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Media Highlights the Epidemic of Heresy in Mainline Protestantism, UM Bishop Get Spotlight

Excerpts from Chicago Tribune:

New Divisions in Churches Revive Heresy Trials

By Ron Grossman
Tribune staff reporter

May 12, 2003

In February, Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, the Methodist bishop of Chicago, was cleared of heresy charges--for the third time.

The most recent accusations came after conservative Methodists heard that in a theology school lecture, Sprague said he didn't believe Jesus' Resurrection "involved the resuscitation of his physical body." That theme was repeated in Sprague's recent book, "Affirmations of a Dissenter."

"One reason I wrote the book is that the progressive side has been hesitant to speak out for fear of being labeled heretical," Sprague said. "The right side of the theological aisle has clearly captured the point of influence and power in the church."

Amid his own difficulties, it fell to Sprague to bring charges against one of his ministers. Some clergy were outraged that Rev. Gregory Dell had blessed a union between gay partners, and it was Sprague's episcopal responsibility to set the church's judicial mechanism in motion. Dell and Sprague both noted, though, that the bishop made it clear that his own position on gays in the church is closer to Dell's than to his accusers'.

"The [1999] trial was like a criminal procedure with a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a jury of my peers," said Dell, who is back as pastor of Broadway United Church in Chicago after a one-year suspension. "The technical charge was violating church rules, but the reality was that I was being accused of heresy. It's all about enforcing conformity of thinking."

Jimmy Creech, a Methodist minister in Omaha, was charged twice for performing gay marriages. Narrowly acquitted at his first trial, he was convicted by a second tribunal that took away his credentials as a minister in the United Methodist Church.

"It was painful to see the church invest its time and money to prosecute me and to uphold institutional bigotry," said Creech, who subsequently became chairman of the board of Soulforce, an interfaith gay-rights group.

Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a Methodist pastor in Greenville, Wis., was among those who brought the accusation against Sprague. Lambrecht said he and other conservatives feel the bishop's views violate the established theological position of the United Methodist Church.

As in all disputes, he said, some people are in the middle.

"But if you ask clergy, especially at the upper levels, I think you'd find about 40 percent subscribe to Sprague's approach and 20 percent support our view," Lambrecht said. "With the folks in the pews, my guess is the proportions are just the reverse."

Heresy trials, a distant echo of witch burnings, have reappeared on the American religious scene as part of a bitter struggle between progressives and conservatives.

Ministers outspoken on thorny social issues have been summoned to defend their views before church tribunals. So, too, have clergy whose preaching goes beyond a literal interpretation of Scripture.

Most recent accusations of heresy have taken place in the so-called mainstream Christian churches, such as the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Inhabiting the middle of the religious spectrum, they house both a traditionalist and a modernist wing.

Those filing the charges say it is their way of trying to protect the faith from being transformed out of all recognition by clergy too interested in change and too little beholden to religious tradition.

"It could be that heresy trials are making a comeback because there is a very conservative movement afoot in Protestantism that parallels the conservative mood of the country," said George Shriver, a professor emeritus at Georgia Southern University who edited "Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity," the definitive study of the subject.

Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, a Presbyterian minister in Cincinnati who was tried and convicted this year, attributes the revival of heresy trials to the inherent difficulty a religious institution has in adjusting to new times and changing mores.


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