A group of influential Methodist clergy has signed a landmark document that calls upon the 9.2 million-member denomination to avert schism by reaffirming the church’s scriptural roots.

Called “The Houston Declaration,” its signers are some of the country’s most powerful Methodist clergy, led by William Hinson, 51, pastor of Houston’s First United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest Methodist church at 13,200 members. Hinson and six other Methodist clergymen convened the by-invitation-only meeting that brought 48 Methodist pastors from 18 states to Houston on December 14 and 15.

Tampering With Doctrine

The pastors produced a 5-page statement split into three parts: “The Primacy of the Scriptures,” “The Trinity,” and “The Ordained Ministry.” The first part affirms the Bible as “the primary source for authentic Christian truth and witness.” The second part defines God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and “deplores the effort in baptism, ordination and the total liturgy of the church to resymbolize the faith by abandoning the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit or adopting inadequate substitutes.” The statement adds that “Formulas such as ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer’ or ‘Creator, Christ, Spirit’ are inadequate substitutes.”

Conservative Methodists charge that some Methodist clergy and bishops are conducting ordinations and baptisms in the name of those unorthodox formulas.

“The lay person in the pew doesn’t have the faintest idea these cardinal doctrines of the church are under attack,” Hinson said. “Yet there is a proposal to rewrite the ritual of the church that would abandon the Trinitarian understanding of God by substituting other names for the Deity.”

Hinson was referring to the April 26-May 6 national Methodist quadrennial in St. Louis, where the agenda is filling up with items on theology and homosexuality.

Ordaining Gay Ministers

The third item in the Houston Declaration, on ordination, addresses homosexuality by denouncing efforts to portray it as a valid lifestyle. “Every Scriptural reference to the practice of homosexuality is negative,” the declaration reads, and, “Persons may or may not be able to change their sexual orientation; persons can change their lifestyle.” Active homosexuals should not be ordained to the ministry nor represent the denomination in any way, the statement added.

Methodists have fought over issues of homosexuality at their general conventions since 1976. In 1984, the denomination stated that no practicing homosexual can be ordained or appointed within the church. This spring, all four references in the United Methodists’ Book of Discipline will be challenged.

“Two of our major program boards, a commission, and a youth ministry organization are calling for changes in church law on the homosexual issue,” said Jim Heidinger, executive secretary of Good News, an evangelical Methodist renewal movement. Pointing out that Methodists have lost 1.8 million members during the past 20 years due to liberalizing tendencies, he predicted that approval of homosexual clergy would be “cataclysmic” for the denomination. “If the church pulls back from its present stand, which is biblical, we feel that would precipitate a massive loss of members,” he added. Ironically, the late retired Houston Bishop Finis Crutchfield, who died of AIDS last May, was widely rumored to have been a homosexual.

New Movement?

Although four board members of Good News were in Houston, the Wilmore, Kentucky-based caucus was not involved in the planning of the meeting, since Hinson wanted the summit to be staged by mainliners. Besides him, the organizing pastors included: James Buskirk of First United Methodist, Tulsa; Ira Gallaway of First United Methodist, Peoria, Illinois; Maxie Dunnam, of Christ United Methodist in Memphis, Tennessee; Ellsworth Kalas of Church of Our Savior United Methodist in Cleveland; John Ed Mathison of Frazier Memorial United Methodist in Montgomery, Alabama; and O. Gerald Trigg of First United Methodist, Colorado Springs.

“For far too long, the Methodist church has spoken with an uncertain voice,” said Gallaway. “The boards would say one thing, the bishops would say another thing or nothing at all. And there was no voice that was really articulating the central core truths of the Christian faith. We here have tried to do that.”

The declaration has been sent to all 38,000 U.S. United Methodist clergy and their lay leaders. Hinson hopes individual churches will use it as a starter or skeleton on which to base their own proposals for the St. Louis conference.

“The Houston meeting is a major statement on the part of pastors,” Heidinger commented. “It’s almost unprecedented that that many pastors would come at only three weeks notice at their own expense just before Christmas. This is an effort to say enough is enough.”

By Julia Duin, in Houston.

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