"Whispers of Schism" On The Breath Of Methodist Federation Leader
CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE
Editorial from Social Questions Bulletin for June/July 2000 issue:
|At an MFSA board of directors meeting just prior to General Conference, I ended my
director's report by saying, "I don't know what will happen to the United Methodist
Church as an institution over the next few weeks, but I am confident that no matter what
happens, the Church of Jesus Christ will survive."
Now, a month after General Conference, I feel an anguished sadness about much of what did happen to the UMC as an institution during the first two weeks of May. I continue to remain confident, however that the Church (the body of Christ present in the world today) will survive and thrive. This confidence was bolstered at General Conference by the powerful witness of those within the UMC with a vision of the church that embodies God's liberating, just and inclusive love. The presence of such a witness within the UMC is indeed a sign of hope.
Even as I see such signs of God's grace and the presence of Christ's redeeming love within the UMC, I grieve for the brokenness of our church. I am angered by the policies of exclusion that were maintained and I am still somewhat stunned at the hard-heartedness I witnessed in Cleveland.
I worry that amid many of the very positive actions taken at General Conference, were other actions that represent a shift in the foundation of our denomination, head us on a path which oppresses rather than liberates, and shut out the movement of the Holy Spirit rather than inviting it in.
In the weeks since General Conference several people have characterized the actions of delegates as an effort to "maintain the status quo." On social issues such as economic and racial justice, delegates voted rather progressively. On issues related to homosexuality, delegates maintained the current language of the UM Discipline. Likewise on matters of doctrine, delegates generally voted to keep things as they have been. It may be that most delegates believed they were maintaining the status quo. I think it would be a big mistake, however, to conclude that General Conference did not set a clear direction with its actions. In fact, decisions made at GC 2000 represent a change of direction.
For delegates to insert the language that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" into the UM Discipline in 1972 was tragically misguided. But to maintain that language in the year 2000 after three decades of dialogue, Biblical study, careful scholarship, overwhelming testimony from the medical community, and witnessing the gifted ministries of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgenered persons in the church, is unconscionable.
Given the opportunity to make the smallest of changes and to state the obvious fact that homosexuality is incompatible with only some Christian teaching, delegates refused to move.
This is not a church standing still. This is a church moving further in the direction of exclusion. This is a church that has hardened its heart against the movement of the Spirit calling us to repent of our homophobia and heterosexism and to become the welcoming body of Christ to all persons.
In the Methodist tradition persons with various perspectives on issues have been able to coexist. The actions of this General Conference signaled that the character of the church is changing. Refusing to even acknowledge that persons of good faith are of different minds on issues related to homosexuality says to those who disagree with the stance of the church, "you are not welcome here."
Other signals of a change in direction include the Judicial Council elections resulting in a far more conservative body than the previous council. Two of the persons elected to the council were board members of the Confessing Movement prior to their election. A third was a board member of Good News and has argued cases before the Judicial Council on behalf of Good News in the past. The election of Maxie Dunham, President of Asbury Theological Seminary (the most conservative seminary among UM schools), to the United Methodist University Senate, will certainly have an impact on the decisions of the body. And a vote to change the formula used to determine the distribution of General Conference delegates will result in a larger number of delegates to future General Conferences from traditionally more conservative areas of the UMC.
While the votes of delegates in Cleveland may have largely maintained current UM policy, the actions and tenor of the GC, taken as a whole, represent a change in direction and a shift in the character of the UMC. James Heidinger, publisher of Good News Magazine, writes "it's difficult not to see the 2000 General Conference as a watershed, perhaps a turning point."
Encouraged by the gains made by conservatives at General Conference Heidinger goes on to say:
Good News and other conservative groups in the UMC gained ground at General Conference and have set their sights on church doctrine. The implications for the future of the UMC are ominous.
MFSA and other progressive groups must prayerfully reflect on who we are called to be, what it means for us to be faithful followers of Christ in these times and in this church. Out of this reflection must come powerful, clear and organized action.
When I first returned from Cleveland I found myself thinking that we must "reclaim the church." As I continue to pray and reflect, I find that insufficient. To "reclaim" is to take back what was. I believe that God is doing "a new thing" in our midst. We are not called to go back but to go forward, to discover the amazing new life that God offers us. I pray that we will be open to God's future. That in addition to reclaiming that which is so good in our tradition, that we will move forward and build a church for our children where all will be welcomed, nourished and lovingly challenged to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
The church did not stand still in Cleveland and neither can we. We have a vision to offer and love sufficient to overcome.
Kathryn Johnson, MFSA
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