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Confessing Movement focuses criticism on United Methodist Church

by United Methodist News Service

April 21, 1998


TULSA, Okla. (UMNS) – "The heresy of universalism has performed a frontal lobotomy on Methodism's evangelistic urgency," accused the keynote speaker at a national conference of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church here April 16-18.

The Rev. William Bouknight, senior minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and vice president of the Confessing Movement's board of directors, urged a focus on the authority of scripture, the seriousness of sin and the centrality of the cross. Why isn't belief in the resurrection of Jesus as non-negotiable for United Methodists as refraining from sexism and racism, he asked.

Bouknight was one of several speakers addressing aspects of the denomination they believe to be in need of change.

The Confessing Movement, in one of its leaflets, defines itself as asking "for a new level of integrity in upholding our historic doctrinal standards in a thoughtful, serious, and principled way." Other groups and individuals in the church have accused the movement of attempting to set litmus tests of orthodoxy and of supporting the denomination only on the movement's terms.

Either way the movement is growing. Launched in 1994 at an invitation-only gathering of about 100 people in Atlanta, the group reported registration of 1,000 at this event. Convening the initial meeting were the late Bishop William R. Cannon of Atlanta, the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky., and the Rev. Thomas C. Oden, a professor at Drew University School of Theology, Madison, N.J.

Active participants in the movement seem to be from the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions of the United Methodist Church. This assumption was supported when one of the speakers asked that all those individuals from the other three jurisdictions stand, and far fewer than 5 percent of the group stood.

Bishop G. Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference said he was attending "to be in Christian conversation about the future of our church."

He expressed the belief that a recent clergy trial in Nebraska "called into question the ability of our system to hold one another accountable." Because the Rev. Jimmy Creech was acquitted March 13 of disobeying the order and discipline of the church after having performed a same-sex covenant service, Davis said it is "crucial that the Judicial Council [the church's equivalent of the Supreme Court] clarify the situation." If the Judicial Council rules that the Social Principles – where the prohibition was placed by the 1996 General Conference – are not part of church law, he said, he wants a special session of the General Conference as soon as possible. The next regular quadrennial session is scheduled for Cleveland in the year 2000.

Davis said a deeper issue is how the church regards scriptural authority and divine revelation, but the real crisis facing the denomination is "a lack of spiritual leadership in the pulpits and in the pews." All leaders in the church should be daily moving closer to having the mind of Christ, through the practice of spiritual disciplines such as fasting, Davis asserted.

He cautioned those present not to abandon their "covenantal commitments" to the United Methodist Church. "We represent the mainstream of our church," he declared.

The Rev. John Ed Mathison, president of the movement's board and minister of Frazer United Methodist Church, Montgomery, Ala., said people in the Confessing Movement are being faithful to the teachings of John Wesley, Methodism's founder. "Keep in mind we're Christians first," he said. "We are members of the Confessing Movement and United Methodist Church second."

Patricia L. Miller, the movement's executive director, explained a plan to recruit volunteer Confessing Movement coordinators for each jurisdiction, annual conference, district and congregation.

The Rev. George Morris, senior minister at First United Methodist Church in Peoria, Ill., attributed the decline in United Methodist membership over the last several decades to the rise of secular theology in the 1960s and 1970s, the surrender of scriptural authority that led to "a gross form of Christian accommodationism" and the surrender of the Wesleyan Methodist birthright – "holiness of heart and life." Wesley thought Christians had a mandate to promote holiness in every sphere of life, he said.

The Confessing Movement is being called to spread that holiness over the land," he said. "By removing ourselves from our Wesley environment, we are forever trying to be something we were never intended to be."

Some speakers at the meeting spoke to particular situations in the denomination where change is needed. Among these were Mel and Virginia Semrod from Omaha, Neb. When several members of First United Methodist Church, where Jimmy Creech is pastor, resigned after his acquittal, the couple decided to call them together on Sunday mornings. The result is weekly "laity rallies" at a local school that are currently attracting approximately 475 people, she said. The verdict left him and other church members feeling as if they were in the eye of a tornado, he said.

Others agreed that they also had been shocked by the verdict and were now embarrassed to let others know they are United Methodists.

The Rev. Ed Ezaki and the Rev. Kevin Clancey, two pastors from California who are among several congregations seeking to separate from the denomination, said the California-Nevada Annual Conference is against evangelicals . He assured supporters of the Confessing Movement that although he will not be United Methodist, he will still be "passionately Wesleyan."

Near the end of the conference, participants agreed to send a message to the church and its bishops. In it, supporters of the movement criticize the spending practices of churchwide and conference boards and agencies and threaten to reconsider their commitment to apportionments, a method whereby local churches contribute to churchwide mission and ministry causes. They also object to what they consider to be unusually large financial reserves held by some churchwide boards. (See UMNS #238.)


Confessing Movement issues message to United Methodist Church

April 21, 1998  - 238

TULSA, Okla. (UMNS) – A movement within the United Methodist Church is sending a message to the denomination and its bishops calling for renewal and a return to Wesleyan standards. A special session of the denomination's top legislative body is also being called for to deal with matters related to same-sex unions.

The message was approved with considerable discussion but few dissenting votes at the Confessing Movement's April 16-18 meeting here. Approximately 1,000 people were in attendance.

The movement of evangelicals, which began four years ago, emphasizes confessing Jesus as the sole route to salvation, Scripture as the written word of God, and a return to Wesleyan devotional and doctrinal tradition.

The message from the conference was produced by a writing team using recommendations of 19 small group sessions. In presenting the material for a vote, the Rev. Bill Hinson, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston, observed that some points represented general agreement but that recommendations from the groups were at odds on some of the nine items.

Six points addressed to the whole church ranged from a call for fasting and prayer for renewal of the denomination to a demand that the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and other agencies rid themselves of "exorbitant reserves."

Although at least one small group of evangelicals has expressed its intention to leave the denomination, the message includes a declaration of the movement's intention to stay while calling for certain changes.

Three items addressed specifically to the bishops expressed support for evangelicals in the California-Nevada and the Nebraska annual (regional) conferences, endorsed a call for a special session of the church's highest legislative body to deal with issues around same-sex unions, and asked the bishops to hold each other accountable in teaching and defending the doctrinal and ethical standards of the denomination.

Participants in the Tulsa meeting said they wanted to make sure the bishops receive the Confessing Movement's message before the Council of Bishops convenes for its semi-annual meeting April 25-May 1 in Lincoln, Neb. A cover letter will inform the bishops of the Confessing Movement's intention to pray and fast for the council.

The movement's statement asks the bishops "to hear carefully and respond compassionately to the agony experienced by evangelical pastors and laity" particularly in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, where a small group have indicated an intention to separate from the denomination, and the Nebraska Annual Conference, where a recent church trial acquitted the Rev. Jimmy Creech for disobeying the order and discipline of the church when he performed a same-sex union ceremony. "We are embarrassed and shaken that some in those conferences feel they can no longer in conscience remain within the connection," the message says.

In its second point addressed to the bishops, the movement expressed support for the calls by Bishops Marion Edwards of the North Carolina Annual Conference and G. Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Annual Conference and their respective cabinets seeking a special session of General Conference, the church's highest legislative body "to deal with the current crisis regarding same-sex unions."

"To postpone resolution of this crisis until the year 2000 is completely unacceptable," the group said.

Its third point begged the Council of Bishops to hold each other accountable in teaching and defending the doctrinal and ethical standards in The Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of history, doctrinal statements, rules and regulations of organization, administration and conduct. This statement also urged the bishops to exercise their role as teachers as specified in the Discipline.

First in the six items addressed to the whole church is a statement that God alone can heal the rifts in the denomination. This statement is accompanied by an invitation to all United Methodists to join in fasting and regular prayer for renewal of the church.

The second general item is a call to all United Methodists to be faithful to Scripture and loyal to the doctrinal standards and ethical teachings of The Book of Discipline. This point also contains a declaration that the Confessing Movement is within the United Methodist Church and intends to stay there.

"We who affirm the classical Wesleyan standards far outnumber those who oppose them," the document asserts. "Our mission is to enable the United Methodist Church to retrieve its classical, doctrinal identity and to live it out as disciples of Jesus Christ."

The next point declares, "We are convinced that both Scripture and The Book of Discipline are quite clear in rejecting the practice of homosexuality and the [performance] of same-sex unions." Weakening of these biblical and disciplinary standards would force members of the movement to reconsider their commitments to the denomination, the message says, adding that their first loyalty is to scriptural holiness and divine revelation in Jesus Christ.

A fourth point asks the General Conference to provide relief for those who are unwilling to live under the doctrinal and ethical standards of the Discipline. The message supports amicable exits for clergy and congregations, including equitable settlement of pension, property and institutional resource questions.

One of the remaining points accuses churchwide and annual conference boards and agencies of expending funds "in ways that are sometimes contrary to Scripture, disciplinary standards and good stewardship" and concluding that local congregations have reason to reconsider their commitment to apportionments – the church's present system of allocating the cost of administration and ministry beyond the local church.

"We believe the present exorbitant reserves of the General Board of Global Ministries and other agencies effectively isolates them from accountability and is an affront to the financial faithfulness of the local churches," says the remaining item. "This is unacceptable and must be corrected."

The full text of the message can be found at http://www.iquest.net/~confessingumc which is the Confessing Movement's web site.

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