Conservatives win major victories during a meeting of the denomination’s highest lawmaking body.

At Christmastime in 1784, 60 preachers traveled on horseback to the Lovely Lane Meeting House in Baltimore, Maryland. At this historic gathering, led by Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, American Methodism was born.

Just a few blocks from that first conference site, the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s highest lawmaking body, met last month for a nostalgic look back and an anxious look ahead. In its bicentennial year, the church suffers from disunity and faces a severe identity crisis. Membership has fallen substantially in recent years. Many of its boards and agencies have been hammered by major news media for inefficiency and for their uncritical support of leftist political causes.

What transpired in Baltimore may do little to change the widespread notion among evangelicals that the 9.5-million-member United Methodist Church has drifted hopelessly from its biblical roots. But evangelicals who are working for reform within the denomination left last month’s conference with a distinct sense of accomplishment.

Their most visible victory was the adoption of a resolution that unequivocally bans the ordination of “self-avowed and practicing homosexuals.” In addressing a separate resolution earlier in the conference, delegates reaffirmed a statement in the denomination’s Social Principles that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Evangelical David Seamands, a delegate from Wilmore, Kentucky, and the author of the amendment banning homosexual ordination, called the two-week meeting “the most conservative conference in two decades.… It’s like turning a big ship around in the ocean.”

Initially, delegates voted against Seamands’s proposal and in favor of compromise language calling only for “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” Neither conservatives nor the United Methodist gay/lesbian caucus were satisfied. Within 24 hours, the church’s Judicial Council, its “supreme court,” ruled that the language did not necessarily preclude ordination of homosexuals. The council ruled that the church’s annual (regional) conferences had the last word. Delegates then decided to reconsider the issue, and the restrictive language was approved.

Seamands said he believes that had this firm decision on homosexual ordination not been reached, the result would have been a mass exodus from the United Methodist Church. “We have set some negative parameters,” he said. “We can now ask conscientious young ministers and faithful United Methodists to remain in the church because now revival is possible.”

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In addition, conservatives were pleased with what they considered a favorable response to the new Mission Society for United Methodists. The missions agency was established early this year by evangelicals who are disenchanted with the official United Methodist agency’s ties to liberation theology. The new mission society was not recognized as official, but the church’s Council of Bishops arranged for dialogue between the new agency and the official United Methodist Board of Global Ministries (BOGM). Peggy Billings, who heads BOGM’s world division, said she is optimistic the talks will contribute to unity in the denomination.

Conservatives count among their additional victories the passage of various measures that call the United Methodist bureaucracy to accountability. In an extremely rare move, delegates put a cap on increases in funding for the denomination’s programs. “This reflects a lack of confidence in the liberal leadership of our boards and agencies,” said Texas evangelist Ed Robb, a leading spokesman for evangelical United Methodists.

Robb is a board member of the new mission society and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). IRD provided much of the ammunition for last year’s media assaults on the National Council of Churches (NCC) and World Council of Churches (WCC). Those attacks prompted the United Methodist Church’s scrutiny of its BOGM, which is closely linked to the NCC and WCC. In Baltimore, a proposal for a no-holds-barred study of the BOGM was defeated, but the vote was close and the message clear that the board is under a magnifying glass.

As recently as 1970, the United Methodist Church was America’s largest Protestant denomination. Its membership has dropped by nearly 2 million in the last 15 years. Conservatives maintain the biggest reason for the drop is theological pluralism, Methodism’s trademark. Nobody—Methodists included—is quite sure what the denomination affirms concerning the classical tenets of the Christian faith.

In 1966, a group of United Methodists organized an evangelical caucus known as Good News. In part, the movement is trying to recover Methodism’s historic commitments to evangelism and the authority of Scripture. Good News leaders say the United Methodist Church for years has actively suppressed evangelical viewpoints.

The movement is fueled by the belief that the church’s leadership has not represented the concerns of the majority of United Methodists. Speaking on the conference floor, Seamands said the demand for specific language banning homosexual ordination “is not just a call from the grassroots. It is a shout from the whole forest of the church.” He noted that the general conference received more than 900 petitions protesting the ordination of homosexuals, including petitions from 30 of the church’s 73 annual conferences.

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Yet Seamands said the most important development at the conference was a call for the Council of Bishops to appoint a committee to study the church’s doctrine. “History will see that this was the most significant evangelical victory at this conference,” he said. The committee will address itself to a section in the Methodist Book of Discipline in which conservatives believe firm doctrinal stands were slaughtered.

“The record will show this conference was doing a housekeeping job,” said Bishop Roy C. Nicholls, one of the few Methodist bishops respected by liberals and conservatives alike. He said the time spent on the homosexual issue “is a sign of the church’s sickness.” That issue, he said, “is not a major agenda item on the world calendar.”

If it was a victory for conservatives in Baltimore, it was by no means a landslide. Though language affirming the sanctity of unborn human life was retained, attempts to insert language condemning abortion on demand failed. On political issues, such as U.S. policy in Central Amercia, liberals swept the deck.

“We won some and lost some,” Robb said. “But we won more than we lost.

“If you were a member of the Evangelical Free Church, what we’ve seen here might not look very good,” he said. “But for someone who’s been a United Methodist for 50 years, it looks very good.”

RANDY FRAMEin Baltimore

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