Is it time for an amicable and just separation?

By Bill Hinson

May 6, 2004

All of us have poignant moments when deep sadness sweeps over our souls. I recall as a young preacher when our church was the largest denomination in America, and at the time first began to lose members. I’ve always thought numbers were important because they represent people. Have you ever noticed that people who run numbers down never run them up? Mine is the last generation of United Methodist” preachers who can remember when we were a growing movement. Trust has been broken, violated, disenfranchised. They say, “Seek autonomy.”

I believe that every Christian possesses a deep sense of joy. I remember the story of Bishop Arthur Moore who was riding a train across south Georgia on a hot summer’s day. His train pulled into a small station and from his open window he noticed an old man leaning his chair back against the wall, whose eyes were closed. The bishop calling our from the train inquired, “Friend, do the people around here enjoy their religion?” Without opening his eyes or moving a muscle, the old man responded to the bishop saying, “Them what has it do.”

I’ve felt another poignant moment of sadness on the morning I learned that Karen Dammann had been acquitted. For the first time in my life l wasn’t so eager to go out and face the world with the announcement that I’m a United Methodist pastor. Last Monday night when six of us met with fifteen persons who are of a different perspective, my sadness took on a new dimension. We took turns talking in that circle about the church and where we were coming from. At the end of more than two hours, my feelings had coalesced to the point that I was fully persuaded we cannot bridge the gap separating us. I was and am profoundly saddened by that conviction.

Our friends in the Western Jurisdiction have left us. Our covenant is in shreds. And when I speak of covenant, I’m not talking about the trust clause. I’m talking about a sacred trust that is much deeper and more binding. Through the years such a trust could be counted on to keep us faithful to what we have discussed, voted on, and placed into our Book of Discipline. All of that has now changed. More than that, our friends who have broken our covenant feel that they themselves are broken. Because the votes of this Conference have largely gone against them, they feel disenfranchised, they feel we are committing spiritual violence against them, and have told us clearly that we are not truth tellers. In addition they are seeking autonomy from the larger body. They garnered more than 300 votes in an attempt to do things their way with regard to ordination in the Western Jurisdiction. Let’s set them and ourselves free to pursue our highest aspirations.

No sincere person can rejoice in another person’s pain. No one enjoys stepping on another person’s dream. Some playwright whose name I cannot recall told of the crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel. When the waters began to roll over the Egyptian chariots, and as they began to drown in the sea, Miriam and the children of Israel began to sing and dance because of their great victory. God however inquired, “How can you sing and dance when my children are drowning?” No earnest Christian enjoys seeing another human suffering. I believe it is time for us to end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other. The thought of hurting another makes us sick. They hurt us by defying the covenant, and we hurt them with our votes to uphold the Discipline every four years.

There is a great gulf fixed between those of us who are centered on Scripture and our friends who are of another persuasion. Repeatedly they have spoken of the need to get our church in step with our culture. We, on the other hand, have no desire to be the chaplain to an increasingly godless society. Rather, our desire is to be faithful to the Word of God.

I shall never forget the puzzled look on the face of a newscaster this past summer. He was covering the events leading up to the selection of an active homosexual as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He asked one of the priests who had worked hardest to elect Gene Robinson, “How do you feel about what you are doing? This is the first time in recorded history that a mainline denomination has gone against the clear teaching of Scripture. How do you feel about that?”

The priest responded, “I feel fine about that. You can’t be guided in the 21st century by an old book like the Bible.” The newscaster, obviously bewildered, asked then, “What is your ultimate authority if it is not the Bible?” The priest responded, “Our authority comes from the Holy Spirit working in community.”

Now, at first glance, I thought, “How subjective can you get?” That means a group could meet down at the convention center and decide the Holy Spirit was leading them to be polygamous. However, as I reflected on his statement, I realized that the church was born out of the Holy Spirit working through community. That is precisely what happened at Pentecost. What is the difference? The difference is Simon Peter stood up immediately and announced that what was occurring was the fulfillment of Scripture and prophecy. What the prophet Joel had declared was becoming a reality. Then l understood. The Holy Spirit leads in the fulfillment of Scripture and in the illumination of Scripture. He never contradicts the Word of God.

If you are being lead by a spirit to do something that is contrary to the Word of God, you must test the spirit, because it is clearly not the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit will never contradict Himself. The Holy Spirit always fulfills Scripture, never contradicts it.

For many, truth is still evolving. They sincerely believe that the world has the wisdom we need and we should relativize the Bible so as to bring our thoughts into harmony with whatever the current worldly wisdom suggests. We on the other hand believe that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And the grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the Word of God shall stand forever. We think that old military man Omar Bradley had it right when he said that, “We do not set our course by the light of every passing ship but by the stars.”

Let me confess that there is a deep yearning in my heart, as strong as when I first began to preach, to be caught up in the wave of God’s Spirit that is sweeping the earth, especially in the global south. Just this week I had dinner with two of the bishops from Africa to listen to them speak of the mission and ministry being accomplished in their areas. To hear them speak is to make the heart homesick for a place in the world revival.

I would not even tell my wife of my dream and conviction when I first began to preach in my 39-member church in South Georgia. I really thought a great revival would begin in that tiny church that would sweep through the community and eventually the nation and finally across the world. I thought God might use me to ignite that holy fire. Now my earnest desire is for my church, which exists to spread scriptural holiness across the earth, might be free to recapture our mission and refocus on the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. I dream of men’s, women’s and youth’s movements grounded in the Great Commission. As Rose Sims stated, “It’s not that life is so short, it’s that eternity is so long.” There are people out there dying; and God wants to use us to share the Good News.

We cannot fight both church and culture. Our culture alone confronts us with more challenges than we can humanly speaking confront and challenge. That struggle, combined with the continuous struggle in the church, is more than we can bear. And our people, who have been faithful and patient, should not have to continue to endure our endless conflict. I believe the time has come when we must begin to explore an amicable and just separation that will free both sides from our cycle of pain and conflict. Such a just separation will protect the property rights of churches and the pension rights of clergy. It will also free us to reclaim our high calling and to fulfill our mission in the world. Therefore, let us, like Paul and Barnabas, agree to go our separate ways.

The Rev. Dr. Bill Hinson died on Tuesday, December 28, 2004 – nearly eight months after giving this speech. He was the former pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Houston, one of the largest congregations within the denomination. Hinson was also the president of the Confessing Movement, but the above comments were given as an individual and not as the sentiments of the Confessing Movement. These remarks were given at the UMDecision 2004 Breakfast Briefing at the United Methodist General Conference. 

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