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May 13, 2000   GC-081

United Methodists wrap up 2000 General Conference

By Robert Lear*

CLEVELAND (UMNS) --- Celebration and contention came in near-equal portions for United Methodists gathered on the shores of Lake Erie May 2-12 for the church’s first General Conference of the 2000s.

The conference opened to the joyful beat of a band of bishops in the spectacular Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and liturgical banners brightening the plenary hall in the Cleveland Convention Center.

Nine days later, that ornate hall became a confrontation zone with police placing 30 people, including two bishops, under arrest during a protest of the conference’s vote retaining the church’s controversial stance on homosexuality. It is believed to be the first time police have been called to remove demonstrators from a conference session.

Celebration and arrests aside, the 992 delegates from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines, spent most of their time processing 1,600 calendar items of legislation and long hours getting more than 2,000 petitions ready for plenary action.

They sang joyfully under the leadership of Cynthia Wilson, cheered enthusiastically visiting choirs from the United States, Denmark, Zimbabwe and Estonia and performers from five United Methodist-related colleges in Ohio, received with appreciation a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and welcomed indications of becoming increasingly a global church.

The legislative items will help chart the 9.6 million-member church’s passage through the next four years. Most of the particulars in the biggest single proposal for change – the much-discussed Connectional Process Team (CPT) report -- were overwhelmingly rejected. The General Council on Ministries, facing elimination in the proposal, was given new life and a charge to consider the "transformational directions" mapped out in the report.

Hundreds of changes were adopted for inclusion in the church’s Book of Discipline, and a series of programs for special groups were retained. Resolutions setting out the church’s position on handguns, violence on television and other contemporary issues received favorable majorities as delegates pushed the keys on their electronic voting pads.

Prayers were asked for an end to hostilities in Sierra Leone, the Philippines and the Congo. The U.S. government was asked to halt using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing practice range and also to support removing the United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq.

Much of the pre-conference discussion centered on homosexuality, a major issue in the church for almost 30 years. The debate turned into action, some of it contentious once the delegates and a variety of groups unpacked in Cleveland.

Special-interest groups set up lobbying efforts in nearby hotels. A delegate approaching the convention center quickly accumulated a handful of brightly colored sheets supporting one view or another.

When the major issues related to homosexuality finally came to the plenary floor on May 11 and an assortment of votes had been flashed on the giant screen in the hall, most of the denomination’s policies had been retained by a margin of roughly 2 to 1. One proposal, acknowledging that differences exist in how church members view homosexuality, was defeated by about 100 votes.

Delegates retained the statement that while homosexuals are persons of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Self-avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained or appointed as clergy, and clergy are prohibited from officiating in same-sex union ceremonies or allowing such services on church property.

The vote on the "incompatible" language was 628 to 337. The vote on excluding gay people from the ordained clergy was 645 to 306. Other major votes were similar.

The protests began with individuals standing in the aisles. A compromise was reached whereby the protestors could quietly remain in the aisles and altar area.

That agreement unraveled when demonstrators moved to the platform area. Bishop Dan Solomon, Baton Rouge, La., who was presiding bowed his head and then implored the protesters to return to their earlier positions of kneeling or standing in the aisles.

One of the group said the church has broken the covenant with them and they felt their actions were justified. Police were called, and 30 people were led from the hall, including Bishops C. Joseph Sprague, Chicago, and Susan M. Morrison, Albany, N.Y. A 15-minute recess was called, later extended to 25 minutes

The 30 were charged with disrupting a lawful meeting, according to police. After hearings May 12, the 30 paid $160 in fines and court costs.

On May 10, Sprague and others related to the conference were among 185 people arrested in a demonstration directed by Soulforce, a coalition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and heterosexuals from a variety of faith backgrounds.

The conference did approve continued dialogue with groups espousing homosexuality and rejected a proposal that would have required all pastors to sign a statement professing that homosexuality is not God’s will. The delegates declined to ask the United Methodist Board of Discipleship to produce materials directed especially toward homosexual persons seeking a different lifestyle.

Before General Conference began, comments were heard that the church could split over homosexuality and other issues, but statements by bishops and others took an opposite view.

"We will be closer together after this conference as a result of our discussions (on homosexuality)," said Bishop William B. Oden, Dallas, after being installed as president of the Council of Bishops on May 5.

The Rev. Linda Lee, a district superintendent in Southfield, Mich., told United Methodist News Service that "facing issues such as racism, homosexuality, and the need for new directions for the church is the first step toward the resolution of differences, reconciliation and the ability of the church to move forward."

Lynette Fields, a lay delegate from Orlando, Fla., said, "I wish I could go home with only joy in my heart for who we are as United Methodists, but I also have deep, deep sadness for the pain of exclusion we have experienced here."

Bishop Woodie W. White, Indianapolis, said that while "we are focused on a point where our church is in disagreement ... there are many more issues where we are in agreement rather than in disagreement."

Speaking generally, the Rev. John Ed Mathison, Montgomery, Ala., said he believes the conference "dealt with difficult and controversial issues in a very mature manner, and spoke clearly and decisively on these issues ... (although) tense moments ... brought much pain."

A major event of the General Conference was a service May 4 that included the symbolic wearing of sackcloth and ashes to confess to the sin of racism within the denomination.

The act of repentance, together with a call for reconciliation, was an attempt to recapture the spirit of Methodism lost when some African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries felt compelled to leave the church’s predecessor bodies and form their own congregations. Later, delegates approved a constitutional amendment against racism.

Bishop William Boyd Grove, the Council of Bishops ecumenical officer, compared the lingering racism to "a malignancy in the bone marrow of the church," and said: "It’s high time to say we’re sorry, and only the General Conference can do it."

Turning to their heritage, the delegates celebrated 200 years of ministry of the former Evangelical United Brethren Church and its two predecessor bodies. The EUB and Methodist churches were united in l968, forming today’s United Methodist Church.

In the traditional "state of the church" Episcopal Address, Bishop Emerito P. Nacpil of the Manila Area said the bishops "believe that the making of people as disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, and forming them into a community of discipleship, is the most radically significant event that can happen to humanity and to the world."

The first bishop from outside the United States to give the address, Nacpil called on United Methodists to join in working "on the side of the redemptive against the demonic."

Jim Nibbelink of Milford, Ohio, said in a Laity Address that tradition is impeding the ability of congregations to engage in active ministry. Tradition also creates separate tasks for clergy and lay members instead of bringing them together as partners in making disciples, he asserted.

The visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. George Carey, marked the first time the head of the worldwide Anglican communion has visited a General Conference. John Wesley, father of Methodism, was an Anglican rector all his life.

In a major action related to how United Methodism functions at the national and international levels, the delegates, by a vote of 784 to 144, essentially scrapped the 53-page CPT report that had recommendations for a dramatic restructuring of the denomination. However, many directions proposed by the four-year CPT were referred to the General Council on Ministries for further consideration.

In other actions related to internal operations and resolutions on issues of the day, the delegates:

*Voiced their opposition to athletic teams’ mascots that demean Native Americans, such as the Cleveland Indians’ "Chief Wahoo" caricature. They also recommended that future General Conferences not be held in cities where such sports logos exist.

*Approved, for the first time, language opposing partial birth abortion. The delegates said they "call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life."

*Approved $20 million over the next four years for a national television advertising campaign for the church.

*Elected Rodolfo Beltran of the Philippines as the first member of the Judicial Council from outside the United States. Other new members elected to the church’s supreme court were James W. Holsinger, Lexington, Ky.; Mary Daffin, Houston; and the Revs. Larry Pickens, Chicago, and Keith Boyette, Fredericksburg, Va. The Rev. John G. Corry of Nashville was elected president; the Rev. C. Rex Bevins of Lincoln, Neb., vice president; and Sally Curtis AsKew, of Bogart, Ga., secretary.

*Approved amendments to the church's constitution stating, in essence, that all people are eligible to be admitted as baptized members of the church upon baptism, and to become professing members "upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith." The amendments will go to the annual conferences for ratification in 2001. Other baptism-related material was sent to the General Conference's Committee on Correlation and Editorial Revision for work.

*Called on the U.S. Congress to remove the exemption in federal law that allows parents to withhold medical care to their children based on religious beliefs.

*Funded several new efforts, including theological education in Europe, $3 million; leadership and development ministries among Korean Americans, $2.9 million; the Asian American Language Ministry Study, $1.6 million.

*Funded existing ministries for another four years, including the National Plan for Hispanic Ministries, $3.2 million; a global program on substance abuse and related violence, $3.2 million; Shared Mission Focus on Young People, $3 million; Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, $2.1 million; ministries with and among Native Americans, $1.1 million; Communities of Shalom urban ministries program, $1.1 million; ministries among deaf people, $149,000; and programs for older adults, $450,000.

*Approved $10.1 million in apportionment funding for Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

*Approved $113.1 million in apportionment funding for the churchwide Ministerial Education Fund.

*Heard praise for the church’s work in the Habitat for Humanity program.

*Elected Trudie Kibbe Reed, Little Rock, Ark.; the Rev. David Maldonado, Denver; the Rev. Maxie D. Dunnam, Wilmore, Ky.; and Charlene Black, Statesboro, Ga., to the University Senate, a peer review organization for United Methodist-related schools.

*Adopted guidelines for Mormons seeking to join the United Methodist Church. Among other things, baptism would be required.

*Called for governments to outlaw the "ownership by the general public of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and weapons that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal-detection devices."

*Rejected a proposal to eliminate the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination’s Washington-based social advocacy agency.

*Mandated that the governing board of each churchwide agency include at least one member from among the three historically black Methodist denominations.

*Adopted a resolution supporting public education in the United States.

*Approved a resolution counseling compassion for families hurt by suicide and condemning physician-assisted suicide.

*Created a churchwide budget of $545.7 million for the next four years.

*Projected cost for the 2004 General Conference to exceed $5 million. The Cleveland session cost was about $4 million.

A few delegates chosen at random were asked by United Methodist News Service to comment on the conference.

The Rev. Robert Sweet, Reading, Mass., said, "The church is headed south listing dramatically to starboard. We have desired to be a global church, but we have allowed regionalism to reign (and) used Scripture to back up our regional biases."

Ronald Bretsch, an educator from Norwood, N.Y., asked: "Are we speaking in

Cleveland for the whole church and the advancement of God’s realm, or are we speaking and working only for regionalisms and local cultures? Within the church, a closed canon seems to me to be antithetical to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, in which reason, experience and tradition also are foundational and serve to inform our understanding or interpretation of Scripture."

The Rev. Beverly L.Wilkes, Springfield, Ill: "I will return home feeling that I have been faithful in my promise to those who elected me ... to constantly be in prayer for the healing of our church. In my heart, I feel healing will come."

Lynette Fields, Orlando, Fla., an outreach ministries director: "I wish I could go home with only joy in my heart ... but I also have deep, deep sadness for the pain of exclusion we have experienced here ... (where) we have chosen not to extend the table for our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters. God have mercy on us."

The Rev. Liatu Jacob Kane, one of two ordained clergywomen in the Nigeria Conference (both of whom were delegates): "We have to tell the truth no matter the pain and emotional trauma we go through (related to the homosexual issue). We have to defeat ourselves to let the truth of God prevail. We are diverse, and for now, it seems, we are in pain, fear and confusion. But the joy is that we are going through it together ... I know the Lord ... will see us through."

Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey, Columbia, S.C.: "This General Conference has celebrated many wonderful ministries of the United Methodist Church. The conference leaves us, however, with a continuing challenge: learning to live together in genuine unity in Christ without demanding unanimity. It is essential to our unity as a church to recognize that disagreement with the law of the church is not in itself disobedience to that law. Unified doctrinal affirmation does not require uniform theological perspective. We leave this General Conference with the challenge to achieve that unity still before us."

In the closing worship service, Oden said we are living in a time of culture wars that threaten our traditional connection. "We are called to be bridge builders in a disconnected connection."

The 2000 General Conference adjourned just before midnight, May 12. The 2004 conference will be held April 25 to May 7 in Pittsburgh.

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*Lear is retired director of the Washington office of United Methodist News Service.

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