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

The attempt of certain leaders, boards and agencies and unofficial caucus groups to move United Methodism to a more radical position regarding social and economic issues was not without opposition. Considering the drastic departure from the way Methodists had been accustomed to perceiving the world, it may seem surprising that the level of conflict has not been more intense. There are three reasons for this.

First, most actions of the national church organizations do not have a direct and visible impact on the rank and file clergy and lay members. The people in the local church do provide the funds which keep the denominational machinery operating. They use the literature and tend to carry out the programs the national agencies produce. They will be affected by changes in the organization which involve the local church. Nevertheless, the typical congregation continues in much the same way generation after generation. On any given week the most pressing matter may be raising extra funds to repair the furnace. What the national bureaucracy does often has little relevance to the local church.

Second, much of the participation of the church agencies with international issues involves the passing of resolutions. These state what the adopting body believes about a situation and usually request a person or group to take specific actions. A resolution will depend on the nature of the issue and the size of the constituency which considers it urgent. While the General Conference is the body which can speak for the United Methodist Church, there is no way to estimate how many people back in the pew would support, or are even aware of, a particular resolution. Any lay person or minister can shrug his or her shoulders and ignore any resolution. Thus a factor that contributes to minimizing conflict is the ineffectiveness of many of the denominational actions on international issues.

Third, most clergy and laity want to have confidence in their denominational leaders and agencies. They prefer to take pride in their Church and its activities. A leader or agency engaged in activities that the constituents oppose will be treated like the black sheep of a family. They will be tolerated, and their actions will be explained in a way designed to avoid embarrassment to the rest of the family. Rarely will there be outright repudiation, because the list thing a denomination wants is to let the public know that some leaders or agencies are either incorrect or stupid. When the media cover questionable activities of a church agency it is a source of great embarrassment. Like a family drawing together when a member is attacked by an outsider, the denomination will defend the agency and its action. Even those who oppose what the organization has done in a specific action will tend to defend it in general.

Affirmation of Pluralism

Methodism has always been a pluralistic church, although that term did not come into popular usage to describe the denomination's diversity until fairly recently. The existence of differences among Methodists has long been recognized and accepted even though it was occasionally the source of conflict. As long as the denomination placed an emphasis on unity, the differences could be managed as quarrels within the Methodist family. The church avoided placing dissidents in a position that would exclude them from the larger fellowship.

Methodism has been remarkably successful in maintaining a high degree of unity even when faced with highly divisive issues. That the church could survive the racial conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s with so few losses attests to this fact. As the church entered the 1980s it affirmed that pluralism was the official position.

The official acceptance of pluralism was an official admission of basic difference between groups of Methodists. This was a way to avoid conflict by making it clear that differences are acceptable. The hope was that loyalty to and support of the church would be kept to an acceptable and non-disruptive minimum.

Even though the 1988 General Conference declared pluralism dead, its previous official adoption and current unofficial acceptance by many may have placed the church's unity over the long term in jeopardy. The affirmation of pluralism placed an emphasis on the factors which separate rather than those which bring people together. The struggle in Methodism in the period ahead will be to define those boundaries of beliefs and actions which all individual or group cannot cross and still be in good standing as United Methodists.

In no area is this more controversial than in the denomination's reaction to government policy, particularly in foreign affairs. Will opposite views on how the U.S. should relate to hostile communist states be accepted as valid Christian perspectives by all parties? The position taken by certain United Methodist groups and individual leaders in the 1970s brought forth a response from those who clearly felt what was being said and done was not acceptable as a United Methodist stance. These conflicts continue as individuals and groups within the denomination react to the radical perspective being taken by some of their fellow Methodists.

The Shape of the Reaction

Opposition to the direction in which some radical leaders and groups were trying to take Methodism centered on matters related primarily to church rather than to foreign policy issues. In this regard the situation in the late 1970s and the early 1980s was quite different from iiiit of the late 1940s when communism, as represented by Russia, was the focus of controversy. The matters around which opposition crystallized were such things as the perceived liberal theological stance of some church leaders, the change in the number of foreign missionaries, the ordination of homosexuals and the lack of accountability of the national boards and agencies. But by the 1980s the perceived radical perspective on foreign policy issues was beginning to attract the attention of an increasing number of United Methodists.

Only one strictly United Methodist organization opposing the radical leadership has had a continuing existence during the past twenty years. This is the Good News movement, which was formed in the mid-1960s by Charles W. Keysor, then a pastor in Illinois. In 1966 Dr. Keysor wrote an article, "Methodism's Silent Minority," in which he said that the evangelicals were that minority. The response to this article was so overwhelming that the Good News movement was born.1 There has always been a strong evangelical wing within Methodism to which Good News has given visibility and focus.

The movement holds a national meeting every summer with approximately 1,200 persons attending. A magazine is published bimonthly which has 20,000 subscribers, two-thirds of whom are lay persons. Good News also publishes literature for use in church membership classes. The movement's headquarters are in Wilmore, Kentucky, where Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary, two independent institutions with a Methodist evangelical clientele, are located.

The Good News movement, since its beginning, has been engaged in a cold war with the denomination's Board of Global Ministries. The basic problem involves a different and irreconcilable theology of missions. Good News has been critical of the Board's support of certain organizations whose purposes are seen as contrary to what the church should be funding. It has taken a strong position in favor of iiicre@ising the number of American missionaries.

Good News magazine published a long article on the Board of Global Ministries in which it discussed some of the groups to which the Board had given funds. This story was critical of what it described as political grants by the United Methodist mission agency. The article charged,

Clearly the support of the General Board of Global Ministries for leftist political groups is not accidental or haphazard. Rather, GBGM has consciously chosen to back dozens of organizations committed to goals alien to most United Methodists and outside the GBGM's mandate.2

A score of examples, with the amounts of hte grants, were listed. These included $20,540 group to PRISA, a Puerto Rican group opposed to U.S. affiliation with the island; $15,965 to Theology in the Americas, a group which, at a meeting in Detroit in 1980, called for the nation to "explore a creative alternative" to the U.S. capitalistic system; $24,000 to train African women who are working on a Third World news service called Interpress; and $47,500 for an office to inform Americans about the proposed treaty on the Law of the Sea which deals with the use of the oceans and their resources.3

The position of Good News is that the United Methodist Church, and particularly its mission organization, has adopted a defective philosophy. This philosophy rationalizes a commitment to building societies and systems where full human potential is liberated as a strictly socioeconomic reality rather than winning persons to the Christian faith, as Good News believes.

An organization which is directing considerable attention to matters of foreign policy is the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) which is based in Washington, D.C. This organization, founded in 1981, encompasses persons from a number of Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church. A number of prominent United Methodists are among its leaders. One of the founders was United Methodist evangelist Edmund W. Robb, Jr.

In its statement of purpose the IRD affirms that Jesus Christ is Lord. This, it says, is an assertion Christians make of all reality including politics. The major global ideology which is committed to the denial of freedom is Marxism-Leninism.

On balance, and considering the alternative, American power is a force for democratic freedom in the world . . . The Institute on Religion and Democracy hopes to renew the credibility of the church's social witness by engaging leaders and members alike in affirming the connection between Christian faith and democratic values.4

The methods used by the IRD are typical of such organizations. They include monitoring the various denominational agencies, putting out a newsletter and sponsoring conferences in different parts of the country. Persons affiliated with the IRD have been featured in the national media when stories about alleged church support of revolutionary groups were published. Whether or not the IRD has been responsible for the increased coverage of church involvement with political groups, it has been instrumental in helping to bring such activities to the attention of the church constituency and the general public. The extremely negative reaction from some church leaders to IRD, particularly those in the denominational bureaucracy, suggests that IRD is getting the attention of the persons whose views and actions it opposes.

The Media Controversy of 1983

The first half of 1983 will be remembered as the time when the church engaged in a controversy with the media. This was sparked by an article in Reader's Digest entitled, "Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?"5 and a segment of the CBS television series "60 Minutes" entitled, "The Gospel According to Whom?" Probably not since the late 1940s has the liberal Protestant establishment responded to coverage in the media with such it degree of indignation and outrage. To understand the reasons for the response, it is necessary to realize that persons who are responsible for the maintenance of the church and its institutions are extremely sensitive to criticism. To question a denominational program or to challenge a board or agency is interpreted is the contemporary unpardonable sin. Church bureaucrats know they are dependent on the voluntary support of their constituency, a fact that in the final analysis makes them highly vulnerable to grass-roots support. Any criticism raises anxiety. Criticism from persons or groups within the denomination is a matter of great concern, but criticism in the mass media raises anxiety to an intolerable level.

The harsh reaction to the Reader's Digest article and the "60 Minutes" program was to be expected. Once controversial issues are aired in the mass media they have to be faced. They can no longer be kept in the category of family quarrels. When a family quarrel becomes public it is a source of great embarrassment. Furthermore, persons all across the denomination become aware of a problem. A minister may be forced to defend his denomination when questioned by a pastor of another communion. A United Methodist layperson may find herself in an awkward position when a Baptist co-worker asks about the issues raised in the media.

The article in Reader's Digest, "Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?" had the subtitle, "You'd better find out because they may be supporting revolution instead of religion." It was written by Raél Jean Isaac, a free-lance writer with a PH.D. in sociology. The article dealt with the National Council of Churches (NCC). It charged that this interdenominational body had become increasingly politicized, stating that critics charged that the NCC "supports Marxist-Leninist movements in the Third World, that it has betrayed the liberal tradition and that it has become obsessed with the alleged inherent injustices in America."6

The article quoted from David Jessup's study of grants by United Methodist agencies and gave numerous examples of NCC actions to support its thesis. Printed with the article was a half page with information from the Institute on Religion and Democracy entitled "How You Can Help" (i.e. stay with your church, make your opinions known, demand full disclosure and withhold contributions from doubtful causes). Included was a quotation from IRD leader Edmund W. Robb Jr.
At the root of the problem is the secularization of the church. The NCC has substituted revolution for religion . . .Christians have an obligation to work for social justice. But there will be no justice without freetiom.7

On January 23, 1983, the CBS program "60 Minutes" did a segment entitled "The Gospel According to Whom?" which charged that the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches and several Protestant denominations were inappropriately involved in political activity around the world, including providing financial support for groups engaged in armed revolution. Prominent leaders of both the NCC and WCC were interviewed as were two persons from the Institute on Religion and Democracy. The program charged that these ecumenical agencies were involved in supporting groups whose goals were political revolution, organizations that were neither Christian nor democratic. The implication was that church members were not being told the truth about how their contributions were being used. The clearly humanitarian relief activities of the NCC were not mentioned.

The reaction of denominational leaders to the article and television program was immediately vehement. The various editorials, articles and statements expressed indignation that the church should be so unfairly attacked. The National Council of Churches issued a long rebuttal in which virtually every point in the Reader's Digest article was contradicted. The statement declared "The NCC does not fund or otherwise support the Communist government or movements anywhere in the world(italics in original).8 This brought a reply from the original author who gave the sources for her charges and insisted that they were in fact correct.9

The response to "60 Minutes" was equally strong. A news release, "The Gospel According to '60 Minutes,'" quoted top NCC officials who denounced the program as distorted, sensational and biased. It further stated that the television segment left the false impression that money given by church members was supporting armed revolution; that church groups were supporting communist regimes and movements and Soviet front organizations; and that large amounts of church money and staff time were going into dubious causes. The paper then proceeded to deny all of the allegations.10

United Methodist leaders were among the most ardent defenders of these ecumenical organizations. Methodist Bishop Armstrong was president of the National Council of Churches at the time, and his denomination was the largest contributor to that organization. The denominational press remembered that this was not the first time that Readers's Digest had attacked the church and cited the 1950 article about Methodism's pink fringe as an example. Church people were urged to notify CBS of their displeasure. A list of the sponsors of "60 Minutes" was published so complaints could be directed to them as well.

Included were personal attacks in the church press on some persons associated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the organization blamed for providing the data to the media. An attempt was made to bring pressure on the AFL-CIO to silence staff member David Jessup, whose criticism of United Methodist agencies had been highlighted by Reader's Digest. A statement signed by participants at a church and labor conference stated that church cooperation with organized labor would be threatened if the labor organization tolerated such activities by a member of their staff. Although Jessup was not mentioned by name, it was clear to whom the statement referred. Several United Methodist leaders, while they did not necessarily agree with Jessup, let it be known that they believed he had the right as a lay member to be critical of his church. They deplored the tactic of attempting to silence a critic by bringing pressure on his employer.

The controversy resulted in the United Methodist Reporter, a weekly newspaper with the largest circulation of any paper in Protestantism, doing an investigation of the National Council of Churches. In a two- part series the paper examined, among other aspects, the organizational structure and ability or the lack thereof. A study of the statements of the NCC on human rights issues led to the conclusion that four times more effort was devoted to addressing human rights abuses by dictatorial rightist regimes (such as South Korea) than to those by dictatorial leftist regimes (such as Vietnam).11

The district superintendents of United Methodism's Southeastern Jurisdiction requested the denomination's Council of Bishops to appoint a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the charges being leveled at the ecumenical organizations and report to the denomination. The Council named a committee consisting solely of bishops to make the requested investigation and report.

It is clear that for some time there had been a great deal of concern among some denominational leaders about certain aspects of the NCC and WCC. But many potential critics are restrained because they are reluctant to jeopardize many of the valuable programs and services in which these organizations are engaged. Furthermore, an ecumenical organization which is responsible to a large number of denominations is, to a degree, wholly accountable to none.

The 1984 General Conference

When the 1984 General Conference met in Baltimore, Methodism was celebrating its bicentennial in the city where the church was organized. The two-decade decline in membership resulted in somewhat subdued festivities. Attention was focused on basically internal matters such as the requirements for ordination, the mission of the church and what could be done to reverse the membership decrease. There was no international crisis to capture the attention of the delegates as had the captivity of the American hostages in Tehran four years earlier.

The Episcopal Address contained a strong statement against war, "All nuclear weapons. . .must be destroyed. . .Christian conscience demands total disarmament by disbanding armies, navies, and air forces over the face of the earth."12

A statement against war was also included in the laity address. The sentiment expressed in the address was implemented by the bishops and resulted in a statement dealing with nuclear armament. This was entitled In Defense of Creation and was widely circulated and studied by groups throughout the denomination during the ensuing quadrennium.

The furor over the earlier criticism of the church's alleged support of revolutionary groups had died down. The committee of bishops named to review the situation made its report which documented the denominations' support of the National and World Council of Churches.13 The General Conference did pass 191 pages of resolutions on 62 subjects. These included a call for an end to military intervention in Central America, to provide sanctuary for persons fleeing because of fear of persecution, support for a nuclear-free Pacific and a request for the United States to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Others urged economic sanctions against South Africa because of its policy of apartheid, supported disarmament, supported the United Nations and opposed military conscription. These resolutions differ little from those passed by previous General Conferences, and there is no evidence that they had any particular impact on the United Methodist constituency.

The 1988 General Conference

The 1988 General Conference was not one in which foreign policy issues were high on the agenda. The Bishops' letter on nuclear war, "In Defense of Creation," had been studied during the preceding quadrennium and was no longer a topic of intense interest. The situation in Central America continued but seemed to get the attention of only a small group of activists. The Iraq-Iran War went on and the U.S. fleet was patrolling the Persian Gulf, but this did not command the attention of the delegates who gathered in St. Louis in late April 1988.

United Methodism's major attention in 1988 was directed toward internal matters. The continued decrease in membership, vividly called to the church's attention by Bishop Richard B. Wilke in his book, And Are We Yet Alive?, was a matter of great concern. Other church issues considered were the adoption of a revised theological statement, the acceptance of a new hymnal and whether to eliminate the prohibition against the ordination of homosexual persons.

The tone was set in the Episcopal Address. Bishop Jack M. Tuell focused on connectionalism, the itineracy, evangelism and inclusiveness. He spoke strongly against the idea of pluralism, saying, "The time has come to say the last rites over the notion that the defining characteristic of United Methodist theology is pluralism. . . ." (DCA, p. 79).

The Episcopal Address contained a positive reference to the United Nations. It said, "The United Nations, imperfect and fragile as it is, remains the most viable symbol of the deep desire of people everywhere to resolve their differences. . . .by sitting down together at tables of mediation and reconciliation, we affirm a strengthened United Nations."14 Both the communist and capitalistic systems were condemned. The bishop stated,

Today both systems are found morally wanting: communism because it has failed both economically and in its ability to guarantee the most basic human rights of free speech, free press and free religion; capitalism because of its failure to cope with the growing number of homeless people, and the erosion of the middle class, mostly into the ranks of the poor.15

The alternative to these systems was to be based on God-given freedom and dignity of all, standards of truth and justice and the elimination of racism, sexism and militarism.

Several international issues did receive the attention of the delegates assembled in St. Louis. A resolution called for the unification of Korea. It stated that "A Peace treaty should be signed among the nations involved to eliminate the threat of war, establish an enduring peace, and minimize tensions in the Korean peninsula. . . ."16

Central America did not escape attention. This resolution covered in a superficial way the range of problems in that region. This stated, "The Panamanian crisis includes clear acts of intervention by the United States. . ." and urged the President to lift the economic sanctions. The conference declared its "support for the Esquipulas II peace plan and the right of all Central Americans to self-determination again."17 The development of study materials was mandated.

The General Conference again passed a resolution on the Arab-Israeli crisis in which Israel was directed to cease its violence toward Palestinian civilians, and the Palestine Liberation Organization was to recognize Israel and "to enter into negotiations leading toward self-determination of all persons in the territory under military occupation. . . ."18 The resolution recognized Israel's right to secure borders and peace and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination.

The situation in Mozambique also received the attention of the General Conference. A resolution deploring the suffering caused by the fighting there was approved. South Africa was condemned for its support of a guerilla movement, RENAMO (MNR), in that country. The United States was urged to pressure South Africa to stop supporting that force. Methodism was urged to increase its support of the church in Mozambique, and the bishops were requested to send a "high-level international delegation to Mozambique to meet with church and government officials to determine ways in which the United Methodist Church can most effectively assist the people of Mozam-bique. . ."19

A petition dealing with the global debt crisis was introduced by the General Board of Global Ministries and was approved with some alterations. After an analysis of the problem the resolution was approved. A lay delegate economist characterized the analysis as containing "sweeping generalizations and simplistic statements " which would cause the public to perceive the church as venting its frustration but at the same time not making a real contribution toward the solution of the problem. The resolution called for an examination of patterns of greed and urged all to share in solving the problem and sharing the burden. Specific recommendations directed the several general agencies to "Develop tours, curricula, study material, seminary courses, ecumenical and coalition work, hearings and major docuinentation. . ."20

Methodism has long anguished over apartheid. General Conferences have long had South Africa on the agenda, and 1988 was no exception. This time it took the form of boycotting Royal Dutch Shell because this company supplies fuel to South Africa. Two general boards had already endorsed the boycott, and the General Conference was asked to make it the position of the entire church. The debate included some extreme rhetoric. One clergy delegate from Illinois claimed,

Over one-half of the women who are pregnant in Namibia were impregnated by South African soldiers, soldiers who travel about in vehicles fueled by Shell Oil. . . . One teacher said, "Our schools are ashes, our books are dust." The explosives that blew up primary schools arrived in trucks fueled by Shell Oil. . .21

The conference approved the boycott by a slim majority of fifty-three percent. However it could not immediately go into effect. The Judicial Council had to rule whether it met previously adopted guidelines for boycotts.

The actions of the 1988 General Conference regarding foreign policy issues differed little from preceding ones. The body was again willing to pass resolutions which urged simplistic solutions to very complex problems. Many such resolutions had their origins in a general agency. The willingness to approve these positions apparently is the result of two factors. First, clergy who are sensitive to the problems of the world but excluded from positions of power and influence can address complex issues in a setting where they feel the world is watching. This is a heady experience. Second, the General Conference can give pious advice on all sorts of complex problems without having to assume any responsibility for the consequences should that advice be taken. There is hardly a safer course that a denominational body can take, than pass a resolution concerning a matter over which it has no authority or power to act.

Continued Support of Radical Groups

It is axiomatic that one can learn much about the values of an individual organization by examining how it allocates it money. The growing concern over the support of radical organizations and causes has led to increased scrutiny of the general agencies' support of non church groups. Following the study by United Methodist layman David Jessup, which documented funding by denominational agencies for various radical groups, the General Conference in 1980 required al general boards and agencies to list grants to entities not formally part of the United Methodist Church. A result has been publications which have taken issue with how the general agencies are allocating the church's money.22

The largest number of grants were provided by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) which in the four years, 1984-1987, gave funds to 2,314 non-United Methodist groups. The individual grants ranged from a low of $35 to a high of $484,466. The total for the four years was $56,694,344, a figure which is equivalent to ninety-six percent of the World Service Fund recevied by GBGM.23

While many of the grants are for religious and humanitarian purposes, some go to radical political organizations that reflect a definite perspective on foreign policv issues. Some examples include support for the Sanctuary movement which attempts to conceal illegal refugees from Central America. Between 1984-1987 the National Sanctuary Defense Fund received $2,25024 and Sanctuary for Salvadoran/Guatemalan Refugees $10,000.25

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility received $213,544.26 This organization claims to fight for international justice and domestic tranquility and opposes militarism. It focuses on large corporations as the primary cause of injustice in developing countries.

Several organizations involved in Central America received substantial sums from United Methodist agencies. The Christic Institue, which pursued an unsuccessful lawsuit against twenty-nine individuals associated with Lt. Col. Oliver North for their activities in the Iran-Contra affair, received $25,000 between 1984 and 1987.27 Witnesses for Peace in Nicaragua, Corpus Christi, Texas, received $20,000 in 1984, and Witness for Peace Women's Delegation, Nicaragua, received $2,500 in 1986.28 Five other organizations with Nicaragua in the title received a total of $75,332 in the period 1984-1987.29 The Inter-Religious Task Force on El Salvador received $8,000, and The Inter-Religious Task Force on El Salvador/C.A. received $25,290 between 1984 and 1987.30 This organization prepared a study on El Salvador which alleged that the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Revolutionary Front is considered the be legitimate representative of the majority of the people of that country.31

Space will not permit a further analysis of grants to non-United Methodist entities. The support of groups involved in Africa alone would merit attention. An entire studv could be made of the ideology of organizations dealing with foreign policy issues which are receiving substantial funds and, by this fact, endorsement by the United Methodist mission agency. What is evident is that funds contributed by United Methodist people are being directed to secular partisan groups, some of which have an ideology completely foreign to both the Christian tradition and principles of a democratic society.

Because of the complexity of the denominational bureaucracy most Methodist people are unaware that their contributions to the denominational program are going to such organizations. Some leaders aware of the situation apparently are reluctant to demand change out of fear of jeopardizing worthwhile denominational programs. This is short-sided because the facts will come out despite attempts to conceal them, and the church's credibility will be even more severely damaged.

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