Under reasonable prodding by black activists and radically oriented young whites, United Methodists took stock of their resources last month. Delegates to the General Conference in St. Louis adopted a resolution that read: “We endorse with utmost emphasis the need for a reordering of priorities in our church for support of the principle of self-determination for minority groups.”
But as of 6:32 P.M. April 24, when the highest legislative body of the United Methodist Church adjourned for lack of a quorum, it was still anyone’s guess whether any specifically ethnic causes would be underwritten with denominational money.
“We would simply suggest to you,” the Reverend James Lawson had told delegates, “that where the treasure of the United Methodist Church is, there will also be its loyalty and its heart.” In response to demands voiced by Lawson, chairman of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, several motions were adopted aimed at allocating millions of dollars for minority projects. All were carefully worded, however, to avoid specific promises. Every attempt to appropriate resources now in handInvested reserves currently total about $100,000,000. A tract of unused land owned by the Methodist Corporation in Washington, D. C., was recently appraised at $1,5 million. was voted down. Most of the appropriations will depend upon forthcoming special appeals. In recent years these appeals have been notably unsuccessful among Methodists, and they now will be subject to the added strain of a pronounced slump in denominational giving.
During the five-day conference (held in aging Kiel Auditorium), the closest thing to a major new financial commitment for minority empowerment came in a motion from the legislative committee on Christian social concerns. The motion, adopted intact by the 900 delegates, instructed the United Methodist Council on World Service and Finance in cooperation with sister ecclesiastical agencies to try to supply at least $2 million in new money for the denomination’s Commission on Religion and Race.
The council, which is the United Methodists’ major financial clearing house, reported revised budgetary allotments for 1971 and 1972. A number of Methodist agencies will be called upon to absorb a 6 per cent cutback. The church’s gifts to the American Bible Society, to have been $179,500 for each of the next two years, will be reduced to an annual $79,500.
Exactly what the Commission on Religion and Race will do with the $2 million was deliberately obscured. One hotly debated resolution would have barred support of “any militant group whose purpose (stated or implied) is the overthrow of the United States government and the capitalistic system.” A motion to table the measure was voted down. Another deleting the words “and the capitalistic system” carried. In a third vote (by close margin in a show of hands), a substitute motion was adopted; it merely reaffirmed the trust of the delegates in United Methodist agencies’ dealings with militant groups. (About this point, it was announced that an IBM card-sorting machine that had been put into service to speed up vote counts had broken down.)
The $2 million measure had come in place of BMCR’s request that it be given at least $5.5 million of the council’s money to undergird the concept of self-determination (see May 8 issue, page 36). A BMCR appeal for $5 million from the Methodists’ two-year-old Fund for Reconciliation went unheeded, as did a plea for 30 per cent black representation at all levels of Methodist government. Requests for increased support of black Methodist colleges and minority students won no assurances. A motion to “guarantee” black Methodist colleges $4 million for each of the next two years was voted down by a narrow margin.
The St. Louis meeting had come to be referred to as “the conference nobody wanted.” Rumors of planned disruptions underscored the anxiety, but the loudest “demonstration” turned out to be the singing of “Amazing Grace” by youth delegates in the halls.
Ordinarily, United Methodists meet in their international legislative assembly only once every four years. The special session in St. Louis was called (at a cost of $600,000) to clear up issues resulting from the Methodists’ recent merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Those problems were solved administratively, however, and attempts to cancel the conference were to no avail.
Hundreds of new matters came pouring in that were not related to the merger. Many items were simply ignored in the last-minute rush.
One sensitive issue that did get to the floor concerned abortion. After some debate a statement was adopted that urges church-related hospitals to “take the lead in eliminating those hospital administrative restrictions on voluntary sterilization and abortion which exceed the legal requirements in their respective political jurisdictions, and which frustrate the intent of the law where the law is designed to make the decision for sterilization and abortion largely or solely the responsibility of the person most concerned.”
Another measure urged “that states remove the regulation of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under regulations relating to other procedures of standard medical practice. Abortion would be available only upon request of the persons most directly concerned.”
In an unusual act of dissent, delegates from United Methodist churches in Europe read into the record a statement dissociating themselves from the position voted on abortion.
United Methodist participation in the Consultation on Church Union met a measure of predictable resistance. Reportedly because of a truck drivers’ strike, delegates did not have copies of COCU’s Plan of Union in hand. Nonetheless, at the urging of theologian Albert Outler they recommended it for study. But another noted Methodist scholar, Georgia Harkness, got the body to vote down a committee recommendation that the United Methodist COCU delegation be given specific negotiating power. Delegates were assured that their action “in no way intimates approval or disapproval of the plan of union.”
St. Louis women helped to sweeten the proceedings by baking 3,000 dozen cookies for the delegates and visitors. At any rate, business sessions were notably free of anger and bitterness. The conference did have its share of parliamentary tangles, partly because of a surprising lack of familiarity with Robert’s Rules of Order on the part of the bishops who acted as chairmen (none are ever allowed to vote).
Delegates turned down a proposal to assign a bishop to a full-time interjurisdictional secretariat, presumably out of fears that he might be regarded as a presiding bishop. The closest thing the Methodists have to an administrative head is the president of the Council of Bishops. That position is being filled in the coming year by Bishop John Wesley Lord of Washington, D. C. He will be succeeded by Bishop Paul Hardin, Jr., of Columbia, South Carolina.
Supreme Court Upholds Church Tax Exemptions
The U. S. Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited decision in the Walz case this month and upheld by a 7–1 vote the constitutionality of church property tax exemptions.
A fourteen-page opinion written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger ruled against the appeal of Frederick Walz, who pays $5.24 a year to the New York City Tax Commission for a small vacant lot on Staten Island. Walz (reportedly a Christian, but not a member of any church) complained that tax exemptions to churches raised his own tax bill and thus obliged him to support religious groups against his will. The American Civil Liberties Union supported him.
Burger said no absolute separation of church and state is really possible, adding: “Granting tax exemptions to churches necessarily operates to afford an indirect economic benefit and also gives rise to some, but yet a lesser, involvement than taxing them.” He said the purpose of the First Amendment’s reference to religion “was to state an objective, not to write a statute.”
Justice John M. Harlan and William J. Brennan wrote concurring opinions totaling twenty pages. Justice William O. Douglas wrote a twenty-nine-page dissent.
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