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Editorial: Traditional Methodists Chafe Under Liberals

by Mark Tooley

Two very different groups of United Methodist leaders convened this spring to debate the future of America's third-largest religious body, which is increasingly fractured over sex, theology and politics. In Lincoln, Neb., the church's bishops tried taping Band- Aids over the church's internal squabbles. They vowed to abide by the church's prohibition on homosexual marriage, at least for now. But they also approved liberal political stances more typical of mainline Protestant leaders.

Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Okla., more than 1,000 concerned United Methodists, many of them pastors in the denomination's largest churches, rallied for a revival of traditional Christian beliefs. The church's long-simmering debate over homosexuality was most alarming to these "Confessing Movement" participants.

The specter haunting both meetings was the March ruling by a United Methodist court in Nebraska that refused to convict an Omaha pastor for conducting a lesbian wedding. While insisting the court's ruling set no precedent, the bishops still said little about enforcing the church's ban on same-sex ceremonies. And they deferred to the church's Judicial Council, which will meet in August, as to whether the ban is legally binding or merely advisory.

The Confessing Movement is alarmed by the aggressive push from pro-homosexuality caucus groups to overturn the church's disapproval of homosexuality, which has been ratified by the church's governing General Conference every session since 1972.

The quadrennial General Conference is not scheduled to meet again until the year 2000. But the Confessing Movement has called for a special session specifically to discuss homosexuality. The bishops rejected this idea. General Conferences have been conservative about sex, and a special session would probably be even more so. An emboldened General Conference, summoned by grass-roots pressure, may actually require church agencies and seminaries to uphold the church's doctrines about not only sex but also about God, salvation and the Bible. National church agencies, which now busily tout feminism, racial quotas, abortion rights, environmental regulation and the welfare state, do not want that kind of guidance. Confessing Movement leader Bill Bouknight, a Memphis pastor, noted in Tulsa that United Methodists rightly insist on racial and gender equality as "non-negotiable" but fail to uphold the church's belief in the Resurrection of Jesus with equal, if any, vigor.

Bishop Lindsey Davis of Atlanta also bemoaned the "significant voices within our church who have a diminished view of the centrality of Scripture" when he addressed the Confessing Movement. He frets over "alien theories of biblical interpretation that have assumed a prominent place" in the church.

To Bishop Davis' consternation, one of his state's largest United Methodist congregations, with 5,000 members, has agreed with his analysis by withholding their financial support from national church agencies and seminaries. The bishop counsels patience before boycotts.

Davis was one of only two bishops to publicly advocate a special General Conference to debate homosexuality. His fellow bishops called that proposal a potential distraction from the church's "central mission," which they described as ministry with the world's children.

As part of its "Children's Initiative," the bishops endorsed the national "Children's Sabbath" organized every year by the Children's Defense Fund as part of an effort to reverse welfare reform. A resolution opposing California's Proposition 209, which prohibits bilingual education, was passed without debate. And despite opposition from Davis and one colleague from Georgia, the bishops called for shutting down the U.S. Army's School of Americas at Ft. Benning, which it labeled a source of "oppression" for "our Latino brothers and sisters."

None of these issues will ignite United Methodist tempers like homosexuality. More than 200 United Methodist pastors have declared their intention to conduct homosexual weddings. And more than 1,300 clergy had signed a petition calling for the church to overturn its teaching about homosexuality. (There are 40,000 United Methodist clergy.)

The Confessing Movement can justly claim to speak for most United Methodists. But the bishops, and the even more left-leaning national church bureaucracy, still retain unchallenged power within the church on most issues. Their authority will remain undiminished so long as the conservative majority among United Methodism's 8.5 million members continues its unquestioning financial support.

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