Editorial: Traditional Methodists Chafe Under Liberals
by Mark Tooley
different groups of United Methodist leaders convened this spring to debate the future of
America's third-largest religious body, which is increasingly fractured over sex, theology
and politics. In Lincoln, Neb., the church's bishops tried taping Band-
Aids over the church's internal squabbles. They vowed to abide by the church's prohibition
on homosexual marriage, at least for now. But they also approved liberal political stances
more typical of mainline Protestant leaders.
Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Okla., more than 1,000 concerned United Methodists, many of them
pastors in the denomination's largest churches, rallied for a revival of traditional
Christian beliefs. The church's long-simmering debate over homosexuality was most alarming
to these "Confessing Movement"
The specter haunting both meetings was the March ruling by a United Methodist court in
Nebraska that refused to convict an Omaha pastor for conducting a lesbian wedding. While
insisting the court's ruling set no precedent, the bishops still said little about
enforcing the church's ban on same-sex ceremonies. And they deferred to the church's
Judicial Council, which will meet in August, as to whether the ban is legally binding or
The Confessing Movement is alarmed by the aggressive push from pro-homosexuality caucus
groups to overturn the church's disapproval of homosexuality, which has been ratified by
the church's governing General Conference every session since 1972.
The quadrennial General Conference is not scheduled to meet again until the year 2000.
But the Confessing Movement has called for a special session specifically to discuss
homosexuality. The bishops rejected this idea. General Conferences have been conservative
about sex, and a special session would probably be even more so. An emboldened General
Conference, summoned by grass-roots pressure, may actually require church agencies and
seminaries to uphold the church's doctrines about not only sex but also about God,
salvation and the Bible. National church agencies, which now busily tout feminism, racial
quotas, abortion rights, environmental regulation and the welfare state, do not want that
kind of guidance. Confessing Movement leader Bill Bouknight, a Memphis pastor, noted in
Tulsa that United Methodists rightly insist on racial and gender equality as
"non-negotiable" but fail to uphold the church's belief in the Resurrection of
Jesus with equal, if any, vigor.
Bishop Lindsey Davis of Atlanta also bemoaned the "significant voices within our
church who have a diminished view of the centrality of Scripture" when he addressed
the Confessing Movement. He frets over "alien theories of biblical interpretation
that have assumed a prominent place" in the church.
To Bishop Davis' consternation, one of his state's largest United Methodist
congregations, with 5,000 members, has agreed with his analysis by withholding their
financial support from national church agencies and seminaries. The bishop counsels
patience before boycotts.
Davis was one of only two bishops to publicly advocate a special General Conference to
debate homosexuality. His fellow bishops called that proposal a potential distraction from
the church's "central mission," which they described as ministry with the
As part of its "Children's Initiative," the bishops endorsed the national
"Children's Sabbath" organized every year by the Children's Defense Fund as part
of an effort to reverse welfare reform. A resolution opposing California's Proposition
209, which prohibits bilingual education, was passed without debate. And despite
opposition from Davis and one colleague from Georgia, the bishops called for shutting down
the U.S. Army's School of Americas at Ft. Benning, which it labeled a source of
"oppression" for "our Latino brothers and sisters."
None of these issues will ignite United Methodist tempers like homosexuality. More than 200 United Methodist pastors
have declared their intention to conduct homosexual weddings. And more than 1,300
clergy had signed a petition calling for the church to overturn its teaching about
homosexuality. (There are 40,000 United Methodist clergy.)
The Confessing Movement can justly claim to speak for most United Methodists. But the
bishops, and the even more left-leaning national church bureaucracy, still retain
unchallenged power within the church on most issues. Their authority will remain
undiminished so long as the conservative majority among United Methodism's 8.5 million
members continues its unquestioning financial support.