Editorial: Compromising positions

Editorial: Compromising positions

By Rob Renfroe

It’s that time again. In just a couple of months we will have elected delegates to General Conference. And caucus groups are meeting all over the Connection. Some are making lists of the candidates they will support and want other Annual Conference delegates to support. Others are making lists while denying that they’re doing so. And still others claim the moral high ground and condemn those who organize to get others elected—as if there is something immoral, non-Methodist, or un-American about working to send persons to General Conference who share their views, their values, and their vision for the church.

There are a host of issues that our General Conference delegates will address. And many of them will be critically important to the life and witness of the United Methodist Church.

• Will we agree that our General Boards exist to support the local church and consequently reallocate resources so that less go to the Boards and more stay with individual congregations where ministry really happens?

• Will the Call to Action report lead to new structures that empower the local church or will we miss an opportunity for needed change?

• Will we become serious about providing funding for the church in the two-thirds, developing world where the Gospel is spreading rapidly and where theological training is desperately needed?

• Will we speak on behalf of the poor and will we take seriously our commission to evangelize the nations and make disciples of Jesus Christ?

• Will we find a way to hold not only pastors, but also denominational leaders and Bishops accountable for poor performance and unfaithfulness to the Book of Discipline?

These issues and others must be addressed in Tampa if the UM Church is to move forward in a powerful way. But none of those issues has the potential of splitting the denomination. Only one does. And that is what we decide regarding the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals and same-sex marriage. Not the most important issues before the church—but the most divisive and the ones that can devastate the UM Church just as it has the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and as it is on the verge of doing with the Presbyterian Church USA.

At our last General Conference there was a strong movement to adopt a “compromise” position. The motion came before the assembly to “agree to disagree.” This position would have us admit that we are of divided mind regarding homosexual practice and that we would make no definitive statement until we received further light.

I can understand the appeal of this wrong-headed approach. We all want to be done with this issue. When we see a world that is spiritually lost, billions living in material poverty, and Christians more and more persecuted for their faith all around the globe, many of us wonder why so much time and energy and pain must be spent on this one issue—especially since we have addressed it with the same consistent response for over 40 years.

Sometimes a compromise is the best solution. When the matter is pragmatic and little more, compromise can be the right option to take. Part of growing up is realizing that you can’t and don’t need to get your way all the time. And when you look at a federal government that is as dysfunctional as the one we have now, an understandable reaction is to ask why our elected leaders cannot exhibit the maturity required to work together and come up with mutually agreed-upon solutions for the very real problems before us. Sometimes a compromise is the best road to travel.

But not always. One of my pastoral counseling professors in seminary said sometimes a compromise is no better than a husband who wants to go to Cape Cod for a vacation and a wife wanting to go to San Diego. So they compromise and end up in Amarillo, Texas.

When the agree-to-disagree compromise position was defeated in Fort Worth and our traditional position that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching was reaffirmed, the charge against those of us who supported the church’s stance was, “You’re dishonest. You won’t even allow us to state our differences. We are of divided mind. Why won’t you even permit us to admit our differences?”

It’s a good question. And there’s a very good response. We United Methodists are divided on practically every issue. But in none of our other statements on matters theological, moral, or cultural do we state that we don’t know what we believe, so we have nothing to say other than we’re uncertain what’s right.

Many United Methodists were surprised to discover that the UM Church had a position on healthcare that supports the government providing healthcare for all. Not only surprised to discover that we had a position, they were adamant that they disagreed with it. Will those wanting us to adopt the “agree to disagree” position on homosexuality be consistent and ask the General Conference to remove our stance on healthcare and replace it with “we are of divided mind and are waiting for God to give us additional light before we take a position”?

We are divided on the church’s position regarding abortion. Currently, United Methodism opposes gender-selection, birth control, and late-term abortions. Some want us to take a stand against all abortions. Others want us to make clear that the only time an abortion might be acceptable is when the physical life of the mother is at stake. Others want us to liberalize our position so that any abortion a woman desires is accepted as moral. Should we have no position other than “we don’t really know what we believe about abortion”?

We are divided regarding war. None of us is for war, but some of us are able to hold a well-respected position known as the just-war theory—there are times, sadly, when physical force is acceptable to protect the lives and the freedom of persons being attacked by evil powers. Others of us, just as sincere and theological, are pacifists. Our differences have not kept our Bishops from issuing a statement on war. Nor have our differences kept us from making pronouncements in the Book of Discipline regarding collective bargaining, consumption, civil disobedience, and the death penalty. I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that none of those positions passed with 100 percent agreement at General Conference, and I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that none of our positions in the Book of Discipline on those issues begins, “We are of divided mind.”

So, is it really dishonest to take a position on the practice of homosexuality that does not state that United Methodists hold different views regarding this controversial topic (at least until we receive “further light”—are those who want to liberalize our position really waiting on God to have another book of the Bible written and included in the canon that denies and overturns every other reference in the Scriptures)?

Of course, it’s not dishonest to state our position on homosexual practice without first adding the disclaimer that United Methodists hold differing views—unless it’s dishonest not to begin every position statement in the Discipline with the admission that we are lacking unity and are not in full agreement.

What is dishonest is compromising the witness of the Scriptures, not because they aren’t clear and consistent on the topic (they are), but simply because the message of the Bible is offensive to the current culture. What is dishonest is for those who claim all they want is for the church to agree to disagree, when that’s not what is wanted at all. This “middle ground position” is nothing more than a ploy to move us one step away from the biblical position and one step closer to affirming the position that homosexuality is just as much a gift from God as heterosexuality and should be celebrated as such.

As our Annual Conferences determine whom to send to General Conference, we need to select delegates who have the vision and the courage to handle the most important issues before the church—empowering local congregations and the church in Africa and the rest of the two-thirds world to be effective in ministry, for example.

But we must also ask potential delegates about the one issue that can divide and destroy the church we love. And the question to ask is not the one we have asked in the past: “Will you vote to change the church’s position and accept homosexual practice and active gay clergy?” The question to ask is, “Will you be principled enough not to compromise the Word of God under the guise of compassion and generosity of spirit—will you refuse to be seduced by a position that claims to be the radical center but is only radical because it is willing to deny what the Bible clearly teaches: all persons are loved by God and must be loved by the church, but not all practices are acceptable.”

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.

Editorial: Compromising positions

United Methodist mission agency restructures

By Elliott Wright

The United Methodist Church’s worldwide mission agency took historical steps on April 12 toward becoming more flexible, effective, and cost efficient in response to contemporary mission opportunities.

The directors voted to reduce their number by two-thirds, from 92 to 32, while retaining a strong balance among members from the United States and units (called “central conferences”) in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe.

Another action affirmed a proposal that would make the agency’s Women’s Division “structurally separate” but “missionally connected” to Global Ministries. The division is the corporate arm of United Methodist Women.

Denominational Concerns
The possibility of small board sizes is among a number of theological and organizational issues under discussion within the denomination as part of a “Call to Action” initiated by the Council of Bishops. Also, earlier research indicated too much “distance” between program agencies and congregations.

Global Ministries is also studying ways to strengthen its responsiveness to congregations and annual (regional) conferences. “There is a clear recognition,” Bishop Ough stated in an interview, “that as the policy board becomes smaller, the need to connect with constituent groups becomes larger.”

The proposals to reduce board size and to separate the Women’s Division from Global Ministries will be submitted for final decision by The United Methodist Church’s policy-making General Conference in 2012. Changes approved would go into effect at the start of 2013.

Board Size and Purpose
The issue of board size has been under consideration for about a year by a committee charged with studying possible governance changes to the largest of the 13 United Methodist general agencies. The resolution to drop the number from 92 to 32 came from the board’s executive committee. In presenting the committee report on April 11, Bishop Peter Weaver of New England said that a board of directors was a means, not an end, and did not depend on the number but on the nature of its members.

Directors of the mission board, he said, must have a clear vision and “focus on where God is leading us into the future.” He said the ideal directors are Christ-centered, have an ability to tell the truth in love, are deeply collaborative, and are more about the macro than the micro.

Issue of what is commonly called the ‘‘worldwide nature” of The United Methodist Church is often and currently under study. A report on this topic will come before the 2012 General Conference, and a preview of key provisions was presented to Global Ministries directors on the evening of April 11 by Bishop Scott Jones of the Kansas Area, the study commission chair. The study proposes that basic aspects of United Methodist polity and practice, including historical theological affirmation, would apply on a global basis while other matters, such as publication of educational materials, would be addressed at regional levels.

Distribution of Directors
The formula for the distribution of Global Ministries directors beginning in 2013 would assign 15 seats to five geographical jurisdictions in the US, with three each for the North Central, Northeastern, and South Central jurisdictions, and four to the Southeast and two to the Western, proportioned by membership size. Two spots would go to US bishops, for a total US representation of 17, or 53 percent.

Ten places, nine for clergy and laity and one for a bishop, would go to the central conference outside the US, or a total of 31 percent. There are some 7.8 million US United Methodists and more than 4 million in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines. Membership is growing outside the US and Europe.

The agency has experienced significant staff reduction in recent years, partly in an effort to more closely define priorities. But money is also a big factor. All 13 of the denomination’s “general agencies” are budgeting at lower levels for 2012 and beyond than was the case over the last four-year budgeting cycle.

Elliott Wright is a communications consultant to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Editorial: Compromising positions

Ohio churches propel Vietnam mission

By Linda Bloom

The Rev. Joseph Bishman loves motorcycles so much that he’s ridden nationally on behalf of Harley-Davidson.
So it seemed only natural for the United Methodist West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference to ask the 62-year-old Shawnee district superintendent to hold a motorcycle ride for Vietnam mission work.

What was unexpected was what happened next. His district of mostly small, rural churches on the edge of Appalachia has pulled together to raise nearly $650,000 so far for the conference’s support of Vietnam churches through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The district has held three “Rally in the Valley” events for Vietnam, with a fourth one approaching in May. Key to their fundraising success has been Bishman’s decision to treat the 159 churches in his district—which spans nine counties and 4,700 square miles—as one large congregation.

Or, as he characterizes it, “If we’re going to move a mountain, what would happen if we put all our shovels together on one single initiative?”
Bishman shared his strategies with Global Ministries’ directors on April 12 during the board’s spring meeting in Stamford, Connecticut. West Ohio Bishop Bruce Ough, who also serves as the board’s president, introduced him as a spiritual, visionary, passionate teacher in his region. “There’s one word that describes Joseph: leader,” Ough said.

A missional priority
Vietnam is part of the Southeast Asia Mission Initiative. It is one of the mission initiatives launched in recent years in countries where United
Methodist work did not previously exist or was disrupted in the past by political factors.

The work of the initiatives involves evangelism, social ministries, and church growth—including a commitment made in 2009 by the Board of Global Ministries to develop 400 new congregations outside the United States over a four-year period. About 280 congregations already can be counted toward that goal.

In a live webcast on the initiatives following Bishman’s presentation, board directors spoke via Skype with a district superintendent from Bulgaria, learned how the church in Cameroon uses play dates for children to grow membership and talked with church members in Senegal and Thailand about the difficulties in evangelizing in countries with non-Christian majorities.

Back in the Shawnee Valley, the missional connection with Vietnam has helped some in West Ohio—including Bishman himself—deal with the brokenness caused by the dispute over a long-ended but still unpopular war.

“We’ve really not known what to do about Vietnam for our own healing,” he states. “This has given a unique platform for many of our veterans to go back.”

Some have returned on the motorcycle rides, carrying Bibles instead of weapons. The most recent ride, involving a mission team from the Shawnee Valley District and Grove City United Methodist Church, occurred from late February to early March.

“I’ve put 36 new motorcycles in the hands of our pastors in Vietnam just through the motorcycle ride itself,” Bishman said.

Beyond motorcycles, the connection with Vietnam has helped bring the district together in a unique way. “What the Vietnam church has given us is an inspirational challenge which is unimaginable,” he said.

Becoming self-sufficient
The partnership in Vietnam is not based on dependency, Bishman pointed out. Both Vietnamese leaders and denominational supporters immediately began developing a plan for self-sufficiency, with the goal that every church pay its own pastor’s salary and that members look to their “responsibility to the rest of the world as well.”

Ough, who was recently named by the denomination’s Council of Bishops to provide episcopal oversight to the Southeast Asia Mission Initiative, travelled to Vietnam with a small delegation during Holy Week to preside over the church’s annual meeting. The church in Vietnam currently has about 12,000 participants in 200 congregations.

The West Ohio Conference presented $12,000 worth of seed corn to the Vietnamese church. “They will double or triple it, and next October they will bring the harvest in,” Bishman said.

When the Vietnamese take their first national offering this year, they will donate one-third of the total to new church development, one-third to Wesley Theological College in Ho Chi Minh City, and one-third to mission work in Laos, he added.

The church also continues to work toward official recognition by the Vietnamese government. A year ago, the new United Methodist Mission Center was dedicated in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the steps deemed necessary to achieve that end. Another requirement is a constitution and bylaws. “We have a draft of a constitution done,” Ough said. “It is now being translated into English so it can be reviewed by legal counsel.”

The bishop expects that Vietnamese United Methodists will have an organizing conference a year from now to approve the constitution and elect their own leaders.

“It’s a very exciting time for Vietnam,” Ough said. “We’re running to keep up with what God is doing there.”

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.

Editorial: Compromising positions

Did faith drive Titanic musicians?

By Joey Butler

Since 1955, April 15 has signified Tax Day in the United States—a pretty tragic date in our minds. But prior to that, April 15 always marked an even larger tragedy: the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

This year marked the 99th anniversary of the famous shipwreck that claimed almost 1,500 lives, and as the centennial draws nearer, interest in the event is ramping up.

Of note to United Methodists is the fact that two of the members of the famed Titanic band were Methodists themselves.
A recently released book by music journalist Steve Turner detailing the lives of the musicians cites the Methodist heritage of bandleader and violinist Wallace Hartley and cellist John Wesley Woodward, and speculates how their faith influenced their decision to play until the last.

In The Band That Played On, Turner wrote: “[Hartley’s] moral character and his personal assurance that death was not the end must have stirred his bandsmen. Together as a band under Hartley’s leadership, they transcended their personal limitations.”

Wallace Hartley was raised in Colne, England. His father, Albion Hartley, was choirmaster and Sunday school superintendent at Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel. Perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come, it was choirmaster Hartley who introduced the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to the congregation.

Colne had deep ties to Methodism, although its introduction to the movement wasn’t the best first impression. Several times John Wesley visited the mill town, which had a tough reputation, and was always met with opposition and, in some cases, violence. During one visit, he was met by an angry mob, and one of his helpers was thrown to his death off a bridge.

However, Methodism was eventually embraced in Colne, and Methodist chapels sprang up there.

Born in 1878, young Wallace studied at Colne’s Methodist day school, sang in Bethel’s choir, and learned violin from a congregation member.
Less is known about the band member with the most “Methodist” name—John Wesley Woodward—but the cellist was raised in the Methodist tradition, and his father was an officer at Hill Top Methodist Chapel in West Bromwich, England.

That fateful night. The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England, but its band was hired in Liverpool, making them, behind The Beatles, maybe the second-most famous band to emerge from that port city.

Hartley was among three of eight Titanic musicians who were engaged to marry in the summer of 1912. Sadly, like many of his bandmates, Hartley’s intent was to make this his last sea voyage and return home to concert work instead.

Owing to the contract they’d signed with their Liverpool management, the musicians were considered second-class passengers, rather than part of the crew. Therefore, they were not under the order of the captain.

A crowd of 40,000 lined the streets of Colne, England, to witness the May 18, 1912, funeral procession of Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley.
When the ship struck the iceberg around 11:40 p.m. on April 14, the band would have already finished playing for the night. Yet, something led them to gather up their instruments and head to the first-class lounge. One survivor later claimed that, as she passed the men, one of them told her they were “just going to give them a tune to cheer things up a bit.”

“No one knows for sure why the band played,” Turner said. “We do know that Wallace Hartley once told a friend about the power of music to prevent panic. My feeling is that he was a person of great moral authority as well as a born leader, and therefore his wish at that time was passed on to all the men.”

Hartley’s was one of only three musicians’ bodies to be recovered and identified, and the only one returned to his home. He was given a hero’s welcome as his funeral procession drew a crowd of 40,000—almost twice Colne’s population at the time—and several memorials were crafted in his and the band’s honor.

Urban legend? The two most popular beliefs surrounding the Titanic band are that they played until the ship went down, and their last song was “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Because no definitive eyewitness accounts exist to prove either, even those who have studied Titanic history disagree. And survivors had, in some cases, completely contradictory details about whether the band was playing, where they were playing and what song they were playing.

Once the band was playing on the deck (they began their last performance in the first-class lounge), it’s not known how the two pianists would’ve participated, as there weren’t pianos on deck.

But Phillip Gowan, a United Methodist and Titanic historian, thinks the band did, indeed, play on.

“From all the accounts I’ve either read, or people who were there that I’ve interviewed, I do think the band played till the end,” Gowan said. “Most of the survivors that were in an area where they could’ve heard did claim that they heard the band playing.”

Turner said, “I think they played for as long as they could. There were some reports of them playing while the water began to engulf them and others of them eventually packing their instruments into cases.”

As for the last song the group performed, no one can agree, all survivors are now deceased and no living person will ever know for certain. Since their goal was to keep spirits up and keep passengers calm, a hymn typically reserved for funerals may not have been the best choice. But once their outcome was certain, who knows?

“It’s more likely that they played a French waltz called ‘Songe d’Automne.’ The most reliable accounts I’ve heard mention that song,” Gowan said.

“Wallace Hartley once told a friend that if he was on a ship going down, the best thing he could do would be to play a hymn like ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’” Turner said.

“One of the most convincing accounts I read, by one of the sailors, was that at the end, there was a lone violinist playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I suspect that was Wallace Hartley.”

Joey Butler is editor of young adult content, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.

Editorial: Compromising positions

United Methodist agencies battle Human Trafficking

By Linda Bloom
When Maria, an Armenian citizen, ended up in Dubai, she resisted attempts by her traffickers to force her into prostitution.
In retaliation, they threw her off the top of a three-story building.

Maria survived the fall, eventually escaped her captors and was repatriated to Armenia, where police referred her to the Anti-Human Trafficking Project run by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

To date, the UMCOR project has helped 93 women move on to new lives after becoming entangled in what is considered the second-largest and fastest-growing global criminal enterprise, said Kathryn Paik, UMCOR’s Armenia program officer.

Paik and two staff executives with United Methodist Women, Carol Van Gorp and Susie Johnson, spoke about how United Methodists are addressing the human trafficking problem during a March 28 panel discussion at the offices of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
United Methodist Women and its parent organization, the board’s Women’s Division, have focused on human trafficking for more than a decade and started the current campaign, “The Protection Project,” in 2009.

“Since the campaign, our trafficking team has educated and opened the eyes of over 7,500 people,” said Johnson, who spoke by phone from Washington, where she oversees public policy work for the division.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people—by threat, abduction, deception or abuse of power—for the purpose of sexual or labor-related exploitation. Eighty percent of those trafficked are women and girls, and half of all trafficking victims are under the age of 13.

Providing shelter
UMCOR was the first nongovernmental organization to work with Armenian authorities in all regions of Armenia to reintegrate trafficking survivors back into society, Paik said.

At UMCOR’s shelter, survivors receive medical services, legal counseling, vocational training and psychosocial support. The length of stay varies by individual case, but about 90 percent of participants have successfully returned to society. “Shelter staff also have ongoing contact with the victims and their families,” Paik said.

But the successes are not without effort. “We have many challenges in Armenia for this program,” she explained. “The greatest is probably economic empowerment.”

Without other viable options for employment, it is difficult to break the cycle of trafficking. And societal changes are needed to address populations vulnerable to trafficking. In Armenia, for example, more than 10,000 “extremely vulnerable” children living in boarding schools and orphanages are often left without a home or social support as they grow older.

So, in addition to the shelter, UMCOR Armenia has established a toll-free anti-trafficking hotline, conducted awareness campaigns through presentations, community outreach and mass media, and advocated for victims’ rights.

In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000—also called TVPA—increased penalties to traffickers from five years to 20 years to life and mandated the creation of an interagency government task force that meets annually.

The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons assesses and rates 194 countries each year to show whether problems of trafficking are being addressed. Countries that lag on the issue risk losing funding from the United States. Task forces coordinated by the Department of Justice link federal and local law enforcement officers to pursue traffickers.

The department’s “2010 Trafficking in Persons Report,” released last June, was the first to rank the United States alongside other nations.
On a denomination-wide level, General Conference, the church’s top legislative body, first adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of sex trafficking in 2004. The church also has supported “global efforts to end slavery” since 2000, and has long called for the eradication of abusive child labor.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.