New York Times, May 6, 2004

United Methodist Church Divided on Homosexuality Stand


PITTSBURGH, May 6 -- Frustrated by years of rancor between the left and the right in the United Methodist church, church conservatives today proposed that the denomination consider dissolving itself and splitting into separate churches.

The call for "An Amicable and Just Separation" came on the 10th day of the church's quadrennial General Conference, a policy-setting meeting that has only highlighted the church's state of gridlock over homosexuality and scriptural inerrancy.

After losing several critical votes this week, hundreds of gay clergy members and lay people and their supporters paraded through the convention hall today singing the Methodist hymn, "We are the church." Their leaders insisted that they have no plans to leave the church because they expect the gay rights cause will inevitably prevail.

Although a schism is far from imminent or sure, the proposal is an indication that Methodist conservatives intend to use the gay issue as a wedge to precipitate a fracture, just as they have in the Episcopal Church USA, in which some churches are now forming a rival network.

In nearly every mainline Protestant denomination, from the Presbyterian Church USA to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, conservatives are mounting increasingly organized challenges to churches long associated with theological diversity and liberal causes.

"It is time for us to end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other," said the Rev. Dr. William Hinson, president of the Confessing Movement, a conservative Methodist network, who presented the proposal for separation at a breakfast meeting of conservative supporters.

"There is a great gulf fixed between those of us who are centered on Scripture and our friends who are of another persuasion," said Dr. Hinson, the retired pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Houston. "Repeatedly they have spoken of the need to get our church in step with our culture. We on the other hand have no desire to be the chaplain to an increasingly godless society."

With 8.3 million members in the United States, United Methodists are the country's third largest Christian denomination, behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. More than many churches, Methodists represent the nation's geographic, economic and political diversity. President Bush is a Methodist, as is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In multiple votes on gay issues at the conference here, the nearly 1,000 delegates have consistently opposed changing their church doctrine to include acceptance of gay sex or openly gay ministers. But the votes have ranged from 60-40 percent to as close as 55-45 percent, giving both sides ammunition to claim that at this general convention they gained ground compared to the votes at the General Conference four years ago in Cleveland.

Four active bishops and one who is retired said that they had been taken by surprise and saddened by the proposal to separate. They said that the hallmark of Methodism was an inclusion of diverse theological points of view.

The church just voted to continue financing its multimillion-dollar television, radio and print advertising campaign whose slogan is, "Open Hearts Open Minds and Open Doors."

"We share a church that's a moderate church, that's pretty centrist," said Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., of the Denver area. "You cannot say that either a more liberal or a more conservative view is unwelcome in this church."

The Methodist Church divided over slavery in 1844, but reunited in 1939. In the more than 60 years since, the bishops said, although the church weathered passionate battles over racial segregation and the ordination of women, there had never been another proposal to split until now.