The floating of a proposal to dissolve the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations sparked hallway discussions at the church’s top legislative meeting. This proposal and a morning demonstration by gay-rights supporters overshadowed May 6 legislative actions.
Although it appeared unlikely that such a proposal to separate the 10-million member denomination would come to the floor of the 2004 General Conference before its May 7 adjournment, two key conservative church leaders openly talked about an “amicable” divorce over “irreconcilable differences.”
Conference business was peacefully interrupted around 11:10 a.m. when more than 500 people circled the floor for 35 minutes, carrying banners and singing hymns of reconciliation. The demonstration was led by Soulforce, a non-denominational gay rights advocacy group.
Earlier in the week, delegates had upheld the denomination’s positions on homosexuality, including the belief that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” should not be allowed into the ordained ministry.
Dressed in liturgical robes, some members of the group walked to the altar and poured water into the baptismal font, symbolizing a common bowl. “We’ve been holding water at the entrance to General Conference every morning and inviting people to remember their baptism,” explained Marjorie Carlson, a participant in the demonstration. “We brought that water here to remember what we bring to the church –– that we are of one faith and baptized by one God.”
Speaking to the proposal, yet to be presented to the delegates, the Rev. William Hinson, president of the Confessing Movement, said, “United Methodist is an oxymoron. We haven’t been united for a long time.”
The Rev. James Heidinger, president of the Good News organization, believes there is “no expectation” that agreement will ever be reached among the various constituencies of the church. “This is a deep theological divide.”
But other conservatives do not endorse the idea of separation. The Rev. Eddie Fox, a delegate and director of World Evangelism for the World Methodist Council, 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.”
Three liberal groups supporting gay rights also rejected a split. The Common Witness Coalition, made up of the Reconciling Ministries Network, 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.
Retired Bishop C. Dale White called the proposal hurtful and destructive. “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.”
In the worship service before the day’s business began, Bishop Robert E. Fannin, Birmingham, Ala., tried to keep things in perspective by reminding the delegates, “If we cannot agree that our primary task is the presentation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then some of you got on the wrong bus, came to the wrong town and the wrong conference.”
In the May 6 morning session, delegates continued to struggle with overwhelming needs around the world and pressing financial concerns of local churches.
While the church’s top fiscal agency proposes a 2005-2008 budget of $585 million, the financial administration legislative committee at General Conference estimates the 10-million-member church could apportion a total of $612 million.
By the end of the morning, delegates had added another $43.8 million to the $585 million budget proposed by the General Council on Finance and Administration. That agency will consider all requests for additional funds before making its final presentation on May 7, the final day of the assembly.
Whatever the final figure is, the organization of the church will be somewhat different after 2004, according to action taken by delegates. Beginning Jan. 1, a “Connectional Table,” with 47 members, will help guide the work of general agencies.
What was adopted by delegates is an alternate version of the “Living into the Future” proposal presented to General Conference by the denomination’s Council on Ministries. That group had proposed that the new Connectional Table would have performed both its own functions and that of the General Council on Finance and Administration, meaning that both agencies would have gone out of existence.
Instead, the finance agency will remain intact, while the Council on Ministries will cease to operate after a transitional period.
The new table will be composed of 28 people elected through jurisdictional and central conferences; the presidents of most of the church’s general agencies; a member from each of the racial-ethnic caucuses; one youth and one young adult from the new Division on Ministries with Young People; and the general secretaries of the agencies, who will have voice but no vote.
Building on evangelism efforts in Africa, southeast Asia and Europe, delegates approved a $4 million Global Education Fund to assist the 748 Methodist schools, colleges, universities and seminaries in 69 countries. Administered by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the fund will help in its training of new generations of clergy and lay leaders.
One proven success is the United Methodist-related Africa University in Zimbabwe, which serves 1,123 students from 22 African nations. Delegates approved $10 million in apportioned funds and an additional $10 million, to be raised through World Service Special Gifts, for the university over the next four years.
In other business, delegates ordered the United Methodist Board of Pensions and Health Benefits to conduct a study on the feasibility of providing health care coverage that would effectively unite all U.S. annual (regional) conferences into one single plan.
If it is feasible, the pensions agency would provide detailed information to the annual conference boards of pensions by Jan. 1, 2007, and work with those boards to produce the most acceptable plan for submission to the 2008 General Conference.
General Conference delegates also:
Approved the creation of an African-American Methodist Heritage Center, which will be housed at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History at Drew University in Madison, N.J., until a permanent facility is built at one of the denomination’s historically black colleges or universities.
Created a task force to study the connection between teen sexual identity and suicide risk and publish a resource on the issue for congregations and families.
Rejected petitions that would have changed or eliminated the mandatory retirement age of 70 for bishops, clergy and general agency staff.
Supported the Okinawan government and its people in their efforts to remove or substantially reduce U.S. military bases and U.S. military personnel on the island of Okinawa.
Urged all agencies of the church, local congregations and affiliated organizations to purchase coffee for corporate and personal use through a fair trade partner, such as Equal Exchange.
Joined previous General Conferences in requesting that the U.S. government lift its economic embargo against Cuba and seek negotiations with the Cuban government for the purpose of resuming normal diplomatic relations.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer.
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