Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Lifewatch, Reconciling Ministries, the United Methodist Building, and Lake Junaluska: Why We Worry

The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, or Lifewatch, is a caucus within the United Methodist Church that wants to change our church's stance on abortion.

An unsigned editorial in its June 2005 newsletter entitled "What Motivates Lifewatch?" states:

"Why does Lifewatch exist? Why does Lifewatch do what we do? Why does Lifewatch witness within The United Methodist Church today? A few critics might contend that Lifewatch is
nothing but a small band of United Methodist malcontents who cannot get along with the larger
church and who enjoy stirring up a little trouble within the denomination. A few others might claim that Lifewatch is a group of Republicans who are dedicated to pushing United Methodism in a more Republican direction. To be sure, Lifewatch probably does attract a few malcontents and people primarily interested in partisan politics."

The editorial goes on to say that, in spite of this, the taskforce is theologically motivated. The editorial concludes by explaining that being loyal to the United Methodist Church means trying to change its policy on abortion. It says:

"Loyalty to the church is not, and never has been, blind loyalty to the church as it is. Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church demands that the truth be spoken and written about life and abortion, that love and respect be displayed toward all in the church, and that moral falsehoods and blind spots in the church be identified
and corrected. Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church involves truth and love at all
times, and disagreement and discipline at some times."

However I might feel about this specific issue, I understand and resonate with Lifewatch's logic. Being loyal to the United Methodist Church does not mean agreeing with every position in the Book of Discipline as it is currently written. The taskforce has put it well: "Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church involves truth and love at all times, and disagreement and discipline at others."

This past January 24 the taskforce held its annual service of worship. As is normally the case, the service was held on the same day and in the same city as the national March for Life, "a time for prolife people to gather and peacefully protest the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton," according to a group called Right to Life of Michigan which sent busloads of marchers to the event.

The preacher for the taskforce's service was Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Whitaker introduced his sermon by calling the United Methodist Church to "a truer and more faithful witness" on the issue of abortion. We should not assume that the current position stated in the Book of Discipline settles the question, he suggested. "Nothing is ever settled in the church," he said.

Again, the principle laid out by Bishop Whitaker is compelling. As a church we cannot ever be satisfied that we have reached final truth. All our positions must be open to "a truer and more faithful witness." The bishop put it well: "Nothing is ever settled in the church."

Now, what I want us to notice is that, even though the goal of The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality is to change a position passed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the taskforce held its annual worship service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. (See here.) The taskforce has held its annual service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building for a number of years --at least since 2001. Every year it has held the service there on the same day as the national March for Life protesting Supreme Court decisions.

So far as I know, no one has suggested it is inappropriate for a caucus that intends to change a position voted by General Conference to meet in the chapel of a United Methodist-owned building. So far as I know, no one has objected to a bishop of the church participating in a service that encourages a change in a position duly voted into existence and established by General Conference.

Compare this to the fierce objections by the Good News Movement and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) against the Reconciling Ministries Network's Convo 2005 being held at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a conference center affiliated with the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

Mark Tooley of the IRD has issued a statement entitled "Lake Junaluska to Host Pro-Homosexuality Rally." The Good News Movement has endorsed Tooley's statement by posting it on its e-zine.

First, let us note Tooley's misleading and inflammatory tactic of calling a convocation a "rally." If you read Tooley's statement you will note other exaggerations, such as calling Reconciling Congregations "a lobbying group."

But even if we were to ignore the exaggerations and distortions in Tooley's statement, consider his objections to the Reconciling Ministry Network (RMN) holding its convo at Lake Junaluska. He objects because the group disagrees with a position passed by General Conference and because it advocates for a change in the church's stance.

According to Tooley's own statement, Lake Junaluska is not underwriting the RMN convo. Tooley quotes Lake Junaluska administrator Joetta Rinehart: "Lake Junaluska is renting the facility to Reconciling, not subsidizing 'Hearts on Fire' [the convo]. She said The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) had been consulted, and GCFA agreed that the disciplinary prohibition against funding of pro-homosexuality advocacy is not being violated."

I believe The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality uses the chapel of the United Methodist Building for free. Through the General Board of Church and Society, the United Methodist Church has been subsidizing this annual gathering purposed to change a position passed and approved by General Conference. No one who disagrees with the taskforce's agenda has complained. Yet RMN renting space at Lake Junaluska is a hot issue.

A friend sent me a copy of a letter written by James V. Heidinger II , president of the Good News Movement and publisher of Good News magazine. According to my friend the letter has been distributed widely among leaders within the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Because I trust my friend, I will reproduce Heidinger's letter here:

June 16, 2005
Dear United Methodist Friend:
This letter comes to you as a leader in the SE Jurisdiction, to let you know of an event scheduled for Labor Day weekend at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I want you to have the information about the event and ask that you pray about this matter and consider writing a letter or sending an email about it.

The conference “Hearts on Fire,” is being sponsored by Reconciling Ministries, one of the several caucus groups within the United Methodist Church that advocates for the acceptance of homosexual practice. You may wish to visit the Reconciling Ministries web site at: http://rmnetwork.org/.

The web site includes this mission statement: “Reconciling Ministries Network is a national grassroots organization that exists to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, both in policy and practice.”

Under Reconciling Ministries Clergy, there is this statement: “The RMN is comprised of persons called to ordained ministry with the UMC who summon the church to a deeper level of spiritual and theological integrity in relationship to persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities and their full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life.”

The reference to “full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life” has in mind, of course, ordained ministry, which the Book of Discipline strictly and carefully forbids. The network also indicates it is dedicated to “teaching, organizing, strategizing, resistance and support for one another . . .” What is being “resisted” is the church’s present standards concerning homosexuality. What is being taught, organized, and strategized are ways people can circumvent and ultimately change the Book of Discipline on this issue.

The “Hearts on Fire” brochure states “Together, we will be . . . Singing out God of Rainbow, Fiery Pillar, leading where the eagles soar as a rainbow community of faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual disciples committed to justice!” (You can view the brochure at the RM web site by clingin on “Convo information page.”)

Many things concern me about this weekend. Quite troubling is the fact that speakers will include two active bishops, Bishop Minerva Carcano and Bishop Susan Morrison, and one retired bishop, Bishop Richard Wilke. This is troubling because our bishops are charged with implementing the standards in our Discipline, not dissenting from them. Also listed as a leader is Rev. Beth Stroud, the lesbian clergywoman from Pennsylvania who declared herself “self-avowed and practicing,” lost her credentials in a church trial, and then had them reinstated upon appeal. We are awaiting the Judicial Council to review the case and expect it will sustain the guilty verdict.

Another program leader mentioned is Rev. Karen Oliveto, the clergy woman from San Francisco who performed eight same-sex ceremonies, seven at City Hall and one at the Bethany United Methodist Church. These were done during the time when the City Hall in San Francisco was considering such marriage legal.

Some will claim the RMN is just another caucus similar to Good News. But there is a significant difference. Good News and other evangelical caucuses actively support the Book of Discipline with regard to homosexuality, Reconciling Ministries is working to undermine and change the Book of Discipline.

We are writing to encourage folks who are concerned about this conference to speak out about it, both to your own bishop and district superintendent, as well as to the Executive Director at Lake Junaluska. He is Jimmy Carr and can be reached at SEJAC Office, P.O. Box 67, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745. Email him at: info@sejacumc.org

As you express your concern, do so in a gracious and respectful way, but also firmly in suggesting that such groups should not be permitted to use Lake Junaluska for such purposes. We certainly affirm the Discipline’s statement that all persons are of sacred worth, while we continue to acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (Par. 161).

Since the 2004 General Conference, the United Methodist Church has been reflecting and thinking about the theme of Unity. Bringing such a conference into the headquarters of the SE Jurisdiction will only further jeopardize the fragile unity of our church. This is not something folks across the SEJ can possibly feel good about.

Thanks for your concern and for whatever you might be able to do.
Yours in Christ,
James V. Heidinger II
President and Publisher

Does anyone else notice any inconsistency here? The Good News Movement has happily endorsed and promoted the subsidized services held by the The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality in the United Methodist Building. In a notice entitled "Celebrate Life," the November/December,2000, issue of Good News magazine encouraged its readers to attend the service "when you come to the March for Life in Washington, D.C." The taskforce services held on United Methodist property arguably really are part of a "rally."

But now Good News and IRD are up in arms because RMN convo attendees have rented space --paying their own way-- for a convocation on United Methodist property?

Friends, this is why we worry that if Good News and IRD and their supporters take over the denomination, professors and students will be told what they may and may not discuss, teach, and learn in United Methodist seminaries. This is why we worry that the United Methodist Publishing House will be told which books they are allowed to publish and which are to be censored. This is why we worry that bishops, pastors, and lay leaders will lose their freedom to disagree. This is why we worry that pastors will be told what we may and may not preach from our pulpits.

Those with a liberal spirit value the free exchange of ideas. They believe that freedom of thought and speech leads to greater learning and insight. They are not afraid of ideas differing from their own. So what if the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality disgrees with General Conference? Let's invite them into the United Methodist Building anyway. Let's listen to what they have to say. We may learn something. At the very least, we will have had the opportunity to fellowship together.

Given the outcry from Good News and the IRD, it is hard not to conclude that their attitude is exactly the opposite: Silence those who disagree with us. We have the truth already. Why should we listen to what anybody else has to say? If you disagree with us, go away and stay away.

This is why a liberal spirit is inherently healthier than the spirit that Good News and IRD appear to be articulating. I believe most United Methodist evangelicals are more open than this, and that they should let Good News and IRD know they do not appreciate these kinds of efforts to exclude and drive away those with whom they disagree.


Blogger jay v. said...

Wow! Have a good trip.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Richard H said...

Yep, Dean. Though I am in general a supporter of Good News, it does sound pretty inconsistent. I can recognize that people that disagree with me, people who are opposed to some of what I stand for, people who work for things I work against - that all these people can (and probably generally do) work from a desire to make the church healthier and more in line with what God wants. From my point of view, argument is the way to go, not coercion. Unfortunately argument can take a long time (hours, days, years, centuries) while coercion is quick (and dirty). Sometimes we need speed - though less often than most people think.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Andy B. said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and articulate article. I hope that as time goes on, more and more people begin to see through the poisonous deception being propogated by Good News and IRD.
- Andy B.

9:57 PM  
Blogger John Wilks said...


This issues isn't so cut and dried. I personally have no problem with RMN trying to change the the Discipline by proper means even if I don't want to see those changes. In that sense, I see RMN and Lifewatch as more alike than different. And so in principle, I agree that RMN has as much right to rent out a denomination facility as any other group.

The issue for me isn't RMN's desire to change, but the tactics of some of the speakers, who have not just stood for change, but who have twisted and defied the Discipline as it now stands.

Lovingly advocating change is one thing while abiding in the system is one thing, open rebellion is quite another- even if you choose to lable it "civil disobedience."

If RMN had selected less radical speakers- speakers who want change but won't break the current standards- I would gladly agree with you that Good News is being hypocritical here. But after reading the whole letter you include in your post, I do see why Good News has a bee up its bonnet.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...


I understand why you're upset that some violate the standards of the Book of Discipline. But there is precedent for it in the history of the Church.

Like Martin Luther, who taught against the standards of the Roman Church of his day that he found unjust, these people are following their consciences. Luther stated that "to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

Second of all, to take Beth Stroud's situation for example, she finally decided that she would stop lying to the Church about her relationship with her partner. Would you rather she continued lying? Isn't there something in the Bible that finds lying a problem?

Besides that, Ms. Stroud is willing to accept the consequences of her actions, even including being stripped of her ordination. That is true civil disobedience, when it is an act performed on account of the demands of conscience, and when there is no attempt to avoid the full consequences of that action.

What Ms. Stroud is seeking to show is the fullness of the injustice of the Church's stance, that removes a gifted pastor from office for being honest and for being faithful in a relationship that, for questionable reasons, the Church has deemed unacceptable. (After all, of all the passages in Scripture that are judged to refer to homosexual practice, only one appears to refer to lesbianism, and even that interpretation is contested.) Karen Oliveto's actions also were done openly and with a willingness to bear whatever consequences might follow.

If the issue is ever finally resolved for the whole Church - in heaven, if no where else - we will know whether these two women and others like them were simply unrepentant sinners defying the plain Word of God, or prophets against the pharisaism of the Church that not only didn't help LGBT persons live lives of faithfulness to Jesus Christ but actively barred them from seeking to do so within the confines of the UMC.

Doug Asbury

2:44 AM  

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