Evangelical Methodists Say Denominational Unity Must be Re-examined

Board members and top leaders of Good News, an evangelical renewal ministry within the United Methodist Church (UMC), resolved that the unity within the 8-million member denomination must be re-examined and re-explored, during their board meeting in Wilmore, KY, on August 18-20.

Good News came into the spotlight at the 2004 UMC General Conference, during which the ministry’s president, Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II, and the president of a separate evangelical ministry called the Confessing Movement, released a controversial document calling for an “amicable separation” of the denomination. The resolution was penned in response to the widening gap between the more liberal sanctions in the UMC that call for the ordination of homosexual individuals and the blessing of homosexual unions in the church, and the more conservative groups that hold onto the scriptural mandates against such blessings.

The statement took note of the fact that despite Church’s constitutional laws forbidding the ordination of “practicing homosexuals,” clergy members have constantly ordained and continued to seat individuals who confess to being actively gay. The document also noted the rampant disregard of the denomination’s mandate against blessing homosexual unions within the church, by numerous clergymen.

In essence, the document called for a good-hearted split within the denomination, since such theological discrepancies are likely to widen as time passes.

Following the release of the statement of “amicable separation,” a vast majority of the delegates to the UMC General Conference passed a separate resolution on unity, to affirm the fellowship within all members of the denomination.

The unity resolution stated: “As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the world.”

However, according to the Good News board members, numerous “threats to the unity of the United Methodist Church” revived within the months following the Assembly.

“Issues about unity were not settled by the much-heralded resolution passed in Pittsburgh,” said Rev. Heidinger II. “What was deeply troubling to our board members at our recent meeting were the reports of what has happened in just the three months since that Unity Resolution was passed.”

Heidinger explained:

“First, the 2004 Western Jurisdiction approved a Committee on Theological Education and the Ministry, which has as one of its responsibilities ‘to deepen the knowledge of scripture. . .by developing a curriculum that includes and affirms new and diverse understandings of traditional theological language, particularly on scriptural authority, atonement, and the reality of God’;

“Second, every Episcopal candidate interviewed in the Western Jurisdiction was reported to have disagreed publicly with the church’s stance on homosexuality;

“Third, a delegate from the California/Nevada Annual Conference announced at the Western Jurisdiction Conference that some 49 retired pastors had offered to do same-sex unions if called upon, implying this was a safe and effective way to circumvent church law; and

“Finally, the July 31, 2004 edition of the Arizona Republic, in an article introducing newly-elected Bishop Minerva Carcano to the Phoenix Area, noted that she ‘supports full inclusion of gay and lesbian church members, including gay marriage.’ One must ask how a ‘Unity Resolution’ has any meaning whatsoever or how the Western Jurisdiction sees itself as being ‘in covenant’ with the rest of the church in light of these recent actions.”

In lieu of such apparent breaches of fellowship, the Good News board passed a resolution to “examine and explore the issues raised by the proposal for amicable separation and the resolution on unity during the 2004 General Conference.”

“This exploration will be a major emphasis of Good News’ renewal work during this current quadrennium. The emphasis will include public statements and actions that raise the question of what unity means for our church amid the deeply held theological disagreements within it,” the statement noted.

The Rev. Dr. Scott Field, chairman of the Good News board, explained the resolution in more practical terms.

“What this means in practicality is that we are beginning a careful and serious examination of the biblical, theological, historical and organizational questions related to the possible future structure(s) and shape(s) of United Methodism, and we hope to engage the larger church in the process,” said Field.

In other business, the Good News board elected a new chairman, the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, pastor of Faith Community United Methodist Church in Greenville, Wisconsin. Lambrecht will assume board leadership following the January 2005 board meeting. The board honored Lambrecht, current chairman Scott Field, and Rev. David Flagel for their leadership in Good News’ General Conference effort.

The board also elected five new members to serve three-year terms on Good News, as of January, 2005. Those elected are: Sara Anderson, a laywoman from Anderson, Indiana; David Flagel, a pastor from Lake Odessa, MI; Chet Harris, a pastor from Canton, Ohio; Warren Lathem, a pastor from Georgia; and Ken Werlein, a pastor from Houston, TX. Flagel and Harris are returning to the board after a sabbatical year off.

Meanwhile, following the meeting, Heidinger took note of the recent case in Fresno, California, where a secular court ruled in favor of a Methodist church that severed relations with the denomination. St. Luke’s Community Church – formerly St. Luke’s United Methodist Church – broke ties with the denomination in 2000 after 68 ministers in the California/Nevada Annual Conference defied denominational policy by joining to bless a same-sex union in Sacramento in 1999.

In 2002, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the denomination, which said St. Luke’s property belonged in the UMC’s trust, as do the property of all UMC churches. In August 13, 2004, an appellate court overturned the initial ruling, saying that the original owners of the property (St. Luke’s) can modify the trust.

“We are aware this matter is likely to be appealed to the California Supreme Court,” said Heidinger, “but it certainly highlights issues of justice and fairness for local church congregations which have poured so much of themselves, their resources, and their prayerful support and upkeep into their church facilities. We await with great interest further developments of this significant, and perhaps landmark, ruling.”