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To the People in the Pews – with Love

By Susan Ralphe


This story was written for members of the United Methodist Church. The woman who says "good-bye" to her beloved  church could be any one of us – next month or next year.

The prayer accompanying the story is that the Christian denomination we love will find its way back to God – before one internal loss after another destroys it.


The scene is First United Methodist Church (FUMC) of Omaha, Neb., where Rev. Jimmy Creech’s "marriage" of two women in 1997 split the congregation in two, then touched off a civil war within Methodism over larger issues that have been waiting for just such a spark.

A woman, one of hundreds of members who fled Creech and have been worshipping in a school auditorium, returned home recently from her last meeting of the FUMC church council to pen these words:

"I knew in my heart, while sitting there, that I would probably never be back in that building again. I know that I cannot return to church life there now or in the foreseeable future. I am just speaking for myself, not for anyone else in the Laity Group (the group that left FUMC).

"Anyway, all the good memories I had of being a part of the church in that building ran through my mind," she wrote. "They were all as clear as day…kind of like the picture I have in my mind of my grandfather. The night he died, we had been over to his house to visit. As I was standing on the porch saying good-bye, something told me to turn around one more time and take a good look at this face so that I would always remember what he looked like. I will always remember my grandfather’s face under that porch light.

"At church tonight, I saw all kinds of warm, wonderful pictures in my mind. I saw myself as a little girl running down the steps from Sunday School class with my papers in my hand, playing Red Rover on the lawn, trying to remember the words to the songs for the Christmas program, sitting in the balcony on Christmas Eve with my family and hearing the pipe organ, having snacks in the huge kitchen (which I always thought was really cool)…all the way through seeing my wedding day and other events in recent years.

"After that, I decided that I needed a break from the meeting. So, while everyone else was still sitting there, I slipped out the door and walked around the building all by myself. I looked at all the rooms with so many memories one last time. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to see the sanctuary, but I decided I would head that way. I got as close to it as I could. It was dark and really quiet. I tried to open the door to look inside, but it was sealed shut. There was a big sign on the door that said, "Hard Hat Area." I stared at it for a long time.

"Finally I just said, "Good-bye.

"I know the church is just a building, but it holds a lot of memories. I am very thankful that God has imprinted so many good memories in my mind, and that He gave me a chance to say ‘good-bye.’ It makes the death a little less difficult to bear.

"I also asked God tonight to please make sure that whatever decisions are made by the Laity Group will be His will. I know it will be because I know He heard me."

The Omaha issue is homosexuality, and Creech -- and approximately 190 other Methodist clergy who have announced they will act as Creech did -- can be perceived as a few noisy dissidents. What’s scary is that other Methodists in positions of leadership – pastors, bishops, administrators, and scholars – are advocating that we abandon Christianity altogether.

While many Sunday morning worshippers haven’t heard what they’re saying, news about Methodism’s madness is available to anyone willing to unpeal layer after layer on the Internet.

"According to most scholars featured at a recent mainline Protestant seminary symposium, Jesus was not born of a virgin (at least not literally), never walked on water, did not deliver the Sermon on the Mount, probably did not claim to be divine, and was not physically resurrected from the dead." That’s how the United Methodist News Service began a recent Internet story on April’s symposium, "Jesus in Context: Who Was He?" at Methodist-funded, Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.

Duke’s E.P. Sanders, a United Methodist, was among seven seminary speakers, and he said, according to UMNS, that Jesus never claimed to save the world in a sacrificial death.

Other speakers included Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, active in the controversial "Jesus Seminar," known for tossing around colored beads as they "decide" which events in Jesus’ life happened.

Radical feminists, as well as so-called "scholars," are working to dismantle Christianity. These women, apparently offended by the Bible’s repeated references to God as He, invoke the name of the goddess Sophia.

The Wall Street Journal covered their fifth annual "Re-Imaging" spring conclave in Minneapolis, attended by Methodist women, and reported: "Each speaker was again blessed in the name of Sophia. The milk and honey ceremony was reverently conducted. The sins denounced included homophobia, environmental abuse, Western imperialism and welfare ‘deform.’ More personal sins were largely ignored because, as one speaker informed the group, ‘in the heart and soul of the deities…it doesn’t matter who we’re sleeping with.’"

It was almost inevitable: this twisted thinking has leached into the minds of individual Methodists and Conferences.

In middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-country Iowa, someone introduced a resolution in June: "That the Iowa Annual Conference reaffirms and confesses that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the one and only Savior of the world, and the Lord of all. Although we respect persons of all religious faiths and defend the right of religious freedom, we affirm that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,’ (Acts 4:12 NRSV). Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,’ (John 14:6,NIV)."

It FAILED! A taskforce was set up to study it.

Courageous Methodist churches and individuals may become models for Methodist renewal.

This spring in Marietta, Ga., First United Methodist Church voted to "redirect" dollars it would ordinarily have funneled up to the big general church. Other churches and individuals have followed suit.

This summer, at flagship Christ United Methodist Church, Memphis, Tenn., the administrative board considered redirecting 8.5 percent or about $72,000 of its $850,000 apportionments -- specifically cutting off Methodism’s World Service and Interdenominational Cooperation Fund and sending the money toward other causes. The board eventually adopted a wait-and-see attitude, but the reasoning behind the deliberations stands.

"The only instance when a church or pastor should refrain from following Disciplinary guidance (the Book of Discipline) is when to do so would violate scripture," said Dr. Bill Bouknight, senior minister.

Bouknight – in a position paper -- said he sees three such conflicts.

"First I see a conflict between scriptural prohibitions against killing and the opposition of the General Board of Church and Society to a ban on partial birth abortions," he said.

"A second area of conflict between scripture and the World Service apportionment has to do with the practice of homosexuality. The Bible in eight different places (Gen. 18:20,21, Gen. 19, Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Romans 1:26,27, 1Cor. 6:9,10, Jude 1:7, and 11Peter 2:6) refers, directly or indirectly, to the practice of homosexuality. In every reference it is deplored or condemned. At one point it is called an abomination. Our Book of Discipline agrees. It declares, ‘Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all.’

"The Church’s $12 million communications agency sponsored a cable TV program called Adam and Steve that urged acceptance of same-sex covenants," Bouknight said.

"A third area of conflict is between the scriptural mandate to care for the poor, on one hand, and the holding in reserve of exorbitant amounts of funds at the national level. It is estimated that the general boards of our church may have as much as one-half billion dollars in reserves," he said.

A Florida layman, Ron Biggerstaf, has filed formal charges against Bishop Melvin Tablert and the approximately 190 Methodist clergymen who have signed an Affirmation Statement, saying that, given the opportunity, they intend to perform same-sex "marriages."

Biggerstaf has forwarded the charges to five bishops who are presidents of Methodism’s Jurisdictional Colleges of Bishops: Bishop Talbert, Western Jurisdiction; Bishop Albert Mutti, South Central Jurisdiction; Bishop Sharon Zimmerman-Rader, North Central Jurisdiction; Bishop Robert Fannin, South East Jurisdiction, and Bishop Felton May, North East Jurisdiction.

Those of us in other pews might consider:

  • Re-directing church apportionments or our individual gifts to the church.
  • Writing our bishops insisting that they discipline clergy who have demonstrably wandered from the faith in word and deed.
  • Presenting our views to local delegates (call Conference offices for names) who are heading to Methodism’s big General Conference in the year 2000. Important legislation will be passed there.
  • Following Methodist news – see Contacts, last page.
  • Studiously considering our last resort: moving our memberships or forming new churches.

It’s already happened. In late June in Kingsburg, Calif., all 371 members of Kingsburg United Methodist Church transferred their membership to the Kingsburg Community Church they had just founded. These brave Pacific pioneers, guided by a brighter light than the shine of silver or gold, were forced to leave the building they constructed and remodeled and other assets in the Conference’s hands.

Methodism is dying for renewal, and the light needed to fan the flame in its logo and its life must begin as tiny candles in the hearts and lives of individual members, in particular their prayer lives.

Author Terry Teykl, writing in the July/August Good News Magazine, reminded us: "John Wesley believed that God does nothing except in answer to prayer, so if we are to see a mighty move of God in this Church, we must get on our knees."

Amen.


Susan Ralphe is a veteran newspaper reporter and writer whose stories have appeared in national magazines. She is a Methodist residing in Fountain Hills, Az


Contacts:

  • Mark Tooley, Executive Director of UM Action
    Institute for Religion and Democracy
    1521 16th Street, NW, Suite 300
    Washington, D.C. 20036
    Telephone: (202) 986-1440 Fax: (202) 986-3159

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