Over the past three months, three major mainline Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church, held their scheduled national conventions, and, as in previous years, issues of sexuality and gender drew the most controversy and publicity.
But there were also signs, particularly in the United Methodist Church, that these church bodies are taking a more moderate even conservative course. In July, the Presbyterians, meeting in Louisville, Ky., voted 265-251 to ban same sex union ceremonies; now each of the l73 Presbyterians across the nation must vote on a pending constitutional amendment which would establish that ban, or it will not take effect, according to Christianity Today (Aug. 7). Early skirmishes developed also over what is seen as a major battle coming in the PC’s 2001 convention, the proposal to ordain active homosexuals.
At July’s Episcopal national meeting in Denver, actions that left the matter of same sex unions open caused a new round of dissention, with conservatives making plans to override the authority of local bishops. Also fueling the conservative discontent is the attempt of the church to deal strictly with dioceses that have not fully admitted women to candidacy, priesthood, or the positions of priestly service. Three such dioceses have been notified that they have not followed established EC practices in this matter, according to the Christian Century (Aug. 2-9).
At the May meeting of the United Methodist Church, delegates voted to prohibit same sex unions and gay ordinations. The delegates also reaffirmed a resolution stating homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching,” reports the Christian Century (Aug. 2-9). However, in regional meetings following the Cleveland gathering, United Methodists in Casper, Wyoming (representing 12 western states) and several congregations in New England stated they would not support the decisions made in Cleveland.
Much of the coverage of the United Methodist (UM) meeting tended to view the event as a turning point for the denomination. First Things magazine (August/September) notes talk of a “conservative ascendancy in the denomination. Aside from the opposition to gay rights, signs of the new conservatism included a stronger position against partial birth abortion, and a “firming up” of the church’s creedal statement affirming Christ as “savior of the world and Lord of all.”
Also, 30 percent of voting delegates voted to dismantle the liberal Board of Church and Society. The Witness (Summer), the newspaper of the evangelical Biblical Witness Fellowship in the United Church of Christ, adds that “in more subtle actions a number of evangelicals were appointed to critical positions of [UM] leadership and delegate representation was revised to increase representation from more conservative areas of the church.”
Meanwhile , is the new computer technology reshaping the level of participation in national denominational gatherings? Writing in the Wall Street Journal (July 28), Mark Kellner notes that there is an “explosion of Web-based coverage of church business. Presbyterian church members were able to log on to the Internet to follow convention proceedings, while delegates, in turn, could turn to banks of computers to receive e-mail messages on the spot.
At the Toronto international conference of the Seventh Day Adventists in August, news of a vote concerning a resolution on divorce and remarriage flashed around the globe within minutes of a vote. The same instant headlines in 81 different online news releases “telescoped the time between the event and analysis into mere seconds” at the United Methodist conference.
Kellner writes that the simple act of putting meetings online opens up debates on denominational teachings and practices to a wider audience. “It will also allow dissidents and supporters of various measures to organize quickly, like factions in a political party,” challenging “church elites.” Writer Doug Groothuis writes that the downside to this instant access may be seen in how organizations and leaders are overly influenced by “immediate reactions of people online” where deliberation and contemplation are lost.
“Moreover, in the cyberspace realm, there is always the strong possibility of deception — especially when the stakes are high.”
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188; Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605; First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010; The Witness, Box 102, Candia, NH 03034-0102)
— This report was written with Erling Jorstad