God's creation and organic to every culture. The United Methodist Church, in approving this stance, was faithful to the beliefs of most church members, faithful to its Wesleyan traditions and faithful to historic teachings of the universal church."

The action made it to the General Conference floor by a 51-38 vote in the Church and Society Committee.

SCHISM 'ON THE TABLE'

The possibility of an "amicable separation" among United Methodists "is now on the table," a conservative Methodist leader noted during the closing day of the General Conference. The statement, by James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, a United Methodist evangelical group, was published in a May 7 newsletter distributed at the General Conference.

In other news from the General Conference, delegates voted to join a boycott of Taco Bell "in protest of Taco Bell's refusal to address alleged worker exploitation by its tomato suppliers," according to a United Methodist News Service report.

On sexuality issues, UMNS reported that the General Conference "solidly reaffirmed the denomination's positions on homosexuality."

Among the votes:

-- Prohibitions against the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals were upheld by a two-to-one margin, according to UMNS.

-- The Book of Discipline was amended -- in a 455-445 vote -- to clarify chargeable ministerial offenses for a church trial. UMNS listed the offenses as including "not being celibate in singleness or being unfaithful in a heterosexual marriage; being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies."

-- Officials of regional Methodist bodies were extended "the authority to ensure that church money is not being used to promote the acceptance of homosexuality," UMNS reported. "Exceptions to the rule are for ministries addressing HIV/AIDS or educational events where the church's official position on homosexuality is evident."

-- An attempt to amend the Book of Discipline to provide for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation was defeated by a two-to-one margin.

However, the church's top-ranking judicial body, the nine-member Judicial Council, ruled that it had no authority to review a March 20 ruling by a Seattle-area clergy jury that clergywoman Karen Dammann was not guilty of "practices incompatible with Christian teaching." The 13-member jury issued its ruling despite Dammann openly admitting in a letter to her bishop that she could "no longer live the life of a closeted lesbian clergyperson" and is "living in a partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship."

Four of the nine Judicial Council members joined together in a dissenting opinion. At issue were different parts of the Book of Discipline that the two sides cited in support of their positions.

'THE GAP SEPARATING US'

The issue of schism broke into the national news when Bill Hinson, head of another conservative coalition in the church called the Confessing Movement, addressed a May 6 breakfast attended by hundreds of conservatives. Hinson recounted that a two-hour meeting May 3 between a half-dozen conservatives and 15 Methodists "who are of a different perspective" left him "fully persuaded we cannot bridge the gap separating us."

"Our covenant is in shreds," Hinson, retired pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston, said.

A "sacred trust," he said, had kept Methodists "faithful to what we have discussed, voted on and placed into our Book of Discipline. All of that has now changed. More than that, our friends who have broken our covenant feel that they themselves are broken because the votes of this conference have largely gone against them; they feel disenfranchised; they feel we are doing spiritual violence to them; and have told us clearly that we are not truth-tellers....

"I believe it is time for us end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other," Hinson said. "... They hurt us defying the covenant, and we hurt them with our votes to uphold the [Book of] Discipline every four years."

Hinson noted that "a great gulf [is] fixed between those of us who are centered on Scripture and our friends who are of another persuasion. Repeatedly they have spoken of the need to get our church in step with our culture. We, on the other hand, have no desire to be the chaplain to an increasingly godless society. Rather, our desire is to be faithful to the Word of God."

Of those who contend their beliefs reflect "the Holy Spirit working in community" in addition to Scripture, Hinson said, "The Holy Spirit leads in the fulfillment of Scripture and in the illumination of Scripture. He never contradicts the Word of God. If you are being led by a spirit to do something that is contrary to the Word of God, you must test the spirit, because it is clearly not the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit will never contradict Himself.

"For many, truth is still evolving," Hinson continued. "They sincerely believe that the world has the wisdom we need and we should relativize the Bible so as to bring our thoughts into harmony with whatever the current worldly wisdom suggests. We, on the other hand, believe that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever."

Hinson said his "earnest desire is for my church, which exists to spread scriptural holiness across the earth, [to] be free to recapture our mission and refocus on the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. I dream of men's, women's and youth movements grounded in the Great Commission.

"... We cannot fight both church and culture. Our culture alone confronts us with more challenges than we can, humanly speaking, confront and challenge. That struggle, combined with the continuous struggle in the church, is more than we can bear. And our people, who have been faithful and patient, should not have to continue to endure our endless conflict. I believe the time has come when we must begin to explore an amicable and just separation that will free us both from our cycle of pain and conflict. Such a just separation will protect the property rights of churches and the pension rights of clergy. It will also free us to reclaim our high calling and to fulfill our mission in the world."

No formal proposal was presented at General Conference after Hinson's speech caught media attention, but he was quoted in The New York Times as saying, "Our statement is galloping across the earth and percolating in the hearts of our people." If the issue gains momentum, it will surface at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

On the closing day of the conference in Pittsburgh, delegates, by an 869-41 vote with eight abstentions, adopted a resolution of unity. "As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples throughout the world," the statement reads.

SOULFORCE TAKES THE FLOOR

That unity had been put to the test the day before when the homosexual rights organization Soulforce staged a demonstration on the General Conference floor.

As recounted by United Methodist News Service:

"At 11:10 a.m. May 6, a single drummer slowly beat a rhythm signaling the beginning of a peaceful interruption of the 2004 General Conference.

"The demonstration was led by Soulforce, a gay rights advocacy group. More than 500 people circled the floor of the conference for 35 minutes carrying banners and singing hymns of reconciliation.

"'The drum signals us that there are guests among us,' said Bishop Janice Huie of Arkansas, who was leading the morning session. 'They come in peace as a witness among us. I invite you to embody God's love to these strangers and friends.'

"Leading the group around the room, a single voice issued an invitation to 'those who want to reconcile, those who want justice, come out and join us.'

"Mark Miller, delegate from Greater New Jersey, took the stage and led the group in singing several songs, beginning with 'What Does the Lord Require of You?' and ending with 'Marching to Zion.'

"Many of the marchers carried signs with messages such as 'There Are Homosexuals Already in Heaven' and 'God Loves You and Me.'

"Dressed in liturgical robes, some members of the group walked to the altar and poured water into the baptismal fount.

"Marjorie Carlson, a participant in the demonstration, explained that adding the water was meant to symbolize a common bowl.

"'We have been holding water at the entrance to General Conference every morning and inviting people to remember their baptism. We brought that water here to remember what we bring to the church, that we are of one faith and baptized by one God.'

"As the demonstration went on, many delegates and bishops on the podium stood, sang and clapped in unison with the demonstrators.

"In a press conference held immediately after the demonstration, Jim Perry, chairperson of the Committee on General Conference, said he thought it was 'a peaceful, worshipful moment.'

"'It has been our goal over the past four years in planning this conference that we engage in peaceful, respectful conversation,' he said. 'It is my hope that this helped people feel closer, whether they are in agreement over the issue or not.'"

TACO BELL

The boycott of Taco Bell marked the first time since 1988 that the United Methodist Church has endorsed a boycott. That year, the General Conference approved a boycott against Royal Dutch/Shell Oil over its ties to South Africa's apartheid system.

Also endorsing the Taco Bell boycott are the National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), United Church of Christ and American Friends Service Committee.

The petition for General Conference action, which passed May 1 with other consent items, stated Immokalee farm workers in Florida earn, according to the Department of Labor, an average wage of 40 cents per 32-pound bucket -- "which has not changed in more than 20 years."

United Methodists will remain a part of the boycott until Taco Bell "convenes serious three-way talks between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representatives of Taco Bell and their tomato supplies to address exploitation and slavery in the fields," according to the General Conference action.

Also approved, but on a close vote, was a boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Co. until, as the United Methodist News Service described it, "the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the company reach an agreement on collective bargaining."

The General Conference also voted:

-- to call for an end of economic sanctions against Cuba.

-- to support a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives on reparations for slavery (H.R. 40).

-- to support federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells that remain after in-vitro fertilization procedures have been concluded. However, delegates voted to oppose the creation of embryos "with the intention of destroying them for research purposes."


Compiled by Art Toalston.

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