Who Determines Denominational Policy?

Methodism in Postwar America

The Interlude of the 1950s

The Re-emergence of Radicalism

Radical Consolidation

Reaction to Radicalism

Questions for United Methodism

Endnotes and Bibliography

In contrast to the 1960s, the 1970s seemed almost a return to normalcy. However, this was a period when some of the radical changes, which had their origins in the 1960s, were consolidated and became a more or less permanent part of United Methodism. The actions taken and the decisions made then are having a continuing impact on the church.

Reorganization and Radicalism

The early 1970s was a period when many of the major Protestant denominations made drastic changes in their national boards and agencies. The term "restructure" was used to describe the reorganization of the church bureaucracy. While the reasons given for this action were greater economy and more efficient organization, the underlying causes were much deeper and involved the role of the church in the larger society.

The social upheavals of the 1960s were shattering to the confidence of denominational leaders who had long expected that their work would produce a better society. The churches who had seen themselves on the side of the poor and the oppressed were suddenly identified as part of the establishment responsible for the oppression. They were harshly and inappreciatively told that they were contributing to the problems by their failure to find solutions more aggressively. The occupation of various church offices by black radicals and their white supporters who demanded millions of dollars in "reparations" for past injustices was traumatic for liberal leaders.

Denominational officials felt it imperative that they institute changes enabling the churches to meet at least some of the demands being placed upon them. However, only one part of the church can be altered consciously and quickly. Local churches, even in a connectional denomination, are highly autonomous units. Theological beliefs are grounded in long traditions. Because it is easy to tinker with the bureaucratic machinery, the proponents of change turned their attention to the general boards and agencies. When the church feels under great external pressure, some form of reorganization is virtually inevitable. The late 1960s and early 1970s was such a time, so the extent of restructure was massive.

The history of the restructuring of this period has been recounted in other places.1 However, the results of this reorganization have contributed to the radical consolidation within the church.

One result of the reorganization of the 1970s was a reorientation of the general boards and agencies. The basic function of these agencies had, to this time, changed little. They had carried out ministries on behalf of the local churches by sending and supporting foreign missionaries and providing a range of support services for both local churches and judicatories. As more leaders felt it imperative that the church somehow address issues in society, the agencies were given the assignment. The reorganization was a significant step in this process. Certain church bureaucrats increasingly saw their task not as traditional missions, evangelism and service to the congregations, but as dealing with the complex societal problems both at home and abroad.

The reorientation of the task of the national boards and agencies, and the selection of staff because of their interest in social, economic and political issues, resulted in increasing tension between the bureaucracy and the rank and file members. As the agencies were assigned problems that defied solutions, some leaders proposed increasingly radical ideologies and methodologies. Alliances were formed with a wide range of secular organizations. Grants were increasingly made to nonchurch organizations which would earlier have been an anathema to church leaders.

It should not be surprising that a more radical perspective became the ideology of certain parts of the church bureaucracy. Such agencies are given a broad mandate by the General Conference. They also have a great deal of flexibility within their assigned areas. They have full-time staffs and funds to support their agency's projects and those of other organizations. Furthermore, church members want to trust their official agencies, even as they express increased concern about what they are doing. Therefore many persons are not willing to challenge their church's leaders. Others do not have sufficient interest, information or concern to do so. The radical perspective is, of course, not limited to persons associated with the agencies, but is clearly in evidence there.

However, given the change in direction of church agencies during the 1970s, it was inevitable that conflicts over what stand the church should take on both foreign and domestic issues would directly involve the national bureaucracy. Methodists opposed to the direction in which some leaders were attempting to move the church focused their opposition on some particular action or activity of the national bureaucracy.

The Bishops' Call for Peace

A significant program in the period 1972-1980 was the Bishops' Call for Peace and the Self-Development of Peoples. This was important, not because of the impact it had on Methodism or on society, but as an indication of certain church the role of the UDited States in world affairs. In the early 1970s the Council of Bishops appointed seven of its members to bring to General Conference an emphasis on peace. This document, The Bishops' Call for Peace and the Self-Development of Peoples, was presented in 1972 by Bishop A. James Armstrong, a member of the committee. It listed the enemies of peace:

  1. Blind self-interest
  2. Economic exploitation
  3. Racism
  4. The population explosion
  5. Nation worship
  6. Continued relipce on military violence
  7. The arms race2

The document called for penitence and a new life which could be summarized by the term "mature love." It called for development programs based on principles of global need and accountability. Development was seen as broader than economic improvement and included self-reliance and self-determination.

In presenting the document to the General Conference, Bishop Armstrong made specific recommendations. He called for the, radical redefinition of institutional goals and priorities, equality of opportunity and the diffusion of political power from the few to the many. He also called for programs of population control, greater utilization of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, and civilian control of the military.

The Bishops' Call was essentially an educational program designed to influence the attitudes of Methodist people. The document contained eight recommendations, six of which called for the various church bodies - congregations, annual conferences, boards and agencies and theological schools - to implement the Bishops'Call. A Coordinating Committee on Peace and Self-Development was requested, as were funds to cover the necessary cost. This committee was established and provided with staff resources.

It is, of course, impossible to determine the success of such a program. In a report to the General Conference four years later by members of the Coordinating Committee on Peace and the Self-Development of Peoples, examples of various consultations held by annual conferences and other organizations across the church were given. Study books on this theme were published by the National Council of Churches' Friendship Press.

The Bishops' Call was to have a life span of eight years. The report to the 1980 General Conference listed the activities - which sounded very much like the regular agency programs - related to this program which had been carried out by the general boards. This final report stated that the Bishops' Call was underfunded and not clearly understood by large segments of the church. It lacked the ability to reach the people in the congregations.

The Bishops' Call is important as an indicator of the changing attitude by certain elements within the United Methodist Church toward the role of the United States. The report to the 1976 General Conference made the purpose of the Bishops' Call clear. That purpose was the political education of church members.

To be frank about it, the church has to take responibility, it seems to us, for the political education of its contituency. Political education is not brainwashing; it is a ministry to open up the implications of Luke 4:17-18, to show where power and privilege work against the establishment of justice.3

The question which this statement calls forth is: What kind of political education did these denominational leaders and bureaucrats desire to convey to Methodist people?

Data which help answer this question are found in the Coordinating Committee's report to the 1976 General Conference and in the address which the committee's chairman, Bishop A. James Armstrong, gave when the report was presented.

Several themes ran through these materials. The first was pacifism, a position held by some denominational leaders for nearly four decades. The 1976 report asserts that when the history of Methodism is assessed it will be noted that, "we have come far closer than most of our members would believe to being one of the historic peace churches, directly in line with the strong pacifist themes that have had beneficial effect on national life."4 The Bishops'Call was perceived as giving pacifism further direction and impetus.

A second theme was anti-Americanism expressed in negative evaluation of the nation's economic and political institutions. The report referred to the crisis of the American economic system and predicted dire consequences for an economy based on military spending and missionary zeal for outward expansion. The United States was seen as a power which exploited groups within and outside the nation for its own advantage. The report stated,

If we can see that our colonization of American Indians is a paradigm of our colonization of ethnic groups, of Puerto Rico, the Marianas, not to mention our continuing attempts at re-colonization of raw material producing countries through the twin powers of the ClA and the multi-nationals, we can perhaps get a "handle" on the way we have been silent, and thereby violent in the face of injustice we have as a nation generated.5

Every problem was seen as having five related components: racism, sexism, ageism, classism and economic imperialism. These were the legs on which the present crisis rested. No problem could be understood without considering these five factors.

Further insight on the thrust of the Bishops' Call can be noted in the address made by Bishop Armstrong when he presented this program's report to the 1976 General Conference. After calling attention to the printed report, the bishop gave an address strongly criticizing U.S. involvement in Vietnam (although a year earlier the Viet Cong had triumphantly run up their flag over Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and President Gerald Ford had proclaimed that the Vietnam War was finished as far as the United States was concerned).

The bishop began by reminding the delegates that the preceding Sunday the people of Vietnam had voted for the reunification of their land after twenty years of ruinous struggle. He went on to say that we should see Vietnam as a microcosmic view of the enemies of peace, which include economic exploitation, racism, refiance on military violence and nation worship. Without such a perception it would be impossible to understand the implication of the Bishops'Call. A major portion of the speech was an attack on U.S. policy. Reference was made to McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, Watergate and the "criminal misadventures of the FBI and CIA" as well as My Lai and Lt. William Calley. In answer to his question of why the U.S. had been in Vietnam, the bishop answered, "To serve the political and economic interests of the United States."6

In contrast, an almost romantic picture was presented of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh.

Wherever one travels in Vietnam today, one sees this quotation from Ho Chi Minh emblazoned against the sky, "There is nothing more precious than independence and freedom."7

The Vietnamese were described as a "tiny peasant people, a hardy, gentle people" who were able to stave off the forces of a super power. The bishop called for the U.S. to provide aid to Vietnam, saying, "We paid for the war. Now in the name God and for the sake of humanity, let us help pay for the peace."8 The address closed with a Vietnamese poem which called for a return to an idyllic kind of peasant village life. The delegates responded with a standing ovation.

The address did not call for any specific action or program. It was, in fact, backward-looking in that it used the Vietnam War and other events of the preceding decade and a half to present a romantic view of North Vietnam and to place the responsibility for the conflict on the United States. America and American institutions as the major source of many of the world's problems were the themes that continued to be pressed by some leaders and groups, even to the present.

Speaking on International Issues

The 1976 General Conference did not hesitate to speak on a wide range of international issues. The resolutions did not give evidence of research of expertise on the subject, but that did not deter the body from offering opinion and advice on some of the world's complex problems.

Despite the fact that the Vietnam War was over as far as the United States was concerned, it was, as had been shown by the Bishops' Call, an issue still before the 1976 General Conference. A resolution was passed which said that the United States had "poured out tremendous wealth in the course of the war which destroyed villages, ravaged farmlands and resulted in death, suffering and homelessness for millions of human beings. . . ." It asked, "will the many who paid for the war be willing in the name of Christ to help pay for the peace?"9 The resolution called for a normalization of relations with Vietnam, its admission to the United Nations and a U.S. financed reconstruction program similar to that following World War II.

Southern Africa also received the attention of the 1976 General Conference. A resolution called for American recognition of the Peoples' Republic of Angola, economic aid for Guinea-Bissua and Mozambique, the imposition of sanctions on Rhodesia and the prohibition of any further investments in South Africa until the apartheid system in that country was ended and majority rule established. Methodist people were urged "to become aware of and expose the continued domination of western economic, political and military interest in Africa through its alliance with oppressive forces in Southern Africa."10 Support of Christians engaged in liberation movements was also advocated.

The General Conference of 1976 adopted a resolution which dealt with both Northern Ireland and Lebanon. In five short paragraphs the conference reduced the cause of these two complex situations to economic oppression. Regarding Northern Ireland, it was asserted that many of the economically privileged were Protestants with close ties to England. The roots of Catholic opposition to the British were said to lie "in the realities of economic oppression, not in Catholic-Protestant theological or ethical difference."11

The struggle in Lebanon was seen as being between a poor and exploited minority consisting of both Muslims and Christians and a Christian privileged majority which held political and economic power. The resolution of both these conflicts would be facilitated by a more accurate assessment of their true causes. So, the United Methodist Church was called upon to develop ways to achieve a better understanding of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon and their root causes.

A somewhat longer resolution on the Middle East was also adopted. After describing the situation in that region, the General Conference requested four specific actions. One called for educational activities to help Christians become informed concerning the intricacies of the problem. A second called for a program to oppose the continuing flow of arms to the Middle East. A third urged that the Palestinian Liberation Organization be accepted as the representative of the Palestinian Arabs.

The fourth represented something of a high point of pious naiveté. It encouraged "government officials to seek an overall solution rather than accept a partial settlement which is likely to magnify tensions, increase the isolation of the dispossessed, and set states against each other."12 When one considers the amount of time and energy that has gone into working on the problems of the Middle East, it does seem a bit presumptuous for the General Conference to tell government officials to find an overall solution.

The General Conference of 1976 also took a position on the Panama Canal. The resolution described the U.S. role in the extablishment of Panama and the signing of a treaty which was disadvantageous to Panama. It called for the return of sovereignty of the canal to Panama, saying, "the ethical imperatives of the Christian gospel for equity, restitution, reconciliation and self-determination of peoples impel us to seek rectification of the unjust relationship."13

The 1976 General Conference also passed a resolution which repudiated the use of missionaries and other church personnel by the CIA in its intelligence-gathering activities. The resolution called for the Congress to "enact legislation which would prohibit the solicitation of American missionaries and foreign clergy by U.S. intelligence agencies."14 This action affirmed a similar one taken by the Board of Global Ministries a year earlier, even though no charges had been made that Methodist missionaries were in any way involved with the CIA.


No General Conference would be complete without a resolution on peace, and 1976 was no exception. While these resolutions bear a high degree of similarity, the changes made from quadrenniuin to quadrennium illustrate the direction in which the United Methodist leaders are thinking.

The 1976 resolution on peace called, as had been done in the past, for ending the arms race and dismantling the vast stockpiles of nuclear bombs and conventional weapons. The conference stated its belief that the United Nations should be supported, strengthened and improved. It was urged that international agencies be created to help people or nations avoid domination by other nations or transnational enterprises.

Attention was also given to human rights. The resolution asserted that millions of persons lived under conditions of racial, sexual and class discrimination. Attention was called to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa where white minorities oppressed black majorities.

As had been the case in the past, the General Conference affirmed Medthodism's historic opposition to military conscription and the right of the individual to conscientious objection to participation in all wars or in any specific war. Amnesty was requested for those who were in civilian or military prisons or had fled the country because of their opposition to war.

Asection on World Trade and Economic Development called attention to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It asserted that efforts to alleviate this situation "have been limited by our own unwillingness to act or frustrated by private interests governments striving to protect the wealthy and the powerful."15 Two new items were covered in the resolution. Support was given to the United Nations' effort to develop international laws governing resources in and under the sea, and the development of research programs within and outside the church to explore alternatives to war were encouraged.

Issues In 1980

When the 1980 General Conference met in Indianapolis, the Vietnam War had passed into history. The only reference related to this conflict was in the Episcopal Address which lamented the apathy toward undocumented aliens such as the "boat people." The bishops did include a section on war and peace in which they called attention to the sin of war. They condemned the invasion of a sovereign nation by one who had been considered a friend (apparently a reference to Russians in Afghanistan). They spoke against covert interference in the affairs of other nations, alliance with oppressive dictatorships and arms sales. They urged the United Nations to be more aggressive as an arbitrator and peacemaker.

The delegates in 1980 addressed many of the same issues as had previous General Conferences. A resolution strongly condemned South Africa and urged that banks cease making loans to that country and government. Church agencies were requested to withdraw funds from banks making such loans. Continued support for the United Nations was advocated.

The conference noted with approval that the nation of Zimbabwe had recently come into being officially. The U.S. asked to provide aid to Nicaragua. Russia was urged to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Arab-Israeli conflict was said to be "not primarily religious but one of conflicting national and class interests." Government officials were, as four years earlier, urged to "seek an overall solution rather than accept as final a partial settlement."16

However, the foreign policy issue foremost in the minds of the delegates was that of the American hostages then being held in Iran. The matter was presented to the General Conference by Bishop G. Dale White, a member of a group which had visited Tehran four months earlier and met with the Ayatollah Kohmeini. In Bishop White's long report on the Iranian situation he pointed out the complexities of the Iranian crisis. He said the Iranians believed a "bankrupt U.S. foreign policy kept a cruel dictator in power in Iran for two and a half decades and that rapacious U.S. interests syphoned off their oil money and ruined their economy." While not excusing the actions of the Iranian militants, Bishop White said that "the American people have much to regret, that many ugly things have been done in their name in that part of the world."17 He concluded by suggesting that a delegation be sent to the President of the United States to counsel the utmost patience and restraint.

A delegation of eight persons was so designated, and while the conference was in session these people traveled to Washington where they met with President Jimmy Carter. The delegation then went on to New York and met with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. They presented him with the conference's message for the Ayatollah Kohmeini, President Bani Sadr and the Iranian people. The delegation then returned to Indianapolis bringing their report and a message from President Carter.

As the delegation was on its mission to urge patience and restraint, the abortive rescue attempt which left eight Aiiiericans dead was in progress. The announcement of its failure reached the conference on its last day, and just before noon the body adopted a resolution urging that leaders in both countries exercise restraint and calling for the release of the hostages.

Transnational Corporations

Although there had been occasional reference to transnational corporations by Methodist bodies, the 1980 General Conference for the first time considered a resolution that opposed these organizations. The resolution was the result of petitions from the Board of Church and Society, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Coalition for the Whole Gospel. It stated that the goals of such corporations were not to develop or better the state of the host country but to serve their own interests. It was said that these companies made disproportionate profits, that their impact on the host country was harmful because it disrupted agricultural production by causing persons to seek industrial employment. It asserted that women were employed at extremely low wages, causing them to bear the brunt of the social and economic upheaval. It further stated that the human toll fell most heavily on non-white and Third-World peoples, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The resolution called for resources to educate people in local churches on the impact of transnational corporations; urged church agencies to select banks and businesses on the basis of their awareness of these companies' impact on Third World people; recommended legislation that would insure transnational corporations' accountability; and asked the church to foster action projects that would seek to correct abuses of power by these companies.

The resolution came before the conference on the last night, when the delegates were rushing through the final items in order to leave for home. There was no real debate, but one person managed to ask, "Apparently I'm the only stupid person here, but would someone tell me who the transnational corporations are?"18 The question was not answered. A vote was taken and the resolution was defeated.

This resolution in itself is a significant example of the thinking of certain leaders and groups within Methodism. It represents the increased tendency to see problems solely in terms of economic exploitation. It also illustrates the tendency to believe that the church can bring economic pressure on a scale that would be effective.

A New Generation of Leader

As Methodism entered the 1980s, those who were moving into positions of leadership were persons whose high school, college and seminary years coincided with the 1960s. Persons tend to come into leadership positions after they have been in the ministry about twenty years. Thus the persons who were being appointed to the district superintendency and employed as agency staff had during their formative years experienced the turbulent times of the civil rights struggle, the student rebellions, the urban disorders and the Vietnam War. They had participated in the civil rights campaigns and the peace movement. Radical social change was perceived to be the top priority for the church. Institutional development such as winning new members and establishing new congregations was perceived as, at best, of secondary importance. There was the assumption that the church would somehow be there to work for desirable social causes. A generation that had grown up in a time when institutions were perceived as suspect, if not actually evil, was coming into positions of leadership in the institutional church.

The strategies for radical social change which were developed in the 1960s and 1970s were brought into the 1980s with less than effective results. It is not surprising that this period experienced a continued decrease in both church membership and participation.

In the 1980s opposition to the radical agenda began to surface. More and more Methodists challenged the assumptions of the leadership elite. Some organized to increase the effectiveness of their dissent. Methodism now finds itself in this period.

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