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Madness in the Methodist

Fed up with runaway liberalism in the mainline, a courageous Methodist minister leads his congregation to walk away-perhaps presaging a more profound schism if national church leaders cannot muster the courage to bring unbiblical ministers to heel.

in Kingsburg, Calif. - "Well, here we are," said cheery but nervous Pastor Ed Ezaki after taking a deep breath. Robed in blue and white vestments, the 41-year-old Japanese-American minister out of Berkeley and Princeton stood front and center on the sanctuary platform, away from the pulpit. He gazed at his anxious congregation at Kingsburg (Calif.) United Methodist Church. It was June 28 and, following his sermon, this congregation would vote on whether to leave the denomination. More than 250 people, perhaps one-fourth of them over 60, filled the rustic pews on the main floor and in the balcony. The interior, with deep blue-green carpet and spotless ivory walls, recently had undergone a $300,000 restoration. Because the United Methodist Church (UMC) is "connectional" in polity, a vote to leave would mean the property would revert to the UMC. Many of the church members are descended from the Swedish farmers who came from the Midwest in the late 1800s to this area of the San Joaquin Valley 20 miles south of Fresno. They established the church 115 years ago. It is the oldest continuously meeting congregation in Kingsburg (pop. 8,335). Many of the silver-haired people sitting here this morning had grown up in the church. Such a vote would be no trivial matter for them. This pastor and congregation were weary following years of anguish and struggle over the widening theological gap between them and the leadership of the California-Nevada Conference, the regional unit of the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church to which they belonged. Encompassing Northern California and Nevada, it has a reputation as the UMC's most liberal conference. Of late, the conference's stance on homosexuality, including support of clergy who perform same-sex unions or "covenant" ceremonies in violation of church policy, was the main bone of contention. The churchgoers of Kingsburg might miss some of the finer points in scholarly theological debates. But interviews established that whether versed in the Bible or not, they believed instinctively that the church and its clergy have no business endorsing sex outside of marriage. Issues related to homosexuality, particularly the question of what the church's stance should be toward those who practice it, have opened fissures in the majority of America's historic mainline denominations in recent years. The Episcopal Church faces the specter of schism. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and American Baptist Churches U.S.A. are trying to observe a moratorium on further debate and legislation on the topic until at least the year 2000 for cooling-off purposes. But in no other denomination is the struggle more intense than in the UMC. Pastor Ezaki launched his sermon with an illustration. Fresh out of seminary, he said, he found himself among clergy in Northern California who did not believe the Bible, who did not believe in the virgin birth or resurrection of Christ. A female minister, he recalled, said she could not accept the scriptural account of Christ's birth because that would make God a rapist. "I should have known it would someday come to this," he remarked, referring to the upcoming vote. Standards are so loose now that "anyone who breathes" can be a UMC member, he said. As the pastor preached, the denomination's district superintendent from Fresno, Richard Plain, sat stone-faced against a rear wall, watching and listening, sometimes taking notes. Over the next 25 minutes, Mr. Ezaki hammered home from 2 Corinthians 6 why belief matters, and why purity matters. Believers cannot be spiritual partners with those who do not affirm the basics of the faith, he said. He cited instances where conference leaders, including Bishop Melvin Talbert, had gone against church teaching. "We have two separate faiths in this denomination that cannot be held together," he declared. He quoted from John Wesley's sermon on schism: In churches where ungodliness and apostasy prevail, the evil of schism rests on those who make it impossible to stay. The sermon finished, lay administrators convened the business meeting at 11:35 a.m. They handed out copies of a three-part motion from the administrative council. It said "we can no longer in Christian conscience remain members" of the UMC. It called for transferring membership of the Kingsburg UMC, exclusive of the nine-member board of trustees (for reasons related to property), to a new entity, the Kingsburg Community Church, effective July 1. And it urged the trustees and conference leadership to negotiate "a just process" to transfer the property to the new church. Several long-time members spoke in favor of the motion. They said members had lovingly poured sweat, blood, and money into their building, but if the price of remaining faithful to Scripture meant losing it, the sacrifice could be endured. When it was time for eligible members to decide, 200 voted in favor of leaving the UMC. None voted to stay. There were no abstentions. The congregation exploded in applause, whistling, and cheers. People shook hands and hugged each other as the standing ovation continued. About 100 absentee ballots counted later showed the same unanimity, except for a handful of abstentions by people now attending other churches. It was the first time in memory any congregation of the UMC's California-Nevada Conference voted unanimously to pull out. Following the vote, members lined up at a small table at the front of the church to sign a document requesting that their membership be transferred to the Kingsburg Community Church. The trustees and Mr. Ezaki did not sign. The minister has applied to the conference for a leave of absence to keep his health insurance in effect and arrange other matters during the transition. (Bishop Talbert, in a WORLD interview, seemed inclined not to grant it.) On the sidewalk outside, scores of members from other churches in the closely knit community had arrived while the business meeting was in session. Clustered in prayer groups and holding hands, they came to show their support. Among them were Mayor John Wright, a Mennonite Brethren member, and members of Beyond Belief, the high school Bible club to which Kingsburg member Annette Graves, 17, belongs. "Many people in the church had not been informed about what was happening in the denomination," Miss Graves said. Mr. Ezaki began informing the congregation several years ago, she explained, and "when they learned, it led to this action today." She added: "We now are theologically literate." Alice Croft, 76, a member since 1935, agreed: "After the facts were assembled, there was no other way we could go." The Kingsburg congregation has been permitted to stay in the building at least until September while negotiations proceed. On the same day as the Kingsburg vote, tens of thousands of marchers paraded in West Hollywood and San Francisco to celebrate Gay Pride Day. And at the Gay Pride Sunday service at Riverside Church in New York City that same day, the guest preacher was UMC cleric Jimmy Creech-the catalyst for much of the current controversy over homosexuality in the UMC (see "Countdown" sidebar). Mr. Creech said the lesbians for whom he had conducted a "covenant" or union ceremony no longer considered God an enemy, thanks to his counseling and the church's embrace. On display during the service at Riverside were some of the more than 400 liturgical stoles the church has collected from homosexuals barred from the ministry. A pastor on the Riverside staff, Elizabeth Alexander, wore one. She said she is leaving the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. because it prohibits her from living in a same-sex relationship. (Riverside's council endorsed same-sex civil marriage last year.) Pastor Ezaki is a member of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship, a group of pastors in the conference representing fewer than 10 percent of California-Nevada's 375 UMC churches and 93,000 members. The younger pastors in ERF see little hope of reform and believe the conference's reputation is an impediment to ministry in their communities. They want to leave sooner rather than later. But unlike Mr. Ezaki, they and the older ERF members have been reluctant to keep their congregations informed about anti-biblical actions and pronouncements of the conference. They say they didn't want to roil the waters in their own congregations and distract from ministry. As a result, they'll have to leave by themselves. The middle-aged and older ERF members are tied to their health insurance, pensions, job security, and other benefits. Yet most of them are prepared to leave, depending on what happens regarding the homosexual issue at the Judicial Council next month in Dallas and at the denomination's General Conference in Cleveland in 2000. In early April, 22 ERF pastors and 25 lay leaders signed a petition asking conference leaders to recognize that the two sides were "divided beyond reconciliation." They asked for a way to be allowed to separate from the conference while remaining in the UMC. The officials rejected the request, saying the diversity in the UMC is broad enough to include all viewpoints. Next, the ERF asked the leaders to set up a special district for evangelicals and to assist with drawing up a proposal asking the General Conference to set up a nationwide provisional conference just for evangelicals. Both requests also were shot down. For ERF members, it's not just doctrinal differences that have disheartened them. They complain that not one evangelical has been appointed to a conference leadership position. Asked about this seeming lack of commitment to tolerance and diversity, Bishop Talbert told WORLD: "Look, I need to appoint people whom I can trust implicitly, because they represent me." John Sheppard, 55, is pastor of the largest ERF-oriented church: 650-member First UMC in Yuba City, north of Sacramento. He's been there for 10 years. He estimates the church loses 400 prospective new members a year because of the homosexual issue at both the conference and national levels. He told his leaders following the Creech acquittal he was ready to resign. But first, he would work with other renewalists to pursue the matter to the highest levels. Like many evangelicals throughout the UMC, he believes the General Conference in 2000 will be a watershed event: Either the UMC will enforce its standards from bishops down, or there will be a huge exodus of evangelicals. Meanwhile, at the new Kingsburg Community Church, still meeting in the Methodist building, people who left years ago have started coming back, secretary Holly Sonksen reports. She wonders if it is because, for them, the stigma is gone.

Edward E. Plowman

Edward E. Plowman