News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Methodists weigh the vote totals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–From coast to coast, United Methodists are doing the math.

America’s third-largest flock just survived another quadrennial General Conference rocked by media-friendly fighting over sex. Now it’s time to dissect the numbers.

Delegates voted 570-334 to affirm the historic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Efforts to back laws defining “marriage as the union of one man and one woman” passed on a 624-184 vote. Same-sex union rites fell — 756-159. Should the church delete its “faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness” standard for clergy? Delegates voted 806-95 to say “no.”

The big news was a 579-376 vote against weakening the Book of Discipline’s law that self-avowed, practicing homosexuals cannot be clergy because homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Delegates also rejected a resolution from gay-rights supporters that said: “We recognize that Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching.” That vote was 527-423.

After three decades of pain, it seemed the numbers were stacking up for United Methodist conservatives, whose churches are thriving in the American Sunbelt and the Third World.

But a final plot twist remained in Pittsburgh. A key church leader caused fireworks by saying it’s time to end the war over the Bible and sex — by separating the armies.

“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. Our people, who have been faithful and patient, should not have to continue to endure our endless conflict,” said the Rev. William Hinson, retired pastor of the 12,000-member First United Methodist Church of Houston, at a breakfast for conservatives.

“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.”

To understand the roots of this move — which parallels divisions looming in other oldline Protestant churches — it helps to dig a little deeper into the United Methodist numbers.

Hinson is president of the “Confessing Movement,” encompassing 1,400 churches with 650,000 members. Gay-rights supporters have a Reconciling Ministries Network of 192 churches, with 17,000 members.

But there are 35,000 congregations in all, with 8.3 million members. Sickened by decades of decline — membership was 11 million in 1970 — the last thing Methodists in the institutional middle wanted to hear was the word “schism.” Before the conference closed, delegates linked hands, sang a hymn and passed a symbolic call for unity — 869 to 41.

And there was another number that deserved study. General Conference voted by a narrow 455-445 to clarify which Discipline violations can lead to a trial. The list of chargeable offenses now includes failing to be “celibate in singleness or being unfaithful in a heterosexual marriage; being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.”

But leaders on both sides noted that about 20 percent of the delegates this year came from Africa, Asia and Latin America where churches are more conservative. Efforts to enforce the Discipline’s teachings might fall short, if left to delegates from North American churches. United Methodist progressives also continue to dominate the church’s bureaucracies and seminaries.

So be it, said theologian Thomas Oden, a former United Methodist liberal who now is a conservative strategist. The key during the next four years is for local church leaders to weigh options for how to end the national warfare over the Bible and sex.

“We don’t particularly care about the powers that be. What we care about is the doctrine and the Discipline in our church,” he said. “That’s were our focus is and that’s where it will stay. … But the actual enforcement of those teachings remains a problem for us, as it is for most Protestant churches today.

“We know that we will be struggling with that issue for decades. That’s the question: We know what our church teaches, but do we have the will to enforce it?”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission.

    About the Author

  • Terry Mattingly