May 22, 1998
Contact: Thomas S. McAnally (615)742-5470 Nashville, Tenn.
The proposal for a separate organizational entity for evangelicals within the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church has been rejected.
Following a May 20 closed meeting in Sacramento with representatives of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF), the ministry staff of the conference said such a separation is unnecessary.
"The diversity of the United Methodist Church is broad enough to include all the viewpoints represented around the table of our consultation," the leaders said in a statement issued the following day.
The ministry staff includes Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, seven district superintendents and six staff members.
"Separation has never been required, nor is it now, in order to engage in the varied ministries that different local churches seek to fulfill," the leaders said. "A strong commitment to inclusion and tolerance welcomes a full range of congregational identities and forms of ministry."
Eighteen clergy and 25 lay people in the conference had asked early in April to be allowed to separate from the regional body. Noting that they were "divided beyond reconciliation," the ERF said separation would allow both sides to pursue their vision for ministry without the "distraction and injury of an ongoing war of ideas."
The California-Nevada leaders said United Methodists have struggled with differences throughout the church's history but stressed that such differences do not require separation.
"Any form of separation creates division," they said. "We cannot support division of the denomination, the annual conference, or the local church. Nor can we support the creation of a separate district based on theological differences. United Methodists honor the decision of any lay or clergy person to transfer or terminate their own United Methodist membership. The Book of Discipline provides the options and procedures."
In a list of agenda items for the May 20 meeting, the evangelicals asked the conference leaders if they would cooperate in preparing a petition to the next General Conference to form a provisional annual conference for evangelicals. The ministry team declined.
"Any United Methodist member or body is free to petition the General Conference on any topic directly or through the annual conference session," they said. "While the ministry staff will not stand in the way of the submission of any petition, the ministry staff will not join in any coordinated effort to prepare legislation for creating a separate missionary or provisional conference."
The General Conference, the top legislative body of the church, meets every four years and is the only group which can make official policy for the denomination. The next 10-day event is scheduled for the spring of 2000 in Cleveland.
In their list of proposed agenda items for the May 20 meeting, the evangelicals asked how the conference leaders would implement and enforce a statement released late in April by the church's Council of Bishops. The bishops voted unanimously to support the church's Book of Discipline on matters related to homosexuality, including the Social Principles.
The statement by the bishops was prompted by strong critical response to a Nebraska clergy trial, in which Omaha pastor Jimmy Creech was narrowly acquitted of violating the order and discipline of the church after he presided over a union ceremony for two women. Responding to a request by the bishops, the church's nine-member Judicial Council said it would call a special meeting in August to discuss statements on homosexuality in the denomination's governing Book of Discipline, specifically the enforceable status of the section known as the Social Principles. The Nebraska trial hinged on whether the Social Principles are church law.
In response to the concern raised by the California-Nevada evangelicals, the conference's ministry team referred them to a letter issued by Talbert on May 14, nine days after the Council of Bishops' semi-annual meeting in Lincoln, Neb.
In his letter, Talbert told clergy and lay members in his conference that unless the Judicial Council rules otherwise, he does not consider a pastor's performing a "holy union" to be in violation of church law. He acknowledged that performing a same-sex union does go against the spirit of the Social Principles, but he said the principles are not law. Quoting from the preface to the Social Principles, he said they are "intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit."
The executive committee of Good News, the denomination's oldest evangelical caucus, quickly criticized Talbert's interpretation and asked for him to resign from the episcopal office and take early retirement.
"His letter violates both the spirit and substance of the council's (of bishops) recent pastoral letter and is sure to leave United Methodists wondering if statements from the Council of Bishops are anything more than posturing," said the Good News leaders. "We feel betrayed, and the council must as well."
In a telephone interview with United Methodist News Service, Talbert said the concerns expressed by the ERF are being heard by the conference leaders, "but at the same time we find ourselves in disagreement with their proposed solutions."
Talbert said the United Methodist Church is large enough and inclusive enough to have people in it with different views, particularly theological views.
"We do not believe that it is necessary for all of us to have the same theological beliefs to remain faithful United Methodists," he said. "We think the Wesleyan idea of having right relationships with each other and with God is what is paramount."
During their May 20 meeting, the California-Nevada evangelicals asked how disagreements would affect evangelical pastors and candidates for ministry. "Do we have assurance that no punitive action will be taken against those people?" they asked.
In response, the conference leaders said no punitive action would be taken against any pastor "in the free and creative exchange of ideas, beliefs, and perspectives," but added, "advocacy of behavior destructive of the connectional system is not appropriate."
In the conclusion of their response, the ministry staff said issues were raised at the meeting that call for further discussion by other groups.
"We believe the covenant among elders and the meaning of membership in the annual conference both clergy and lay are topics that need to be addressed in other settings," they said.
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Full texts of the proposed agenda for the May 20 meeting and the response of the ministry team follow:
Evangelical Renewal Fellowship
Consultation with the Ministry Staff
May 20, 1998
May 21, 1998
To the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF)
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Grace and Peace to you from God through Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer!
This is our response to your request for a written statement which addresses the five agenda items prepared by the Evangelical Renewal Fellowships representatives for our May 20, 1998 consultation. As we work together to fulfill the mission of The United Methodist Church, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, we celebrate and give thanks that the grace of Jesus Christ unites us.
The diversity of The United Methodist Church is broad enough to include all of the viewpoints represented around the table of our consultation. Therefore, we believe a process of separation is unnecessary. Separation has never been required, nor is it now, in order to engage in the varied ministries that different local churches seek to fulfill. A strong commitment to inclusion and tolerance welcomes a full range of congregational identities and forms of ministry.
Throughout our history, United Methodists have prayed and confessed our sin, struggled and felt misunderstood, debated and failed to listen, argued and experienced judgment as we wrestled to discern the will of God. With fear and hope, in pain and love, we have questioned the future of the United Methodist Church. This is our heritage. It has not, and does not, require separation.
Any form of separation creates division. We cannot support division of the denomination, the annual conference, or the local church. Nor can we support the creation of a separate district based on theological differences. United Methodists honor the decision of any lay or clergy person to transfer or terminate their own United Methodist membership. The Book of Discipline provides the options and procedures. (See Agenda Items #1, #2 and #3)
Any United Methodist member or body is free to petition the General Conference on any topic directly or through the Annual Conference Session. While the Ministry Staff would not stand in the way of the submission of any petition, the Ministry Staff will not join in a coordinated effort to prepare legislation for creating a separate missionary or provisional conference. (See Agenda Item #3)
Bishop Talbert addressed the issue of holy unions and the Council of Bishops statement in his pastoral letter dated May 14, 1998. (See Agenda Item #4)
Given our tradition of respecting divergent opinions, punitive action will not be taken against any pastor in the free and creative exchange of ideas, beliefs and perspectives. It is expected that members of local churches will have the same freedom and not fear reprisal. Advocacy of behavior destructive of the connectional system is not appropriate. (See Agenda Item #5)
It was helpful for us to hear your personal stories and histories. It is important to remember that hearing and understanding is not the same as agreeing. In our consultation many issues were raised apart from those addressed in your agenda items and the above responses. The issues raised and differences noted call for discussion between parties beyond ERF and the Ministry Staff. We believe the covenant among elders and the meaning of membership in the Annual Conference (both clergy and lay) are topics that need to be addressed in other settings. We stand ready to be in continuing conversation with you as we seek the unity Christ desires for us all.
Your colleagues in ministry,
The Ministry Staff
Melvin Talbert, Bishop
Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.
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