The United Methodist Church – the second largest denomination in the United States – has had a long history of separation and union. Six break-off denominations were formed during its 200-year history in the U.S., and four Methodist groups joined soon after to form the influential mainline denomination of this day. On Thursday, May 6, 2004, the Methodists at the quadrennial General Conference in Pittsburgh put forth a call for amicable separation, this time, over the issue of homosexuality in the church.
The proposal was called to the floor by the Rev. Bill Hinson, president of the Confessing Movement and former senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Houston. The Confessing Movement is among the many renewal groups in the UMC that call for a biblical purity in ordinations among other factors.
“‘United Methodist’ is an oxymoron,” said Hinson, “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.
Hinson and Heidinger both expressed that they had not wanted nor expected to come to this point.
In an interview with the Christian Post prior to the General Conference, both Heidinger and Patty Miller – director of the Confessing Movement – expressed their desire to stay united despite differences in opinions. Even after the controversial aquittal of an openly practicing lesbian pastor, Heidinger and Miller encouraged conservative Methodists to “remain in the church.”
However, after several rounds of informal gatherings with liberal groups, Hinson and Heidinger said they found 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.”
Several other leaders agreed with the proposal; many were thrown aback.
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.”
The Liberal group, The Common Witness Coalition, said it was not in favor of a schism.
“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.”
However, even before the proposal was made, Liberal groups gathered on the floor of the General Conference and disrupted the proceedings for nearly an hour with drumbeats and chanting.
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.”
White overlooked the fact that African Methodists are clearly united in their view on homosexuality: It is as a sin, and is not an acceptable behavior for clergy.
Some conservatives also rejected the separation.
The Rev. Eddie Fox, director of World Evangelism for the World Methodist said, “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,”
Fox expressed grief over having spent so much energy on this issue.
“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,” said Fox.
Hinson agreed with Fox, saying that that was one of the prime reasons for the call.
“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,” he wrote in the proposal.
Therefore, instead of dialoguing over irreconcilable differences, Hinson called for 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 emphasized that the proposal sought out a “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 feels 'no joy' from the outcomes of the General Conference, although the votes were in the conservatives' favor.
“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.”
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.
The following is the full text of the proposal, as released by the Good News Magazine:
The Rev. Dr. Bill Hinson
President of the Confessing Movement
Address to UM Decision Breakfast, Pittsburgh
May 6, 2004
An Amicable and Just Separation
I have consulted with some of the members of my Confessing Movement steering committee, and they are in general agreement, but we have not taken a formal vote. I am speaking only for myself.
All of us have poignant moments when deep sadness sweeps over our souls. I recall as a young preacher when our church was the largest Protestant denomination in America, and at the time first began to lose members. I’ve always thought numbers were important because they represent people. Have you ever noticed that people who run numbers down never run them up? Mine is the last generation of United Methodists preachers who can remember when we were a growing movement. Trust has been broken, violated, disenfranchised. They say, “Seek autonomy.”
I believe that every Christian possesses a deep sense of joy. I remember the story of Bishop Arthur Moore who was riding a train across south Georgia on a hot summer’s day. His train pulled into a small station and from his open window he noticed an old man leaning his chair back against the wall, whose eyes were closed. The bishop calling out from the train inquired, “Friend, do the people around here enjoy their religion?” Without opening his eyes or moving a muscle, the old man responded to the bishop saying, “Them what has it do.”
I’ve felt another poignant moment of sadness on the morning I learned that Karen Dammann had been acquitted. For the first time in my life I wasn’t so eager to go out and face the world with the announcement that I’m a United Methodist pastor. Last Monday night when six of us met with fifteen persons who are of a different perspective, my sadness took on a new dimension. We took turns talking in that circle about the church and where we were coming from. At the end of more than two hours my feelings had coalesced to the point that I was fully persuaded we cannot bridge the gap separating us. I was and am profoundly saddened by that conviction.
Our friends in the Western Jurisdiction have left us. Our covenant is in shreds. And when I speak of covenant I’m not talking about the trust clause. I’m talking about a sacred trust that is much deeper and more binding. Through the years such a trust could be counted on to keep us faithful to what we have discussed, voted on, and placed into our Book of Discipline. All of that has now changed. More than that, our friends who have broken our covenant feel that they themselves are broken, because the votes of this Conference have largely gone against them, they feel disenfranchised, they feel we are doing spiritual violence to them, and have told us clearly that we are not truth tellers. In addition they are seeking autonomy from the larger body. They garnered more than 300 votes in an attempt to do things their way with regard to ordination in the Western Jurisdiction. Let’s set them and ourselves free to pursue our highest aspirations.
No sincere person can rejoice in another person’s pain. No one enjoys stepping on another person’s dream. Some playwright whose name I cannot recall told of the crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel. When the waters began to roll over the Egyptian chariots, and as they began to drown in the sea, Miriam and the children of Israel began to sing and dance because of their great victory. God however inquired, “How can you sing and dance when my children are drowning?” No earnest Christian enjoys seeing another human suffering. I believe it is time for us end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other. The thought of hurting another makes us sick. They hurt us defying the covenant, and we hurt them with our votes to uphold the Discipline every four years.
There is a great gulf fixed between those of us who are centered on Scripture and our friends who are of another persuasion. Repeatedly they have spoken of the need to get our church in step with our culture. We, on the other hand, have no desire to be the chaplain to an increasingly godless society. Rather, our desire is to be faithful to the Word of God.
I shall never forget the puzzled look on the face of a newscaster this past summer. He was covering the events leading up to the selection of an active homosexual as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He asked one of the priests who had worked hardest to elect Gene Robinson, “How do you feel about what you are doing? This is the first time in recorded history that a mainline denomination has gone against the clear teaching of Scripture. How do you feel about that?” he asked. The priest responded, “I feel fine about that. You can’t be guided in the 21st century by an old book like the Bible.” The newscaster, obviously bewildered, asked then, “What is your ultimate authority if it is not the Bible?” The priest responded, “Our authority comes from the Holy Spirit working in community.” Now, at first glance, I thought, “How subjective can you get?” That means a group could meet down at the convention center and decide the Holy Spirit was leading them to be polygamous. However, as I reflected on his statement, I realized that the church was born out of the Holy Spirit working through community. That is precisely what happened at Pentecost. What is the difference? The difference is Simon Peter stood up immediately and announced that what was occurring was the fulfillment of Scripture and prophecy. What the prophet Joel had declared was becoming a reality. Then I understood. The Holy Spirit leads in the fulfillment of Scripture and in the illumination of Scripture. He never contradicts the Word of God. If you are being lead by a spirit to do something that is contrary to the Word of God, you must test the spirit, because it is clearly not the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit will never contradict Himself. The Holy Spirit always fulfills scripture, never contradicts it.
For many, truth is still evolving. They sincerely believe that the world has the wisdom we need and we should relativize the Bible so as to bring our thoughts into harmony with whatever the current worldly wisdom suggests. We on the other hand believe that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And the grass withers, and the flowers fades, but the Word of God shall stand forever. We think that old military man Omar Bradley had it right when he said that, “We do not set our course by the light of every passing ship but by the stars.”
Let me confess that there is a deep yearning in my heart as strong as when I first began to preach to be caught up in the wave of God’s Spirit that is sweeping the earth, especially in the global south. Just this week I had dinner with two of the bishops from Africa to listen to them speak of the mission and ministry being accomplished in their areas. To hear them speak is to make the heart homesick for a place in the world revival.
I would not even tell my wife of my dream and conviction when I first began to preach in my 39-member church in South Georgia. I really thought a great revival would begin in that tiny church that would sweep through the community and eventually the nation and finally across the world. I thought God might use me to ignite that holy fire. Now my earnest desire is for my church, which exists to spread scriptural holiness across the earth, might be free to recapture our mission and refocus on the great commission to make disciples of all nations. I dream of men’s, women’s and youth’s movements grounded in the Great Commission. As Rose Simms stated, “It’s not that life is so short, it’s that eternity is so long.” There are people out there dying; and God wants to use us to share the Good News.
We cannot fight both church and culture. Our culture alone confronts us with more challenges than we can humanly speaking confront and challenge. That struggle, combined with the continuous struggle in the church, is more than we can bear. And our people, who have been faithful and patient, should not have to continue to endure our endless conflict. I believe the time has come when we must begin to explore an amicable and just separation that will free us both from our cycle of pain and conflict. Such a just separation will protect the property rights of churches and the pension rights of clergy. It will also free us to reclaim our high calling and to fulfill our mission in the world. Therefore, let us like Paul and Barnabas, agree to go our separate ways.