Theologians testify on New Zealand church property case
11/3/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
The following story may be used as a sidebar to UMNS #520
A UMNS Report
By J. Rich Peck*
United Methodist theological heavyweights testified in court
to help a judge resolve property claims made by a Tongan congregation
in New Zealand.
In February 2001, some members of the Otahuhu
Tongan Methodist Church told their district superintendent they wanted
to separate from the denomination after a self-professed homosexual was
admitted to the ministry. They subsequently asked a district judge to
divide assets between those who wanted to remain with the denomination
and those who wanted to establish a new church.
Among a series of
arguments asking the judge to divide assets, the dissidents said that
the admission of a homosexual to the ministry involved a change in
Wesleyan doctrine upon which the church was founded. "The break means
the [denomination's] final authority is a break in the trust under which
the Otahuhu property is held," argued the dissidents.
Methodists testifying during the trial last summer included the Rev.
William Abraham, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, Dallas; the
Rev. Richard Heitzenrater, a professor at Duke Divinity School, Durham,
N.C; the Rev. Ted Runyon, professor emeritus of Candler School of
Theology, Atlanta; the Rev. John Cobb, professor emeritus of Claremont
(Calif.) School of Theology; and the Rev. Philip Wogaman, retired pastor
The attorney for the congregation argued that in his
Notes on the New Testament, Wesley made it clear that he shares the
opinion that homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching. He likened
doctrine to the core of a golf ball and the outer covering to the
application; he asserted that both make up the whole ball.
who traveled to New Zealand to testify, argued that there was a
difference between core doctrine and how it is applied. Asked about the
comparison to the golf ball, Wogaman said he preferred to think of the
entire golf ball as the core doctrine and efforts to get the ball in the
hole as the application. "Sometimes you get the ball in the hole with
one stroke and sometimes it takes several tries," he joked.
former pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, said he
believes judgments about homosexuality are applications of doctrine and
not part of the core doctrine. Wogaman, a veteran General Conference
delegate, noted that the application of doctrine depends upon our
perceptions of the real world, and these perceptions change with new
experiences and scientific study.
Heitzenrater, perhaps the best
known Wesley scholar in America, told United Methodist News Service, "My
whole point in testifying was to show that any Methodist denomination
that stipulates Wesley's sermons and notes as 'doctrinal standards' that
demand strict compliance is in trouble, since they were not designed
for that particular use in a denomination with ordained clergy."
judge ruled on July 23 that the congregation had no basis to claim a
"stand-alone status" and found that the conference is the final
authority within the Methodist Church on all questions concerning the
interpretation of its doctrines. The judge declined to express a view on
the doctrinal issue and dismissed all plaintiff charges as well as an
injunction issued in July 2001.
# # #
*Peck is a free-lance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
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