Magazine article The Christian Century

Methods and Connections: At the UMC General Conference

Magazine article The Christian Century

Methods and Connections: At the UMC General Conference

Article excerpt

In introducing Hillary Rodham Clinton to the United Methodist Church's top legislative body, pastor and historian William Quick quoted a 50-year-old Life magazine description of Methodism as America's "most characteristic church.... It exhibits all of the chief American faults and virtues and has done so for 170 years." The church's quadrennial General Conference continued in this tradition. Meeting last month in Denver, 998 delegates confronted challenges from gay and lesbian caucuses who wanted to "open the doors," from conservative groups asking for firm, doctrinal stances, from those frustrated by a cumbersome bureaucracy and polity who were seeking to restructure the denomination, and from bishops who proposed to join the Church of Christ Uniting (COCU) and reform church policies on baptism and ministry. In response, delegates gingerly moved toward showing greater tolerance of homosexuals, devolving power to local and regional levels, and expressing unity with other denominations.

Perhaps the boldest step taken by this General Conference was to accept the recommendation of the bishops and join COCU. Despite the calls for four more years of study, 70 percent of the delegates voted for COCU, making the UMC the sixth and largest denomination to adopt the covenanting proposal, while reserving the right to determine its own orders of ministry. In that area, the denomination made a change by establishing a permanent order of deacons. Ordination as a deacon will no longer be a preliminary step on the way to becoming an elder but will be a separate order of word and service.

In keeping with the emphasis on Christian unity, the delegates also denied evangelical pleas to allow rebaptism, affirming instead a traditional understanding of baptism as a one-time event. Mark Trotter, pastor of San Diego's First United Methodist Church and chair of the baptism study committee, sees the newly adopted document on baptism, "By Water and the Spirit," as a unifying force. The church is recovering "the whole of its tradition--evangelical and sacramental," Trotter declared. Gayle C. Felder of Duke Divinity School characterized the document as "a guide, source and touchstone not only for our understanding of the sacrament but of our understanding of theology." Their comments suggest that they might agree with Michigan Bishop Don Ott's assessment of the Confessing Movement's effect on the church. Though he doesn't necessarily agree with the movement's positions, Ott feels that it is having a positive influence by making United Methodists think more carefully about theology.

Though "By Water and the Spirit" will have no effect on the way church membership is determined, its language will change theological understandings, Trotter stated. Children will now be known as baptized, rather then preparatory, members, and those who have renewed their baptismal vows through confirmation will be known as professing, rather than full, members. Trotter hopes that the new terms will alter the way United' Methodists think about children by affirming their importance as full members of the church, and strengthen the definition of church membership to emphasize the responsibility of members to profess their faith by word and action in daily life.

United Methodists who had hoped that their church would decide to be more open to homosexuals were disappointed but felt that progress was made. Fifteen bishops broke ranks with the Council of Bishops on April 18 to express the "pain [they] feel over .. personal convictions that are contradicted by the proscriptions in the Discipline against gay and lesbian persons within [their] church." While insisting that they would continue to uphold the Book of Discipline, the bishops wished to make it clear that the church's leadership was not of one mind about homosexuality.

As the entire Council of Bishops met in closed session for several days, caucuses like the Methodist Federation for Social Action praised the 15 bishops and honored them with standing ovations, while groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy reacted by calling for their resignation or discipline by the other bishops. …

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