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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.

United 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 and author.

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.

Wogaman, 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.

The 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."

The 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.

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*Peck is a free-lance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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