Wisconsin Annual Conference Remains Deadlocked over Homosexuality
by Rev. Tom Lambrecht June 2, 1998
For the second year in a row, a close vote has resulted in no action on issues around homosexuality at the Wisconsin Annual Conference. The first in a series of resolutions dealing with homosexuality resulted in a tie vote, 320-320. The conference then adopted a proposal to "defer voting on resolutions relating to sexual orientation . . . until the convening of the 1999 Annual Conference." In addition, the conference committed itself to organizing open forums in local churches and districts and encouraging pulpit exchanges among pastors with differing views. We urged local congregations to educate themselves regarding ministry for and with all persons. These "steps to promote unity through dialogue" are designed so that, "when we return next year, we will be better prepared to hear each other and the Holy Spirit."
The action surrounded a WACUM resolution to add the prohibition against homosexual unions to our conference policies. Part of the resolution said that "violation of this policy shall be considered disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church,' a chargeable offense according to the Book of Discipline, par. 2624.1e." Bishop Rader ruled the resolution out of order on the grounds that the Annual Conference cannot define what constitutes "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church." That ruling has been appealed to the Judicial Council.
Thus, the Wisconsin Annual Conference remains a "Reconciling Conference," but has no operative definition about what that means, other than "welcoming all people." A proposed definition by the Conference Board of Church and Society was one of the resolutions put on hold by the decision to defer voting until 1999.
As a part of the proposal to defer voting on resolutions relating to sexual orientation, the conference approved a resolution submitted by the Wisconsin Confessing Movement endorsing the document "In Search of Unity." This document was the report of a dialogue between representatives of evangelical and liberal theologies, sponsored by the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. The document explains how homosexuality is only one manifestation of a deeper theological division within our denomination. It also contains several proposals intended to encourage theological dialogue.
OTHER WACUM RESOLUTIONS
The conference adopted another resolution from WACUM opposing the performance of "Partial-Birth Abortions." This was the first time in the history of the Wisconsin Conference that any resolution limiting abortion has been approved. The key argument in gaining approval for this resolution seemed to be that other alternatives, including other forms of abortion, are available to women who might choose a partial-birth abortion. Nevertheless, conference members seemed much more open to reaffirming the sanctity of human life. Even opponents of banning partial-birth abortions spoke of the "repugnance" of abortion.
At the other end of the life spectrum, a WACUM resolution opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide engaged the conference in serious and respectful discussion. The conference deleted a sentence opposing "the effort to legally approve physician-assisted suicide and/or euthanasia." However, the conference asked for resources to study issues of death and dying from a Christian perspective. We promised not to withhold pastoral care or church services for those involved in such circumstances. We also encouraged all United Methodists to become involved in and support caring hospice ministries and suicide prevention ministries.
Another WACUM resolution asked the Wisconsin Annual Conference to reaffirm the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church. It would have required "all who preach and teach in connection with our Annual Conference to maintain their preaching and teaching with integrity within those doctrinal standards." Bishop Rader ruled this resolution out of order for being redundant, since clergy have already committed to these actions at their ordination.
Several aspects of this year's conference session were discouraging. The Cabinet/Laity Council Address disparaged a key tenet of evangelical theology, that people need to be saved from eternal judgment. The belief that God could ultimately condemn anyone to "hell" was considered incompatible with our understanding of a loving God. Rev. Peter Storey of South Africa, the Conference Preacher, spoke strongly against allowing "the issue of homosexuality" to divide the UMC. Rev. Storey trivialized this issue by comparing it to the serious plight of the world's children. He said he had heard "no one calling for a special session of General Conference to deal with the plight of the world's children." We believe these are two different kinds of issues facing the church. The Legislative Committee process was poorly explained, and was not understood by many laity. The chairperson of the Legislative Committee dealing with the issue of homosexuality was himself a self-avowed practicing homosexual, who had spoken to last year's annual conference in favor of our being a Reconciling Conference. How could he give the appearance of impartiality? Most of the WACUM resolutions were not even discussed in a Legislative Committee because we were not asked to supply presenters, and the WACUM leaders were assigned to other committees. Attacks on the Confessing Movement and its leaders frequently descended into slander and personal attack. We were described as "liars," "sneaky," attempting to "muzzle and to mislead," "pornographers." We were compared to Nazis and Pharisees (until someone pointed out this might be offensive to our Jewish brothers and sisters). One particularly outrageous quote comes from an unofficial publication distributed at the beginning of the annual conference session. "Oh, sure, they [the Confessing Movement] will quote scripture, but their use of it is an outrageous attempt to have the United Methodist Church and our Annual Conference out-fundamentalize the Fundamentalists, out- pentecostalize the Pentecostals, and out-charism the Charismatics. This un- United Methodist behavior needs to be outed. Continuing to allow free pot- shots [sic] at the grand design of United Methodism from the closet mislabeled evangelical,' as if only the current squatters there are such, has been more hurtful than we have acknowledged up to this point."
The atmosphere appeared more poisoned and conflicted than any annual conference since the early 1980's. However, there were several signs that WACUM is making a difference, and that God is working in our Wisconsin Annual Conference. Without WACUM's opposition, the pro-Reconciling agenda of the Board of Church and Society would have sailed through. For two years, we have blocked their attempts to promote the acceptance and approval of homosexual practice. Conference members on many points of the theological spectrum expressed personal support for the leaders of WACUM. They regretted or resented the attacks on evangelical theology at this conference session and wanted us to know they believe there is an important place for evangelicals in the Wisconsin Conference. We had two excellent examples of United Methodist "conferencing" at its best, in the floor discussions on abortion and euthanasia. Conference leaders acknowledged the flaws in the Legislative Section process and promised to work on solving them for next year. Bishop Rader strongly advocated the necessity of both Christian social action/ministry and Christian faith development. This is precisely what WACUM advocates. She also spoke favorably of evangelical theology in her Confirmation sermon Sunday morning. Rev. Peter Storey of South Africa, during his charge to those being ordained, gave a strong boost to the foundations of Christian Theology. He said at one point that one cannot talk about Christian spirituality without talking about Jesus. Jesus Christ is the center and foundation of our faith. Again, this is what the Confessing Movement stands for. Individual actions by Conference leaders demonstrated sensitivity to evangelical concerns. For example, one of the Legislative Section chairpersons included in her report the idea that at least one of our conference staff members should possess a strong evangelical background and emphasis. She officially reported this idea, though only a minority of the Legislative Section endorsed it.
The theme of this year's annual conference revolved around the Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty. This included workshops and other presentations lifting up this initiative. In addition, the annual conference decided to change the date and location of the annual conference meeting. We approved the use of preferred providers in the conference health insurance program and established a universal health insurance premium that would be the same for single and family coverage. We also required all churches to participate in the conference health insurance program. No action was taken on the annual conference budget or proposals to add more conference staff. These issues will be addressed in a special session in October. Finally, one Legislative Section approved a resolution asking that conference apportionments be set at 10% of each local church's operating income. (Currently, apportionments average 14% of operating income.) This idea was referred to the Council on Finance and Administration for study.
JOY MOORE INSPIRES WACUM LUNCHEON
Rev. Joy Moore gave an inspiring address to those attending the first-ever WACUM luncheon at annual conference. She is a clergy member of the West Michigan Annual Conference and a member of the national board of the Confessing Movement. Joy encouraged us not to "jump ship," but to work hard to keep the ship from sinking. It was just the word we needed to hear at a discouraging time in the conference! About 150 people participated in this informational luncheon. A copy of Rev. Moore's remarks will be available in a few weeks.
I learned again at this annual conference how God can work, despite flawed processes and strong opposition. We felt early in the conference that we were being overwhelmed. But the results of the voting demonstrated that a significant segment of Wisconsin United Methodism shares the concerns and viewpoint of the Wisconsin Confessing Movement.
We will continue to offer a positive vision for our annual conference, based on the primacy of Scripture and the focus of making disciples for Jesus Christ. I feel positive about our potential to influence our annual conference in a more evangelical direction. We will be building our network and reaching more churches and individuals during the coming year. As we communicate what the Confessing Movement is all about, I believe more laity in the grass roots will respond positively to our message.
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