Pennsylvania pair’s conscience bars endorsing leftist causes.
Two Pennsylvania pastors have been put on leave of absence from the United Methodist Church (UMC) after their refusal to encourage their congregations to support a denominational fund. Alex Ufema and John Finkbeiner, Jr., said conscience forbade them to endorse contribution to the UMC’s World Service Apportionment.
The ministers, who each serve three rural churches near Pittsburgh, said too much of the funding went to causes they could not support. They cited contributions to the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches as representing the denomination’s “consistent identification with only one side of the political spectrum—the leftistleaning side.”
Under rules enacted by the general conference last year, however, congregations are required to supply funds for the World Services Apportionment, the main artery of denominational financing. Before last year, World Service funding was voluntary. Making it mandatory, Finkbeiner said, left the two ministers feeling trapped.
In January, they spoke with superiors about their objections. Then they held meetings at each of their six churches and told the congregations they could not support the World Service Apportionment. “We set our people free,” Finkbeiner said. “The boards were left to make up their own minds.”
Two of Ufema’s churches stopped payment. None of Finkbeiner’s did. But in mid-March, after a series of meetings with regional UMC officials, both men were notified by the Western Pennsylvania Board of Ordained Ministry that they were placed on leave of absence.
The 45-member board notified the ministers their membership in the conference was being discontinued “because of ‘Disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church,’ ” referring to the Book of Discpline. James Ault, bishop of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, emphasized the discontinuation was a recommendation and not a final decision. He said the recommendation would be considered by the executive conference in June. The bishops declined comment on the specific reasons for the discontinuation, saying any remarks would bias its later consideration. “ ‘Leave of absence’ is really a euphemism for being excommunicated,” said Charles Keysor, executive until last month of the UMC renewal movement, Good News. Ufema and Finkbeiner were told not to conduct services at any of their churches and given the choice of resigning or applying for an ecclesiastical trial.
“We felt to resign under pressure would be to admit guilt,” Ufema said, so the pair hired an attorney and will request a hearing of their case. They will be heard by a body of 13 peers, selected by the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
Keysor, a long-time observer of the Methodist scene, thinks the case is important. “It gathers up a number of issues and brings them to needle-sharp focus,” he said. Since the situation epitomizes liberal-conservative tensions in the denomination, Keysor believes it will set a precedent for dealing with pastors who balk at supplying funds.
Ufema and Finkbeiner agree: they see themselves as “examples” to keep other ministries from challenging the UMC status quo. Finkbeiner said he and Ufema were not attacked personally: “We had gotten along well with our district superintendent and Bishop Ault.”
That left the pair shocked by their forced leave of absence. The two were classmates at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where they graduated in 1980. They considered their ministerial gifts complementary and were thus granted “contiguous parishes”—geographically close congregations. Both think their future in United Methodism is doubtful, but plan to seek affiliation with another denomination.
Keysor said the action against the Pennsylvania ministers bespeaks increasing “institutional uptightness” and points to the key issue of how much latitude of conscience will be allowed. He thinks a double standard operates. The UMC’s doctrinal guidelines encourage free conscience for the individual on participation or nonparticipation in war. It will allow civil disobedience but not freedom of conscience within the church, Keysor said.
Finkbeiner concurs. “The church boasts of its pluralism and ecumenicism, but it’s all one-sided. Where are evangelicals allowed to express ourselves?” He is not offended that the denomination supports the World Council, but thinks a congregation should have some choice in where its money goes.
“We in the Methodist church are giving money to terrorists who are Marxist, Communist, or totalitarian in offshoot,” Ufema said. “We need to be aware of the scriptural basis of giving, which means responsible giving.” Ufema suspects he’s been struck by a “liberal backlash to conservative political involvement.”
Finkbeiner emphasizes the two aren’t reactionary. They are in sympathy with the Chicago Declaration, a statement of social responsibility made by Evangelicals for Social Action. Finkbeiner has a master’s degree in social sciences and has worked with prisoners, juvenile delinquents, and the unemployed.
Ufema is concerned about the upcoming trial: “It’s not going to be a very pretty thing.” Keysor thinks perhaps thousands of UMC ministers share the pair’s qualms. The trial brings the situation into the open and “escalates its publicity” (the Pittsburgh Press has already given the story front-page coverage). “The establishment has poked its stick into a hornet’s nest,” Keysor said.
Arkansas Bill Adds Momentum
California Evolution Trial Raises Creationist Profile
At first glance, it was hard to tell just who won what in the creation-evolution trial last month in California. But as the dust settles, the creationists believe they won big.
“There’s just a constant bubbling out there now; it’s like yeast rising through the whole loaf,” said Nell Segraves, grandmother of the plaintiffs. She is one of the founders of the tiny Creation Science Research Center in San Diego, and was explaining how the phone has been ringing off the hook as television, radio, and press reporters call constantly, wanting to know what this creationism business is all about.
Her son Kelley, 38, the director of the creation center, brought suit against the state on behalf of his three children. He claimed their religious beliefs, constitutionally protected, had been offended by the dogmatic teaching of evolution in the public schools.
Reporters flocked to the trial, hoping to see a replay of the celebrated Scopes trial of 1925. Their hopes melted when the complainants changed course during the trial and backed away from their perceived desire to have creationism taught alongside evolution. Instead, they settled for reaffirmation by the state of a 1973 policy of teaching evolution as theory, not dogma.
In the creationists’ eyes (if not in the eyes of the press) the point was crucial. That is so because for the last 18 years. Nell Segraves and Jean Sumrall, also of the Creation Science Research Center, have basically been textbook vigilantes, trying not so much to promote creationism in the science texts as to rid them of dogmatic evolutionism. The state board of education adopted its policy toward evolution under the conservative influence of Ronald Reagan, then governor. But as the liberalism of Gov. Edmund Brown, Jr., took hold in the form of appointments to the board of education, the policy was mothballed, the creationists said. Having it reaffirmed in court last month was important for them.
Nell Segraves said the trial also showed that religious freedom is absolute, and that students whose religious views are offended must be accommodated in class.
It also seemed that for the first time the views of creationists were getting respectful, if not believing, attention in some of the major news media that paid attention to the trial, Newsweek. for example, quoted a retired biology teacher who said he believes in creationism because, “As I look at the world around me, there are some things that are better accounted for by creationism.” The magazine also noted that the Creation Research Society in Michigan claims 700 “pedigreed” scientists among its 2,600 members. Critics often contend in print that no serious scientist holds with creationism.
A little more than a week after the trial, the Arkansas State Legislature passed a bill requiring that creationism be taught alongside evolution in that state, adding more fuel to the fire the creationists stirred. Local school boards in a variety of places already require that creationism be treated in science classes.
The snowball seems to be rolling, and the creationists in California, who gave it the first nudge, are clear in their intent to see it move faster and grow ever larger. Asked why they did not pull out all the stops in their California trial and press for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in the schools. Segraves said, “If we had equal time with evolution, that would set evolution in concrete, but we feel we can overcome it completely. Why hobble ourselves?”
Documentary Scheduled for April 23
Public Radio To Air Tapes From Ill-Fated Jonestown
“Dad, now I have no life of my own, I’m living on your time.” Those are the words of a Jim Jones follower as recorded on tapes to be aired April 23 on National Public Radio’s “Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown” (check local listings for the time). The 90-minute documentary is made up of excerpts from recordings made at the Guyana camp before the 1978 mass suicide and murder of 900 men, women, and children.
The tapes were obtained by writer James Reston, Jr. (son of New York Times columnist James Reston) in response to a Freedom of Information request. In the possession of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the tapes have not been broadcast previously.
Reston used the tapes to write the National Public Radio program and a forthcoming book, Our Father Who Art in Hell. The radio documentary will air only a fraction of the tapes—which total more than 900 hours of sermons by Jones and recorded meetings with his followers.
One of the tapes was recorded at a “white night” ceremony at which Jones asked members of his cult if they would kill and die for him. A young child replies, “I’m prepared to die for this family if I have to for freedom. Thank you, Dad.” A woman proclaims, “When they hurt you [Jones], they hurt me.” And a man who identifies himself as a Vietnam veteran says, “I’m ready to face the front lines with you right now.”
The tapes, made during the 18 months prior to the November 1978 tragedy, also demonstrate what Reston calls “the slavery of the followers and the power and sacrilege of Jim Jones.”
One conversation is between a man who volunteers to die for Jones but hedges on killing his 11-year-old daughter “if Facists were coming up the road.” Finally, the man allows, “If it came to that, I would have to take her life.”
At that point, however, Jones protests that an 11-year-old is old enough to fight. “We consider that she would take up a cutlass and fight till she was dead,” he says. Then, ominously hinting, “Unless it came to an overwhelming invasion, then we would gently put them to sleep … we’re already prepared for that.”
A one-hour panel discussion and national telephone call-in session will follow the documentary. Bill Moyers, host of television’s “Bill Moyers Journal,” will anchor that portion of the program.
Racial Bridge Building
Atlanta Churches React To Murders Of Black Children
“ ‘These children have never had a single positive experience with a white person,’ commented a black Episcopal layman who is an official in one of the Atlanta Housing Authority projects.” So begins a letter to all clergy in Atlanta from Donald O. Newby, executive director of the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, Inc. (CCMA). As the search for clues to the murders of 20 black children (and two others still missing) continues, Atlanta’s Christians are faced with an opportunity to help solve some “root problems” that many believe are related to the murders.
Mayor Maynard Jackson, speaking at the Eleventh Annual Community Breakfast the CCMA helps sponsor, said he believes “God is testing the city of Atlanta.” Jackson and speakers Andrew J. Young and Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum called on the 1,200 blacks and whites who gathered on March 7, 1981, to pray and to get involved in Atlanta’s struggle during this crisis.
Pastor Jim Bevis of Brook Valley Church of Christ directs the Atlanta Religious Mobilization Against Crime (ARMAC), which was called for two years ago by Mayor Jackson when Atlanta was emerging as a homicide center. ARMAC has been resurrected by the current crisis and Bevis is calling on the religious community to open its facilities to provide gathering places and counseling centers.
Jim Bevis sees positive steps, such as a special service at the black Union Baptist Church on Sunday. March 8, attended by a crowd of 400, and composed of almost as many whites as blacks. He was also a part of the Mayor’s Action Conference on Poverty on March 18, which addressed some of the “underlying problems” the whole church must deal with in Atlanta.
Newby and Bevis are concerned that people not forget the underlying needs after the current crisis is over. They expect future problems of comparable magnitude if Christians do not get involved. Says Newby, “There is a growing fear, frustration, and tension among many poor people, rooted in the long prevailing problems of unemployment, housing, education, hunger, and poverty. Anxieties are increased by projected drastic reductions in government assistance. This is already increasing demand for help from the churches.”
One need churches are being asked to meet is for recreational facilities and personnel. Due to financial cutbacks, the Atlanta Housing Authority will not be able to staff recreation areas adjacent to its 26 housing projects this summer. Bob Bevis, who coordinates urban ministry for three churches, is helping the CCMA recruit volunteers for these housing projects. He is also assisting in the development of clusters of four or five churches representative of different races and sections of the city, to aid youth and families through public schools near public housing units. The “adopt a school” program is supported by the Atlanta School Board, and clusters are forming so as to get involved in the schools before classes end this spring.
Tony Warner, campus minister with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at the predominantly black Atlanta University Center, says that the 20 killings have caused “the black community to feel increasingly there is a national trend of racism.” Warner believes there are some “good signs of blacks and whites coming together in worship services, concerts, and special prayer meetings.”
There is “real tension” and Christians have accepted a “terrible situation” said Tom Roddy of North Avenue Presbyterian Church and Jon Abercrombie of the Atlanta chapter of Evangelicals for Social Action, referring to housing and health problems in the city.
Roddy reports that North Avenue is having some joint prayer meetings with West Hills Presbyterian, home church of the nineteenth victim, Jeffrey Lamar Mathis, aged 10. West Hills pastor John Sharp has become a pastor to the families of the victims, who continue to be under intense pressure. Roddy believes the city is beginning to rally, but confessed his own difficulty in “rejoicing in a new day” because of his awareness of people who are hurting and needing comfort.
Abercrombie is helping several churches focus their resources in Atlanta and hopes people won’t forget the underlying needs once the murders are solved.
Several black pastors are available to receive clues concerning the killings, and are working supportively with the special police task force. Other pastors are promoting unity and a feeling of hope that the murderers will soon be found.
Newby said recently, “Before I came to Atlanta I was aware of the slogan [about Atlanta], ‘A city too busy to hate.’ During our job interview one of the black pastors said, ‘Yes, and also too busy to love.’ ” Newby and others say they want to break down the barriers between groups in Atlanta so that love will be acted out in concrete ways.
Church Women’s World Day of Prayer
Critics Take To War Path Over Indian Prayer Ritual
Is calling God the “Great Spirit” or comparing the sun with the knowledge of Christ acceptable? Some conservative Christians in Germany and North America who were offended by a liturgy written for the Church Women United’s World Day of Prayer don’t think so.
The liturgy, used March 6 by churches participating in the program, was sponsored by the international women’s organization based in New York City. Written by seven Christian women of American Indian descent, it is based on the theme of appreciation for the natural environment.
Audrey Sorrento, director of celebrations for Church Women United, said the organization chooses a different topic for each year’s day of prayer and asks members from appropriate cultures to write the liturgy. When it was decided to make the environment and ecology this year’s concern, American Indians seemed a natural choice to be authors for the service because of “their reverence and respect of the earth,” said Sorrento.
Critics objected to what they considered a tendency toward “heathen-naturalistic faith.” A West German writer criticized it as “unlimited pluralism and syncreticsm,” which loses “the authority of the great ecumenical Apostle’s Creed and therefore can lead the congregation astray concerning the world man has disfigured.” A group of North American Baptist women in Illinois participated in the prayer day and were surprised to see the leaders decked out in Indian headbands during the service.
Some elements of the liturgy that were specifically criticized are: referring to the earth as “Mother Earth” and God as “Great Spirit”; likening the wind to the Holy Spirit and the sun to the knowledge of Christ; facing each of the four compass directions to intone prayers; and excluding any mention of the Cross.
Reginald Hollis, Anglican bishop of Montreal, believed the service included a “pantheism quite remote from the New Testament.” Speaking of Christianity’s distinctiveness, Hollis said, “There is a uniqueness to the Lord and his dealing with our sin that cannot be expressed when our worship is centered on ecology and is patterned on ancient native rites.”
Sorrento said the liturgy elicited “many beautiful letters,” with positive responses far outnumbering negative ones. “Our religious customs, our rituals, are based on fundamentally human actions,” she said. “The bread and wine of Communion are very ordinary, material things. Because we’re human beings we have to express our religious realities in concrete form.”
That was what the authors of the liturgy—women of Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Roman Catholic persuasions—attempted to communicate, said Sorrento. Those who objected to the service mostly saw it as returning to pre-Christian worship rather “than recognizing God reveals himself in all ways. We can learn from anybody’s way of worship,” she said. The Indian backgrounds of the liturgical writers included Sioux, Choctaw, Seneca, Hopi, and Winnebago.
She noted that the liturgy spoke of Christ as the center of life and relied on “universal symbolism.” That symbolism, she maintained, was “invested with the fullness of our understanding in Christ.”
Sorrento said a few callers phoned wondering what parts of the service meant, but that a bit of explanation and education was adequate. She also emphasized that addresses to “Mother Earth” were not prayers to the earth as God, but a dialogue with the spoiled and wronged environment. “Every time we pray a prayer to God we go beyond our understanding,” she added.
Hollis believed the liturgy was motivated by guilt over treatment of Indian nations and a desire “to return to nature.” On those points he was sympathetic, but he also said. “To be faithful to our calling, we cannot serve God or our Indian neighbor if we do not proclaim Jesus is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ ”
North American Scene
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that may decide whether religious college groups will be allowed to meet on campus. A student group at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, sued after being barred from holding meetings on campus. Since the group admitted it was trying to “promote a knowledge and awareness of Jesus Christ,” its meetings were considered an improper advancement of religion. Lynn Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society, expects the Supreme Court to settle the growing controversy over collegian Christians and their gatherings in public buildings.
The Devil has been named as “codefendant” in a Connecticut murder trial. Arne Cheyenne Johnson, 19, is being tried for the stabbing death of his best friend. Johnson reportedly spent much of one summer trying to help a demon-possessed boy and, at one point, challenged the demons to “take me on.” Police said Johnson’s friend received several wounds when the two quarreled months later. Johnson’s attorney claims it happened because Johnson was possessed. “The courts have dealt with the existence of God. Now they’re going to have to deal with the existence of the Devil,” the lawyer said.
Evangelical college students demonstrated peaceably in five cities on March 14, to protest the Soviet Union’s repression of Christians. In Chicago, some 200 students heard a speech by Arkady Polischuk, a former Soviet Communist who defected to work for release of 30,000 Soviet Christians trying to emigrate. In Saint Paul, Minnesota, Governor Al Quie spoke to an estimated 400 students and proclaimed a statewide “Day of Remembrance” for Christians suffering behind the Iron Curtain. The America Association of Evangelical Students organized the demonstrations.
Marriage is not only alive, but getting healthier all the time, says a husband-wife sociological team. Thomas and Marcia Lasswell, both instructors at the University of Southern California, believe marriage statistics have been misread. They say two-thirds of first marriages last, and almost as many second marriages do. The divorce rate is distorted by such factors as the relatively few “serial” marriages, where a person marries three or more times.
E. Schuyler English, 81, former president of Philadelphia College of Bible, editor of The Pilgrim Bible, chairman of the editorial committee for The New Scofield Reference Bible, editor of Our Hope magazine, managing editor of Revelation (now Eternity), radio broadcaster, and author of several books; March 16 in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, of a heart attack.
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