Signs along the Methodist trail

Signs along the Methodist trail July 13, 2009

Sex, sex, sex. That seemed to be the only thing United Methodists were talking about the year that the Rev. James V. Heidinger II took command at Good News, a national movement for his church’s evangelicals.

That was in 1981.

“Every time we turned around we were arguing about sex, and homosexuality in particular,” said Heidinger, who retired last week. “Frankly, I was already weary of it and that was a long, long time ago. We wanted to get on to more positive things, like missions and church growth. … Yet here we are years later, still arguing about sex.”

Two events defined that era. Colorado Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., defied his colleagues in 1980 by rejecting a church policy stating that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Then, in 1982, he appointed an openly gay pastor in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley said: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The most important word in that statement was “sin,” explained Heidinger. The fundamental issue at stake was whether United Methodists could find unity on basic doctrines — like whether sex outside of marriage was “sin.” This, of course, raised another issue: What does “marriage” mean?

Liberals kept quoting a statement added to the church’s Book of Discipline in the 1970s affirming “theological pluralism” as an essential element of United Methodist life. Then conservatives managed to have “theological pluralism” removed in 1988, and language affirming the “primacy of scripture” added.

“That started a lively debate about the role of doctrine,” said Heidinger. “Until then, it seemed like you could believe anything you wanted to believe and still be a Methodist. … Want to say the resurrection of Jesus is a myth? That was fine, because of ‘theological pluralism.’ ”

Meanwhile, United Methodists were learning other complex and painful truths about their church, long been known as the quintessential Middle American flock.

In the mid-19th century, 34 percent of all believers in the country were Methodists. Then in 1968, the Methodists joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to create the United Methodist Church — with 11 million members. But by 2006, membership had fallen to 7.9 million, with staff cutbacks, gray hair and shuttered churches becoming the norm in many regions.

After decades of “thrashing around in denial mode, trying to find somebody to blame,” United Methodist leaders finally admitted “that our house was on fire,” said Bishop William Willimon of northern Alabama.

It was also painful to admit that United Methodists were worshipping in churches that disagreed on key matters of doctrine and church law, said Willimon, co-author of a mid-1980s study, “The Seven Churches of Methodism.” The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the “Yankee Church,” “Industrial Northeast Church,” “Western Church” and “Midwest Church” with those in the “Church South” and the “Southwest Church.”

Talking about the future is hard, when discussions of the recent past are painful.

“It’s a tribute to Jim Heidinger and other people like him that, when they first came on the scene, they were just the old-fashioned guys who wanted to hang on to church doctrines and traditions,” said Willimon. “But somewhere in the last few decades, the evangelicals turned into the people who were talking about wild ideas about how to change where the church was going. They’re the ones finding out what the growing churches across the nation are doing.”

Nevertheless, wars about doctrine and sexuality are far from over.

Progressives wield great clout in the seminaries, boards and agencies, stressed Heidinger. Yet in recent years, more than a third of the church’s clergy have studied at the certified, but not officially United Methodist, Asbury Theological Seminary. The other two-thirds are spread among 12 official seminaries. An alternative, evangelical Mission Society for United Methodists sends roughly the same number of fulltime missionaries overseas as the official General Board of Global Ministries.

But, for conservatives, the most important trends are global. Thus, 25 percent of the delegates at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference came from overseas. That may hit 40 percent in 2012, said Heidinger.

“When you ask United Methodists overseas — like in Africa — about the big issues, they don’t mind telling you what they believe,” he said. “That’s where the future is. That’s where the growth is, right there.”

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