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Church year rocked by hurricanes, trials and General Conference


Church year rocked by hurricanes, trials and General Conference

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A UMNS file photo by John Goodwin

Delegates to the United Methodist Church's 2004 General Conference join together in song.
Dec. 9, 2004

A UMNS Report
By Joretta Purdue*

Change for the United Methodist Church in 2004 assumed several forms: the orderliness in electing new bishops, the sweep of natural disasters, most notably by a relentless hurricane season in the United States and Caribbean, and evidence of evil at work in places like the Sudan.

"This has been an extraordinary year in the life of the church, primarily because of some things that happened at General Conference," declared the Rev. Charles Yrigoyen Jr., who leads the staff of the denomination’s history and heritage agency.

The 2004 United Methodist General Conference, the church’s top legislative body, met April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

"General Conference was a highlight for me and probably the most important event in 2004 for the church," said Yrigoyen, who is retiring at the end of 2005. He was particularly moved by the celebration of the African-Americans who, despite discrimination and segregation, chose not to leave the United Methodist Church and its predecessors.

Divisive issues persisted in garnering attention, but United Methodists, acting through their nearly 1,000 delegates at the church’s quadrennial legislative assembly, reaffirmed the denomination’s unity.

The unity resolution on the conference’s final day followed informal proposals by conservatives to form a task force to study splitting the denomination. That idea was not debated by the conference but circulated in hallways and unofficial publications until the Rev. John Schol of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference offered a resolution that said, "As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another even in the midst of disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples throughout the world." It was adopted by a vote of 869-41 with 8 abstentions. Schol was elected a bishop by the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction in July.

"Homosexuality is a lightning rod issue," Yrigoyen said, but added that he believes several other issues are part of the differences within the church. Not enough attention has been paid to the issue of "God language," he observed, explaining that trinitarian language carries theological content about the nature of God. Other issues like abortion and the nature and authority of Scripture are important, too.

Delegates voted to change the structure of the church by eliminating the General Council of Ministries, creating the Connectional Table, and establishing a Division on Ministries with Young People within the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. The new division ends previous organizations in this area and enfolds the Shared Mission Focus on Young People.

On the final day of the General Conference, delegates engaged in a three-hour discussion before passing a $612.5 million budget for worldwide ministries in 2005-2009 -- a 12.2 percent increase over the present four-year budget.

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A UMNS file photo by MikeDuBose

The Rev. Benjamin Boni (right) and the Rev. Randy Day announce that the million-member Protestant Methodist Church of Cote d'Ivoire is joining the United Methodist Church.
The 1-million-member Protestant Methodist Church of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) was accepted into full membership, creating the first major growth spurt in the denomination since the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches merged in 1968. The denomination numbered about 10.2 million worldwide before the influx. U.S. membership accounts for the majority, approximately 8.3 million.

On the issue of homosexuality, the phrase declaring homosexual practice "incompatible with Christian teaching" was retained in the Social Principles by the delegates. An attempt to add a statement acknowledging that Christians disagree on the homosexuality issue was defeated.

Prohibition against the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals continues to be church policy. In addition, the list of chargeable offenses that could bring bishops, pastors and diaconal ministers to trial was amended to include not being celibate in singleness or being unfaithful in a heterosexual marriage. Chargeable offenses also include being a self-avowed practicing homosexual, conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions and performing same-sex weddings.

The gay marriage issue was prominent nationally and within the United Methodist Church. General Conference delegates approved a petition recognizing marriage as only between a man and woman by a vote of 624-184 with little discussion. The petition added language to the church’s Social Principles supporting "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman." However, the assembly did not approve a petition supporting a federal marriage amendment.

General Conference, as the only body that makes policy for and speaks for the denomination, also weighed in on a number of topics from war and terrorism to coffee and tacos.

Delegates replaced a previous resolution on terrorism with one that condemns all acts of terror but also opposes the use of indiscriminate military force to combat terrorism and policies that violate civil and human rights while claiming to combat terrorism.

A new resolution opposes all unilateral first-strike actions and calls on the U.S. president and Congress to collaborate with the United Nations. Another notes that reaction to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, have led to unjust treatment of some immigrants and kept some visitors from entering the United States. Delegates were aware that some United Methodists were unable to attend General Conference because they were denied visas.

Other resolutions call for full investigation of alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military, urges the U.S. government to develop a Department of Peace, expresses concern for 5 million displaced people in the Sudan and condemns the government-sponsored violence there that has killed an estimated 2 million people.

On the subject of abortion, delegates retained a resolution supporting the legal right to abortion. Language in the Social Principles was amended to include encouraging adoption. A new resolution advocates church support for those with "post-abortion stress."

Delegates committed the denomination to joining with the National Council of Churches in a boycott of Taco Bell, urging the fast food chain to convene talks with tomato suppliers and their workers about labor practices. By a close vote, the conference also decided to join in a boycott of Mount Olive Pickle Co., pending an agreement on collective bargaining, but the problem was settled before the boycott really began.

International resolutions urge purchasing coffee through fair trade partners, ending the economic embargo against Cuba and withdrawing the U.S. military from Okinawa.

By the end of the nearly two-week meeting, delegates working in 11 legislative committees had processed a multitude of petitions and had shaped, through debates and votes, the legislation that is printed in the 2004 Book of Discipline and the 2004 Book of Resolutions. Together the two books express the denomination’s laws, rules, social principles and policies for justice.

In creating the Connectional Table to guide the work of the denomination’s general agencies, the General Conference also eliminated the General Council of Ministries, which had been a part of the structure created by the church union in 1968. The delegates chose a legislative committee proposal over one that had been developed by the council. The result is a smaller body -- 47 members rather than about 130 -- and an accelerated timetable. The General Council on Ministries no longer exists after the end of 2004 and the Connectional Table begins Jan. 1, 2005, two years earlier than the GCOM plan designated.

National Election

The United Methodist Church had national distinction this election year, with three of the four Presidential and vice presidential candidates among its ranks -- Republican President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards.

Religion and politics exploded as the focal point of the 2004 presidential elections, with competing liberal and conservative views on faith, family, and the human body.

The millions of American voters who went to the polls defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman and gave views on other "moral values" including a statement on same-sex marriage. Many of America’s voters were first timers who saw this election, according to numerous media reports, as an attack on a key facet of faith and family.

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A UMNS photo by Greg Nelson

Newly-elected United Methodist Bishops Minerva Carca�o (left) and Robert Hoshibata prepare for their service of consecration.
New bishops

U.S. delegates to General Conference reassembled with an equal number of other lay and clergy delegates to form the five jurisdictional conferences, which met simultaneously in mid-July. The main business before each of the jurisdictions, which also meet once every four years, was the election of new bishops to fill vacancies in the jurisdiction. The five jurisdictions elected 21 bishops. Of these was Bishop Minerva Carcano, the first Hispanic female elected to the episcopacy. Also elected was Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who was born in India; Bishops Jeremiah Park and Hee-Soo Jung, who are Korean-Americans; and Bishop Robert Hoshibata, a Japanese-American.

Church trials

Homosexuality issues were central to two church trials of clergy. In March, the Rev. Karen Dammann, a Seattle clergywoman, was found not guilty by a Pacific Northwest Annual Conference trial court of the charge of engaging in "practices incompatible with Christian teaching" even though she openly admitted to being a practicing homosexual.

In May, the denomination’s top court, the Judicial Council, ruled that it did not have the authority to review the findings of the Dammann trial court, but did reaffirm that a bishop may not appoint a pastor who has been found by a trial court to be a "self-avowed practicing homosexual."

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A UMNS file photo by Les Fetchko

The Rev. Karen Dammann (left) and her partner, Meredith Savage, listen to the verdict finding Dammann not guilty of breaking church law.
On Dec. 2, an Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference trial court found the Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud, a Philadelphia clergywoman, guilty of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. The former associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown was stripped of her ministerial credentials by the trial court, but she is remaining on the church staff as a lay person.

A complaint against the Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco for performing a gay marriage ceremony was resolved before going to trial. Oliveto officiated at a Feb. 15 ceremony for two church members after they received a marriage license at San Francisco City Hall during a wave of couples receiving same-sex marriage licenses. The California State Supreme Court voided the licenses in August. Oliveto left her pastorate to become assistant dean for academic affairs and director of contextual education at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

Secular courts in California ruled against the California-Nevada Annual Conference in its assertion of the denomination’s trust clause. The clause, a part of Methodist tradition and discipline that dates back 250 years to John Wesley, states that all congregational church property is held in trust for the denomination. St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Fresno, Calif., had left the denomination but retained control of the church building. In August, the 5th District Court of Appeals ruled that the facility is not the property of the denomination, and in December the California State Supreme Court denied a petition to review the dispute.

Hurricanes hammer Southeast

Florida, which played unwilling host to Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne plus other storms, is still reeling from the effects of the multiple onslaughts. Combined damage exceeded that of the devastating Hurricane Andrew, which roared across the peninsula in 1992.

Churches, like Simpson Memorial United Methodist in Riviera Beach, Fla., were among the casualties. "The wind flipped half of our roof off and put it on top of the other half," the Rev. Cleveland English told United Methodist News Service about damage from Hurricane Frances.

By mid-September, Linda Beher, communications director for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, said that the denomination had given aid to more than 80,000 Floridians and that nearly 30 percent of the denomination’s buildings in the state had been damaged. However, Hurricane Jeanne had not yet arrived.

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A UMNS file photo courtesy of Tom Hazelwood

Members of many Florida churches offered hurricane victims ice, water and hot meals.
By early November, volunteers had worked more than a million hours in recovery projects related to the hurricanes and tropical storms that affected parts of the eastern United States as far north as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Just as serious flooding in Georgia accompanied Hurricane Frances’ northern progress, heavy flooding followed more than one hurricane through western North Carolina.

UMCOR provided grants to United Methodist conferences in Florida, Alabama, Western North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR domestic disaster coordinator. How much assistance the agency provides especially for long-term recovery depends on the donations UMCOR receives.

Most of the hurricanes and tropical storms had hit islands in the Caribbean before they came ashore in the United States. The Bahamas, Haiti and Grenada were particularly hard hit. In these countries, UMCOR channeled aid through ecumenical partners. UMCOR officials are speaking of at least three to five years of long-term aid in these countries and Florida.

The agency never stopped asking for more "flood buckets" during the hurricane season, which ended Nov. 30, and continues to seek donations for the work of rebuilding and restoration.

Innovative ministries

Ministry took on new forms as well appearing in familiar modes.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., Jan Porter, a former missionary, organized teens to mow lawns for the elderly and disabled who have a limited income. In Montgomery, Ala., volunteers run a clothing boutique for women prisoners to give them hope for the future and the possibilities of a better life.

Members of McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church in Powder Springs, Ga., repair vehicles of low-income and elderly people one Saturday a month. Their "car care ministry" is one of many such missions performed by United Methodist churches.

Computers junked by government agencies and schools are being saved from the scrap yard and helping hundreds of students, thanks to a dedicated group of retirees from Cedar Street United Methodist Church in Tyler, Texas. The group repairs the discarded computers and gives them to students in the downtown community, who would not otherwise have much access to such technology.

"We had an opportunity to pick up some salvage computers," says the Rev. Karen Morris, pastor of the northeast Texas church, "and we have always been a group of people that didn’t like to see anything go to waste."

The United Methodist Endorsing Agency has sponsored a campaign to send phone cards to people serving in the U.S. military all over the world since Veterans Day 2003. More than 3 million minutes have been placed in the hands of young men and women so they can call their loved ones without adding to their financial burden. Churches both large and small, Sunday school classes, Bible study groups and individuals have joined in this campaign to connect military personnel with their families.

In August, the endorsing agency started sending packages of phone cards with a message from the United Methodist Church. The special cards feature the United Methodist Cross and Flame and include a recorded prayer: "The people of the United Methodist Church are praying for your safety and sense of peace. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open to you."

Other events

In 1939, the Methodist Church told blacks they were not welcome in the same church pews as whites. The Central Jurisdiction was formed as a racial compromise. African-American United Methodists from across the country gathered Aug. 27-29 in Atlanta to remember, reflect, and redirect their efforts regarding the history, problems and circumstances of the forced separation.

The church’s Council of Bishops opened an international headquarters office in the historic United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington this year. Retired Bishop Roy I. Sano, the council’s executive secretary, staffs the office.

The Rev. Larry Pickens became the chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns July 1. He followed the Rev. Bruce Robbins, who went to a pastorate after 13 years of service with the commission. Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, former ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops, served the agency in the interim and is now heading the church’s Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

Jan Love was named head of the Women’s Division staff at the Board of Global Ministries. She replaces Joyce Sohl, who retired.

The United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women named M. Garlinda Burton as chief executive, effective Jan. 1, 2005. She has held that office on an interim basis for the past year. Previously she had been an executive and a staff writer for United Methodist Communications.

The United Methodist Church participates in and gives support to the World Methodist Council, which adopted a statement on unity at its executive committee meeting in mid September that warned if the church fails to look at the issue of homosexuality now, the unity of the church will suffer. The council also awarded the 2004 World Methodist Peace Award Dec. 8 to Millard Fuller, president and founder of Habitat for Humanity. The council links churches in the Methodist and Wesleyan tradition in 132 countries.

Africa University, the only United Methodist-related university on the continent, dedicated its new Faculty of Health Sciences building Dec. 1. The $1.8 million facility is the fourth building on the campus that has been constructed with funds from USAID. The Faculty of Health Sciences is the sixth of seven faculties slated for development on Africa University’s master plan. The university already offers undergraduate and post-graduate programs in agriculture and natural resources, education, humanities and social sciences, management and administration, and theology.


The Rev. James Floyd White, 72, of Granger, Ind., the principal writer of the United Methodist Eucharistic rite, died Oct. 31 at Memorial Hospital, South Bend, Ind. He co-authored "The New Handbook of the Christian Year" and wrote several texts that were widely studied by United Methodists in seminaries and elsewhere. He taught at Perkins School of Theology and at the University of Notre Dame for many years and held the Bard Thompson Chair of Liturgical Studies at Drew University.

Bishop L. Scott Allen, 86, the last bishop elected in the former Methodist Church -- now part of the United Methodist Church -- died Sept. 18 at Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta of complications from pneumonia.

The Rev. J. Robert Nelson, 83, a renowned United Methodist ecumenist, theologian and bioethicist, died of cancer July 6 in Houston. Nelson worked for the World Council of Churches before becoming dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. In 1960 he resigned in protest over the dismissal of student James Lawson for his participation in civil rights demonstrations. Nelson subsequently taught at the Boston University School of Theology and later became director of the Institute on Religion in the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

James M. Dolliver, 80, a lay leader and retired Washington State Supreme Court justice, died in Olympia, Wash., Nov. 23 of complications from a stroke. He served on the General Council of Ministries and of the Board of Church and Society before being elected to the Judicial Council.

The Rev. Marcus J. Blaising, who retired in 1994 after 42 years of service to Methodism, died Oct. 24 at his home in Fishers, Ind. Blaising was a pastor, district superintendent and assistant to the bishop during his career. He was chairman of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration and served on the church’s Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

James Townsend, 73, a retired Air Force chaplain, died Nov. 16 in Nashville, Tenn. He was instrumental in establishing the first endowed professorship for pastoral care at United Methodist related Africa University in Zimbabwe.

Ida Long Rogers, 83, a powerful influence upon the United Methodist educational system through the students she taught, died Sept. 26 from complications caused by a stroke. Rogers, professor emirita at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and 50-year member of Belmont United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn., was the instructor of many current presidents of United Methodist-related institutions.

*Purdue is a retired staff writer of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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