The Limits of Methodism

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Photo by Chris Carlsson.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

How progressive can a congregation become before it ceases to be United Methodist? That is the question that progressive Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Annual Conference has been forced to ask. In June, Carcaño issued an “open letter” to members of her annual conference regarding a confrontation with the leadership of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, a church with a well-established reputation for being the largest United Methodist church in the Western Jurisdiction and among the largest in the United States.

Carcaño announced that she was refusing to appoint any pastor to Glide this year because of a dispute with the church that may even lead to the congregation’s attempting to leave the denomination. The church’s last senior pastor, the Rev. Jay Williams, lasted less than a year before resigning to return to his previous appointment in Boston. The last two associate pastors on staff were reappointed to other churches. At the time of the open letter, no new pastors were being appointed to the church, and the district superintendent was arranging for weekly pulpit supply and pastoral care.

The concerns that have led to this situation are theological, as well as financial and related to power and control.

The Rev. Cecil Williams (no relation to the recently departed Rev. Jay Williams) served the church as lead pastor from 1964 until his “retirement” in 2000. In 1967 he removed the cross from the sanctuary in an attempt to make Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, and atheists/agnostics feel comfortable attending the church. According to Bishop Carcaño, however, it appears that in attempting to reach out to non-Christians, the very basis of the gospel was compromised.

In the open letter, Carcaño stated, “Leaders from these [non-Christian] constituencies are quick to publicly state that they do not want the Celebrations, or the church, to be United Methodist or Christian in any form. Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but lack the fundamentals of Christian worship. Baptisms are conducted periodically but in the name of the people rather than from a Christian understanding of Baptism. Holy Communion was done away with some time ago and only introduced back into the life of the congregation this past Spring, but outside of the Celebration gatherings and with much resistance. We seek to be in good and loving relationship with persons of other faiths and beliefs, and those who claim no faith. However, this should never cause us to lose our own faith.”

According to Carcaño, “the great majority of the participants at Glide’s Sunday Celebrations claim other faiths.” If Baptism has not been administered as a Christian sacrament, one wonders whether membership has been faithful to the vows mandated by the Discipline and found in the Hymnal. One is forced to question how many of the over 13,000 members reported by Glide are, in fact, even Christian and took vows affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Additionally, “there are also serious concerns about the governance and financial administration of the church,” Carcaño declared. “The church has no organizational structure to fulfill its responsibilities as per The Book of Discipline, and has not had a United Methodist organizational structure for decades. The only body that functions in any leadership capacity is a group of congregational leaders hand-picked by Cecil Williams who have never been elected or recognized by the congregation.”

Glide was originally established in 1929 with the primary mission to “promote religion, charity and education” according to the doctrines “accepted and adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church.” But now, Glide resists being identified as Christian, let alone United Methodist.

The question here is who really runs Glide Church? It appears that the Glide Foundation is the governing entity for the congregation. The Foundation receives millions of dollars a year for the social outreach ministry of the church, housing and feeding the homeless, providing ministry related to HIV/AIDS, and many other worthwhile projects. In a guest editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams stated: “The Glide board of trustees controls the foundation’s resources, of which 95 percent support social programming, and 5 percent go toward church activities.”

Responding also in a guest editorial in the Chronicle, Carcaño wrote, “In May, I attempted to appoint a senior pastor to Glide Memorial who was welcomed by the congregational leaders, but rejected by the Board of Trustees of the Glide Foundation.” So the Foundation apparently controls the church.

Behind all of this lies the former lead pastor, Williams, and his wife, Janice Mirikitani. Despite the fact that there have been four lead pastors appointed to the church since 2000, including now-Bishop Karen Oliveto, Williams has continued to maintain leadership of the church and the Foundation. Carcaño described it this way: “No pastor has been allowed to exercise their rightful authority or responsibilities while serving at Glide. To this day, Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, make all decisions in the background at Glide.”

“The Glide Foundation runs the business of the Foundation under the church’s 501(c)(3), yet renders no financial reports through United Methodist disciplinary processes,” Carcaño went on. “Appointed pastors are left to alone protect the resources of the church yet have no access to the full financial records of the church, nor do they have any say over the use of the church property.” In fact, pastors did not even receive keys to the church building, nor have the Foundation’s finances been made public, either by reporting through The United Methodist Church or to the IRS. While the Foundation shelters its finances under the church’s tax-exempt status, there appears to be little or no independent financial accountability. In response to the conflict, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Foundation’s CEO has committed to filing reports with the Internal Revenue Service beginning next year.

In June, as the conflict deepened, the Foundation acted to strip any mention of The United Methodist Church from its articles of incorporation, according to the Chronicle. Glide also stripped the resident bishop of her/his seat on the board and specified that only funds and assets related to church operations would be held in trust for the denomination. This move would protect 95 percent of the tens of millions of dollars raised annually for social service programs from potential claims by The United Methodist Church.

Bishop Carcaño should be applauded for attempting to bring Glide back into compliance with the United Methodist Discipline. She was correct when she stated in her editorial, “As United Methodists, we respect all faiths, love all people, and are committed to working with persons of other faiths and goodwill to make the world a better place. We also want to sustain our beliefs as Methodists.”

This is exactly the kind of accountability and supervision that has been lacking from many of our bishops in recent decades. One wonders where the seven bishops were who presided over the California-Nevada Conference prior to Carcaño, while all of this was developing. Since 2000, Bishops Beverly Shamana and Warner Brown should have at least stopped Williams from continuing to exercise pastoral authority when no longer the appointed pastor to the church. Indeed, in many parts of the country, a pastor who retires from a congregation is not allowed to even participate in his or her former congregation for a period of at least a year and in some cases never.

At this point, it is impossible to say how this conflict might turn out. It will be interesting to see if Glide can be brought back under the umbrella of United Methodism, or whether they have departed so far from the doctrine and governance of our church that restoration is impossible. But reasserting the denomination’s discipline and reestablishing healthy theological and structural boundaries are struggles worth having.

Karen Hanrahan, the President and CEO of the Glide Foundation told the press that Bishop Carcaño “brings a more conservative, traditional philosophy with her and we feel it’s not in line with Glide’s values.” That kind of labelling can be misleading when waging a public battle in progressive San Francisco. No one ought to confuse Bishop Carcaño with being a traditionalist or even a consistent upholder of the order of the church. There are many other ways in which Carcaño is not abiding by the Discipline. And this act of attempted accountability does not mean revival is around the corner. Even if Glide is restored to the church, it will never be conservative in theology.

At the same time, Carcaño’s willingness to exercise the accountability expected of her office as bishop demonstrates that it is possible to hold one another accountable in love for the sake of the mission of the church. If all our other bishops were willing to consistently and fairly follow her example, it would go a long way toward restoring the trust in the Council of Bishops that has been so thoroughly shattered.

“While the cross was removed from the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church sanctuary in 1967, the cross still stands on the tower of the church, at the corner of Taylor and Ellis streets, as a beacon of hope to the people of the Tenderloin and the greater San Francisco area,” Bishop Carcaño wrote in the Chronicle. “Glide Memorial United Methodist Church must remain true to the mission of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There are no enemies here. There is only good work to be done.”

For the sake of the gospel and the reputation of The United Methodist Church, we should all pray for her endeavor.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.   

Comments

  1. Consider the article in the light of Karen’s unanimous election to the office of bishop. A congregation with no SPRC, Finance, Trustees, Church Council or Charge Conference; no mention of Jesus on the website (we now know that omission is policy), no valid Christian baptisms and no Holy Communion, a claim of 30,000 constituent members (more than 41 annual conferences claim for their entire conference), apportionments dropping to 84% payment after decades of 100% payment, a stated budget of $775,000 for a church claiming 1899 in worship and located in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, and a 49% drop in worship attendance (down from 3,600). Unanimous election…Holy Spirit palpably present during her selection? The challenges facing the denomination are wildly more significant than sexuality. And yes, kudos to Bishop Carcano for confronting this no-win situation, “viciously” labeled as a conservative and traditionalist (two qualities not notably part of her character) by Cecil and Janice. And accountability for the prior bishops and Karen O. for unquestionably “colluding” in this dysfunction? We are in the goop far deeper than we know.

    • Sharon Foust says:

      Exactly right! Oliveto’s elevation to Bishop would seem to be out of compliance with the Discipline, regardless of the fact that she is a card carrying lesbian. This is financial malfeasance.

  2. Glide’s social services are vital to San Francisco, but they can in no way call thenselves a church. (They really shouldn’t even call themselves “Glide”, because Lizzie Glide was a devout Christian woman who did all of her philanthropy in the name of Jesus Christ and certainly would not approve of what the organization has become). If Glide decides to separate from the UMC, (it looks like they will), I think the UMC should take back the building like they did in Fresno. It’s in the heart of San Francisco and if we can transform it back into a church, it can serve as a much-needed beacon to bring many people in this hurting city to Jesus Christ. We’ll get a lot of pushback from the politicians, (Mayor Breed inappropriately spoke out against Bishop Carcaño in support of Glide), but it needs to happen.

  3. For all Bishop Carcano is doing as per the Discipline of the UMC, it must be noted she is perhaps trying to play on both sides of the street. This is to say, she has decided there are portions of the Discipline she will enforce, and there are portions she will openly defy (and caricature United Methodists who disagree). She alone is deciding what is just and proper. This opens the door of subjectivity and allows others to make their own determinations, the objectivity of the Scriptures notwithstanding. Once an authority figure challenges his or her governing authority (in this case, the Discipline), his or her authority can be legitimately challenged. Bishop Carcano is just one of many who has surrendered the ability to exercise authority in the name of the Church. Can’t have it both ways.

  4. While it is quite incidental to the main discussion, historically, Methodist Churches did not use crosses. My interest in old pipe organs over the year has led to my viewing many images of church interiors. Crosses do not appear in Methodist churches until around 1930. This likely goes back to the Church of England: “To a good protestant of 1830 the least suggestion of symbolism—a cross on a gable or on a prayer book—was rank popery.” —Kenneth Clark, “The Gothic Revival.” Likewise, Methodist clergy did not adopt gowns until the 1940s and 1950s I have read.

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