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Conservatives consider ‘separation’ of United Methodist Church

By Neill Caldwell*
May 6, 2004 | PITTSBURGH (UMNS)

Despite favorable outcomes on most of their key issues at General Conference, conservative leaders are considering un-uniting the United Methodist Church.

A proposed resolution to the denomination’s top legislative assembly, meeting through May 7, may not come to the floor before the end of General Conference. But two key conservative church leaders openly talked May 6 about an “amicable” divorce over “irreconcilable differences.”

“‘United Methodist’ is an oxymoron,” said the Rev. Bill Hinson, president of the Confessing Movement and former senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Houston. “We haven’t been united for a long time. Others ridicule us as the ‘untied’ Methodist Church.”

“We have no expectation that we can ever reach an agreement,” said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of the Good News organization, “and the dialogue and debate have gone on for 30 years. This is a deep theological divide.”

Heidinger said the possible resolution “may or may not” be offered at this General Conference. Copies of the document were distributed to the media.

Other conservatives distanced themselves from the proposal. “I don’t want to go there, and there are many who would take the same stand. I know a lot of people have strong feelings, but that’s not where I am,” said the Rev. Eddie Fox, director of World Evangelism for the World Methodist Council and a delegate from the Holston Conference.

Church leaders quickly condemned the idea. Bishop Ruediger R. Minor of Moscow, the outgoing president of the Council of Bishops, reminded reporters that the General Conference has approved the position that “We will live in Christian community together.”

Liberal groups also reject any split. The Common Witness Coalition, made up of the Reconciling Ministries Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Affirmation, said it was not in favor of a schism and was fully committed to inclusion of all opinions.

“We are a United Methodist Church that is not of one mind concerning the issue of homosexuality,” read a statement released by the group. “Our language failed to receive the number of votes, but the Holy Spirit has not failed us.”

“We feel the movement of change and growth abounding,” said the Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network. “We will remain here in the United Methodist Church today, tomorrow and however long it takes to have a fully inclusive church.”

“It is not only a foolish idea, it is really a very hurtful and destructive idea,” said retired Bishop C. Dale White. “Why should we destroy a great church on the basis of peripheral issues? On the core issues of ministry and theology, the whole church agrees, even if we articulate them differently.”

White, who led an unofficial group that published the book United Methodist at Risk: A Wake-Up Call in 2003, cited the good work done by the United Methodist Church in Africa as an example of what a united church can do. “Our church has affected incredible church growth in Africa, something that is the envy of Protestantism,” White said. “And it was the whole church, not Good News, not liberals or conservatives.”

The controversy came after two informal meetings this week between conservative leaders and their liberal caucus counterparts. But one pastor who participated in those meetings said the proposal being circulated was simply a conversation starter.

“This document does not have any status,” said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, senior pastor at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis and former chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. “It was never said that this was to be a proposal. It was simply an interesting document that people started sharing around and more people became aware of.”

Robbins characterized the exchanges as “poignant, an important sharing that was valuable to me.”

Still, Hinson and Heidinger say there is no middle ground for continuing a relationship.

“It’s a sad day for me,” Hinson said. “But the gulf is indeed too deep.”

“There is not a happy bone in my body,” Heidinger agreed. “The fallout from this will be tragic. But you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the better way for the church?’ And the church is the body of Christ.”

Fox said he felt sadness for another reason: “I am sad about the amount of energy that we have focused on this. It’s taking us away from what we need to do, and that’s spreading the good news to the world.”

The proposed resolution calls for the creation of a special task force to prepare a process by which the denomination would amicably separate. The body would comprise “seven members from the ‘progressive/liberal’ constituency … seven members from the moderate/centrist’ constituency … and seven members from the ‘evangelical/orthodox’ constituency.”

The proposal calls for the “Task Force on Amicable Separation” to report to a special session of General Conference in 2006. The legislative meeting of the church is normally held every four years.

“We have spent endless hours and countless dollars focused on the genuine conflicts that divide us, rather than the mission and ministry to which we are called,” read a section of the rationale that accompanied the proposal.

However, church leaders rejected the proposal in interviews.

Separating the church would be difficult because of a long-standing trust clause that all property belongs to the annual conference, said Bishop William Oden of the Dallas Area. “I see us as a church moving toward listening to one another rather than towards separation or divorce.”

Bishop Joe E. Pennel Jr. of the Richmond (Va.) Area said he was saddened that Hinson did not want to work within church rules. “It’s not the United Methodist way. Our polity holds us together. Our Book of Discipline holds us together.”

“The Spirit also keeps up together,” added Minor.

Hinson, who retired in 2001 as the pastor of one of the largest congregation in the United Methodist Church, said he envisioned two new denominations, both with different names. “I don’t think they would want us to take the ‘United Methodist’ name, and we wouldn’t want them to have the name either.”

He said that those within the church who support inclusivity of homosexuals “feel disenfranchised. They’ve asked to be set free, to be given space and autonomy. They want to pursue their own glorious vision, while we will pursue ours. The question is not whether to do it, but how.

“We have a view of the Scripture and centrality of Christ,” Hinson said, “and we’re dealing with persons who feel we need to bring our church into our (secular) culture. That’s the worst thing we can do. We have to be faithful to being the church.

“They say they feel spiritually assaulted,” he said, referring to groups which support including homosexuals, “and that we’re using our strength to push our laws on them. But our people are hurting, too. We hurt when they hurt. Nobody is going home happy, because ‘we’ve held them off one more time.’ We’re hurting each other, and we don’t want that to continue.”

Hinson was careful to use the word “separation” rather than “split.” “A split is viciously tearing something apart. We do not do anything that is not in love.”

Hinson called the idea “the 800-pound gorilla that is hanging around General Conference.”

“Nobody is talking about it,” he said. “So let’s talk about it. If God likes this proposal, it will take on a life of its own in our congregations. I think the laity will be more and more active now.”

Hinson said he takes “no joy” in the positive outcomes that conservatives have celebrated at this General Conference. “The traditionalist has been affirmed over the revisionist, there’s no question about that. But already I’ve heard many delegates plotting (strategy) for four years from now. I don’t relish the thought of gearing up for another battle. I think there are better ways of using our time.”

“As we look at this General Conference and how we do our conferencing,” Heidinger said, “the Book of Discipline is our guideline for our covenant. But the Western Jurisdiction continues to say they will not be silent in their advocacy of full inclusion for gays and lesbians at every level of the church, including ordination. They are already operating as a church within a church, which means not abiding by the Discipline. If they are not willing to do that, do we even have a covenant?”

Hinson admitted that the moderate and liberal wings of the church do not want any division. “But they’ve also said that they will continue to defy every (church) law that they feel does not have a moral consensus. They will continue to perform same-sex marriages and ordain gays as clergy. They feel they must do that. We’re at a stalemate.

“We’ve ‘dialogued’ for years and years and years,” Hinson said. “I want to tear my shirt when I hear that word.”

*Caldwell is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.

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