Week of soul-searching ahead for United Methodist leaders
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Chuck Myer describes his article as follows: "My Easter morning column in
the Sacramento Bee-Neighbors section is from the point-of-view of a new
General Conference delegate's reflection on the 'calm before the storm' in
Week of soul-searching ahead for United Methodist leaders
By Chuck Myer
Easter dawn breaks onto the third millennium of Christianity. Subtle rays of
light illumine new ways to interpret the Easter story to a world of DNA and
MTBE, NATO and NASDAQ.
Yet a dark cloud continues to haunt organized religion in America. The
cloud, so often hidden, is the long history of heterosexism in the church.
Now, even on Easter, it is emerging overhead, and it's threatening to rain
Rain can be refreshing.
For the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, Easter 2000 arrives
during an anxious prelude to a major confrontation in a conflict that tears
at the very foundation of church beliefs. Next week, 992 delegates to the
General Conference of the United Methodist Church will leave their homes all
around the world and converge in Cleveland, Ohio, the site of the
quadrennial forum where the church's "Book of Discipline" is examined and
updated. Nearly 2,000 proposed changes will be considered and debated.
In somber reflection and anticipation of the weight of this responsibility,
United Methodist bishops called for a 40-day regimen of prayer and fasting �
not for Lent but for the 40 days before the opening gavel in Cleveland.
The bishops, who are admittedly split on the issue, understand the weight of
the burden on the delegates. For it is the delegates, not the bishops, who
ultimately vote in May to decide the church's stance on acceptance or
nonacceptance of gays and lesbians. The debate is multifaceted, but
basically involves the degree to which those in same-sex relationships will
be included in church membership rolls, in seminaries,in ordination
proceedings, and at altars where blessings of committed love relationships
Easter morning brings a calm before the storm in Cleveland. Delegates pray
and try to discern the voice of God amidst the cacophony of controversy.
But in the 21st century the voice of God is reduced to catchy slogans
plastered on freeway billboards:
"Will the road you're on get you to my place? * God."
"Have you read my No. l best seller? There will be a test. * God."
The debates rage across denominational lines, as the traditional differences
begin to blur. In Sacramento, a renewed ecumenical spirit has blossomed from
the ashes of the synagogues destroyed by arson last June. Three weeks ago,
local rabbis invited all Sacramento-area clergy to share in the traditional
seder meal in a sign of solidarity and renewed efforts to support and
understand one another.
This past week, those of the Jewish faith observed Passover, a tradition
much older than Easter. That same sundown, members of St. Mark's United
Methodist Church in Sacramento also sat down together to share their own
seder meal to celebrate the common bonds of tradition they share with their
Jewish brothers and sisters.
On March 29, Reform Jewish leaders overwhelmingly approved a resolution
giving rabbis the option of presiding at gay commitment ceremonies. In doing
so, the 1,800 members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis,
representing 1.5 million Reform Jews, became the most influential religious
group in America to sanction same-sex unions.
Yet it is the pastor of St. Mark's, the Rev. Don Fado, who sits at ground
zero of the same-sex covenant service controversy. In January 1999, the
long-term commitment of two women from St. Mark's Church was celebrated at a
service at the Sacramento Convention Center. The service was conducted by
Fado and more than a hundred other ordained clergy. The two women hold high
positions in the regional leadership of the denomination.
The January 1999 event in Sacramento will be the touchstone of the debate in
Cleveland. Like Lucy Ricardo, the 12 delegates from the Northern California
know they're going to have some "splaining to do" when they get to
Foremost on the minds of the more Orthodox members of the denomination will
be asking how the pastors who co-officiated at the January 1999 event
escaped punishment from the committee on investigation that oversees clergy
misconduct in this region.
The answer lies in demographics: The California-Nevada conference area, and
most of the denomination's Western jurisdiction, leans heavily on the side
of weaving gays and lesbians into the tapestry of the church. But when the
numbers are counted, the Western jurisdiction accounts for only 5.6 percent
of the total number of delegates worldwide.
Because the formulas for delegate selection are based on church membership
rolls, the power bloc of delegate votes lies in the Bible Belt, where the
joke is there's a church on every street corner.
And those folks often take a jaundiced view of the smarmy liberalism they
see infesting the churches in the West. For the Bible Belt, the sign reads:
"What part of 'Thou Shalt Not...' didn't you understand? * God."
The 12 delegates will assemble their airline tickets for their flights from
Sacramento or San Francisco to Cleveland. Twelve is a powerful number in
scripture: 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles. But they know 5.6 percent will
be a weak number in Cleveland.
Unlike the apostles, only two of the 12 are white males (Fado and I). The
rest represent the rich diversity of ethnic backgrounds in the United
Methodist churches. An Asian clergywoman from San Jose is the delegation
leader. Susan Hunn, a laywoman from Pollock Pines, is a part of the
delegation for the first time. Betty Suzuki of Sacramento's Japanese United
Methodist Church has been in leadership positions at the national level. At
21, Erin Dunning of Weimar is among only 3 percent of delegates representing
the all-important under-30 age group. Blacks, Hispanics and Pacific
Islanders are also well represented in the mix of Northern California
delegates and reserves. Some are evangelicals. Some are gay.
For two weeks in May, 992 people from around the globe will sit at tables in
the Cleveland Convention Center with their hands on the levers of the voting
machines. And decide.
"That 'Love Thy Neighbor' thing ... I meant it. * God."
Somewhere out there there's probably someone who believes it was, in fact,
the hand of God that wrote on those billboards.
The Easter sun rises overhead. It is a new day.
Chuck Myer is a planning consultant and free-lance writer. His e-mail
address is cmyer@....
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