May 7, 2004
By Neill Caldwell*
(UMNS) — United Methodist delegates to 2004 General Conference stood,
joined hands and sang the hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds” before
approving a resolution affirming the unity of the church.
A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.
Delegates Burnham A. Robinson (left) and Rev. Judith A. Sands embrace following a vote of the 2004 General Conference.
May 7 action was in response to the circulation of a document the day
before suggesting the formation of a task force to study splitting the
church. The statement, crafted by conservatives, was never introduced on
the floor of the conference.
a May 7 newsletter for conference attendees, the Rev. James V.
Heidinger II, president of Good News, wrote that “no such resolution
will be brought before this General Conference.” But he added that “the
matter of amicable separation is now on the table for discussion by
United Methodists.” Good News is an unofficial United Methodist
unity resolution adopted May 7 read: “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 introduced by the Rev. John
Schol of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference and
approved by a vote of 869-41, with 8 abstentions.
important to send a clear message that we are unified, a United
Methodist Church which is not splitting,” Schol told reporters after the
vote. “I have a great deal of relief that we have affirmed our
covenant, and that delegates will not leave this place divided. I
believe we will come back in four years as a stronger denomination.”
said he felt moved to do something after receiving phone calls from
people back home who had heard the church was about to split. He felt
the passage of the unity resolution was a clear signal to block “a
movement to drive a wedge in our denomination.”
idea of expressing affirmation for unity was praised by several
delegates before the vote. “This has been monumental for our church,”
said the Rev. Stanley Copeland from North Texas. “In the course of our
legislative committees and debate on this floor, I’ve found myself in a
sea of distrust … and drowning.”
Rev. Bill McAlilly of Mississippi asked that the moderate voices of the
church — a group he called the “Methodist Middle” — be represented in
future discussions about unity. “The faithful United Methodists who are
not represented or identified with any coalition group, those of us who
are neither on the right or on the left, must be included at the table.
More often than not, we are silent, and perhaps that’s our sin. But we
fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as ‘the opposition.’ If those
of us in the middle can contain those on either side, maybe we can find
the unity we seek.”
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Rev. William Hinson (right), president of the Confessing Movement, and Rev. Bruce Robbins present a resolution on church unity.
the motion was made, the Rev. Bruce Robbins, former top staff executive
for the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and
Interreligious Concerns, and the Rev. Bill Hinson, president of the
Confessing Movement, spoke to the delegates and tried to clarify the
events of the day before.
our conversations on Monday night and Tuesday, some informal proposals
were made,” Robbins told the conference. “They were brainstorming
sessions. There was no consensus. There were papers distributed with the
idea of not going beyond the room. Then on Thursday morning, Dr. Hinson
addressed the Good News breakfast and shared the pain he has been
experiencing. He mentioned the idea of amicable separation and the
suggestion of a resolution being offered.”
later told reporters that “I stand in amazement at the combustibility
of a speech made at an early morning breakfast by someone who is not
even a delegate. But those are my honest feelings, and I can’t deny them
for the cause of unity. Someone once said that if you sacrifice truth
on the altar of unity you lose both.”
also denied charges that he personally is behind efforts to divide the
denomination. “I don’t see myself as schismatic,” Hinson said. “My
ancestors heard (John) Wesley preach in Savannah. I am a
seventh-generation United Methodist. I do have a deep sense of sadness
over our church and its brokenness. Does that mean there are no bridges?
offered his own explanation of how the proposal to split the church had
come to light. “Someone who received the document made copies of it and
gave it to the press. … It was assumed that the document was Bill’s
(Hinson). It was not.”
told reporters that “a number of proposals were put forward. The
proposals to split came from persons representing the more conservative
side. My perception was that it was a document that was of great
interest to many people, and one that was shared with various
constituencies and copied many times. I can’t say whether one side or
another released it.”
said he had not authored the proposed resolution that ignited the
controversy. “I’ve never written a resolution, and if I did it would
look a lot better than the one that was circulated on the floor
yesterday. It was discussed, and my (Confessing Movement) leadership
decided that (such a resolution) would be a very bad idea.”
said the result of the morning’s vote was that the 10 million member
denomination has not considered any split. “The United Methodist Church
strives and is determined to seek unity,” he said. “That is the goal for
all of us. The question is how do we discern ways to build bridges over
our differences? I do believe that God has a greater imagination than
leaders say most members are unhappy about the church’s direction,
especially with regard to issues like homosexuality.
churches are increasingly expressing their pain,” Hinson said. “The
grass-roots people are very frustrated, and it comes from a feeling of
helplessness when they see the covenant we’ve put into law deliberately
defied or ignored.”
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Delegates hold hands prior to a vote affirming unity in the church.
agreed that there were deep differences in the church. “But why wait
until the split happens to address those concerns? There is a desperate
need for some space in the United Methodist Church. It is extremely
difficult for some people to participate in a church where they may see
things they find offensive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
articulated his vision of an amicable split to be “like when Paul and
Barnabas decided to go their separate ways and the kingdom was
friends on the other side say they will never leave the church, and we
will never leave,” Hinson added.” That’s the standoff. If one group
said, ‘I’m out of here,’ then we wouldn’t have all this talk.”
Rev. Kathryn Johnson, executive director of the Methodist Federation
for Social Action, said she found any suggestion of a split “absolutely
devastating. … Theologically and politically, we differ greatly, but we
all share a love for the church.”
talk of divorce is premature because we have not gone through
counseling,” Johnson said. “We haven’t talked. We haven’t had honest
Johnson said the idea of division is not new. “Four years ago, these
same groups sent a video to every delegate, which concluded with an
invitation to leave the church. And these groups on the right have had
these proposals up on their Web sites.”
Felton E. May of the Washington Area said the show of unity on the
floor of General Conference reflected “what is truly in the hearts of
United Methodist worldwide. I sense that the church is stronger now than
we could have ever dreamed or imagined.”
*Caldwell is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.