United Methodist Church's Support of 'Evolution Weekend' Questioned

Perhaps hundreds of churches across the United States and abroad plan to participate in an annual observance next month meant to reconcile science and faith known as "Evolution Weekend."

Organized by Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project, the ninth annual "Evolution Weekend" will be observed Feb. 7-9. The intent is for congregations across multiple denominations participate as a way of showing that their religious beliefs do not conflict with scientific theories like evolution.

The Clergy Letter Project itself focuses on having religious leaders affirm their belief that creation accounts like that in Genesis, while being "timeless truths" are not "scientific truth."

One of the major contributors to the observance is the United Methodist Church, which states in its Book of Discipline that there is no conflict between mainstream science and Christian faith.

"We find that science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology," reads the Discipline.

Despite the official position in the UMC Discipline, the question remains as to how strong is the mainline protestant denomination's belief in the Theory of Evolution and its support for events like "Evolution Weekend?"

Zimmerman considered the support for his efforts on the part of the UMC to be "enormous", as he told CP in an interview. "We couldn't ask for a stronger vote of confidence," said Zimmerman, regarding the addition of the pro-evolution Discipline language. "We have UMC clergy all across the country participating in Evolution Weekend and many, many more have signed The Clergy Letter itself."

He added that UMC has also expanded its participation in the celebration of Evolution Weekend this year. "Indeed, the partnership between the UMC and The Clergy Letter Project has been rewarding and beneficial for all," said Zimmerman.

John Lomperis, director of the United Methodist program at The Institute on Religion and Democracy, told CP that overall support is probably lacking.

"The overwhelming majority of United Methodists, including pastors, have likely never even heard of Evolution Weekend," said Lomperis. "A few may have signed the letter, but that is no reason to see this as representative of the denomination as a whole."

Lomperis added that while the UMC general conference passed a resolution supporting the Clergy Letter Project in 2008, the support had a level of "fundamental sneakiness" to it.

"First of all, that 2008 resolution buries is endorsement of the Clergy Letter Project in a long list of other things, and gives no direct indication that the Project has anything to do with evolution," said Lomperis. "Secondly, these sorts of resolutions are typically rushed through with no debate whatsoever, or sometimes just given a quick rubber-stamp by a sub-committee of as few as four people. It's an embarrassingly flawed, integrity-lacking process."

Lomperis dubbed the Discipline language "vague enough to potentially be open to more conservative interpretations, such as that certain details of evolutionary theory are false and therefore not properly included in the category of true 'science's descriptions.'"

The Discipline language has experienced its own level of opposition, as petitions were introduced in 2012 to remove the language. The effort failed in committee, reported the United Methodist News Service.

Zimmerman also told CP that in addition to official United Methodist support, Evolution Weekend was also branching out to other faith traditions. He also noted that initially, the annual observance was known as "Evolution Sunday", but it was later broadened to its present appellation "to be more welcoming."

"In many ways, this year will mirror others. Hundreds of congregations all around the globe (so far this year we have congregations from 13 countries represented) will be participating. About four years ago, we started offering a theme for each annual celebration," said Zimmerman.

"This year's theme focuses on 'Different Ways of Knowing' and celebrates the fact that both religion and science have much to tell us about various aspects of the human condition. Participating congregations may or may not focus their activities on this theme."