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September 11, 2014
Column #1,724
The Not Very United Methodist Church
by Mike McManus

Will the same-sex marriage issue split the United Methodist Church?

That very real possibility surfaced in a series of articles published in the current issue of Good News, a Methodist magazine written by evangelicals who believe their church must remain true to Scripture which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

In 1972, UMC’s General Convention, the church’s top legislative body, declared the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” In 1984 it added that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be…ordained as ministers.” In 2004, it voted narrowly (455 to 445) to prohibit same-sex weddings.

Yet a “growing number of UM clergy are performing” same-sex marriages, reported the magazine “prompting a series of church trials which has bitterly divided the church.” Pastor Frank Schaefer lost his clergy credentials because he had conducted a same-sex wedding for his son. “When people choose to break the covenant that holds us together, there has to be some accountability,” said Rob Renfroe, a United Methodist pastor and publisher of Good News.

However, when Thomas Ogletree, the former Yale Divinity School dean, presided over a same-sex wedding of his son, the case was dropped by a UM Church court in New York and the state’s bishop declared no trials will be conducted in the future for such cases.

In fact, other UMC bishops have performed same-sex marriages or openly stated they disagreed Schaefer’s conviction. Bishop Minerva Carcano offered Schaefer an opportunity to work in her California-Pacific Annual Conference, or diocese. In the Pacific Northwest, two complaints against clergy were resolved by a silly suspension of 24 hours without pay.

Renfroe called that failure to prosecute clergy who violate the UMC’s Book of Discipline “confusing to the world and discouraging to the majority of our members.”

In the lead article of Good News, Renfroe wrote: “The United Methodist Church is…in a crisis and it will not be solved by laypersons, pastors and bishops who are more interested in keeping a troubled church together than they are in fixing the problems that trouble us. Our way forward together is to accept the authority of God’s word, affirm our historic Christian faith, enforce our Book of Discipline.

“Otherwise we may move forward but it will not be together.”

In 1968 the United Methodist Church boasted 10.5 million members, but today’s not so United Methodist Church now has 7.5 million members, a 30% decrease during a time the U.S. population grew 45%.

The denomination is still the largest mainline Protestant church in America, and the only one which honors the Biblical definition of marriage between and man and a woman.

How has that been possible? Unlike the United Church of Christ or The Episcopal Church, UMC includes 5 million members from Africa, the Philippines and Europe in its total world membership of 12.5 million.

African churches are conservative and vote with U.S. evangelicals on moral issues. Liberals on the East and West Coasts outnumber Methodists from the South and Midwest and would have voted for gay marriage decades ago – were it not for Africans. One result: churches in the Pacific Northwest have been shrinking 7% a year while African churches are booming.

Dr. Maxie Dunnam, Chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary declares, “There is no viable `third way’ or `compromise,’ so why not be Christian and civil, valuing each other, and work out a separation that will allow both groups to serve the Kingdom with the kind of commitment and passion essential for any powerful witness.”

Not so fast argued prominent Pastors Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter. They proposed “local” and “regional” options on same-sex marriage and gay clergy. They submitted an “agree to disagree” petition on homosexuality at the 2012 General Conference which delegates voted down.

Rev. Chris Ritter of Illinois proposed an alternative which would eliminate the five U.S. geographical jurisdictions in favor of two that would be defined not geographically but by “divergent approaches to scripture and ministry.”

Local churches could join one or the other. So a liberal church in conservative Alabama could join a progressive jurisdiction. And a conservative church in liberal California could chose an evangelical jurisdiction. Ritter argued his proposal would preserve unity and move the denomination “past divisive infighting.”

However, there are many critics of all compromises. Therefore, 100 evangelical leaders drafted a statement urging the Council of Bishops meeting this fall to “promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.” So far that call for orthodoxy has been signed by 3,300 pastors.

I predict this punt won’t work.

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