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Sid Hastings/AP

Protesters chant during the UMC’s Special Session of the General Conference. (Sid Hastings/AP)

Religion

The great divide

Liberal Methodists may be digging in for a fight in the UMC

At a breakfast gathering in St. Louis on the first morning of a special meeting of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in February, Jerry Kulah set the table for the events of the next few days.

The UMC delegate had traveled all the way from Liberia to participate in the international meeting that would decide whether Methodists insist their clergy uphold Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality or allow churches to decide for themselves.

Kulah put it simply: African Methodists are “grounded in God’s Word and the gracious and clear teachings of our church. … We would warmly welcome you as our traveling companions, but if you choose another road, we Africans cannot go with you.”

This wasn’t an idle threat. While the 12-million-member denomination has lost nearly 100,000 members annually in America, it has gained more than 100,000 each year in Africa. (The UMC has nearly 7 million members in the United States and 5.6 million members in Africa, Asia, and Europe.)

Africans constituted a third of the 864 delegates gathered for the UMC’s General Conference.

In the end, 53 percent of the UMC delegates voted to uphold the church’s formal teaching on sexuality, and it strengthened penalties for church leaders that perform same-sex marriages or ordain actively gay clergy.

But the process was contentious.

During the debate, UMC Pastor Tom Berlin likened the traditional plan to “putting a virus into the American church that will make it very sick.” He asked delegates who favored upholding traditional teaching to abstain from voting, and he noted how Africans had stopped the spread of Ebola by washing their hands: “I’m asking you to wash your hands of this traditional plan today, because it will bring that illness into our house.”

If it was alarming for conservatives to hear Biblical fidelity labeled “a virus,” delegate Chris Ritter from Illinois was also aghast to hear such language directed in part toward African pastors who had risked their lives to minister the gospel to fellow Liberians during the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

When another American pastor encouraged all the delegates in favor of letting churches decide their own doctrine to stand, Ritter said he had “never been so proud” to stay seated with his African friends.

Ritter wrote on his People Need Jesus blog: “First World temper tantrums about the sexual expression of financially kept clergy ran into the patient ferment of God-fearing servants who know what it means to suffer for Christ.”

Though the meeting was contentious, the General Conference passed a measure to allow churches to leave the UMC with their church buildings and property intact. That decision stands in stark contrast with the policies of bodies like the Episcopal Church USA that have waged years of litigation against local congregations trying to retain their property after leaving their denomination over issues of Biblical fidelity.

The policy details may have to be reviewed by the UMC’s judicial council—or perhaps at the next global conference in 2020—but Mark Tooley, a member of the UMC and the head of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said he hadn’t heard any fellow conservatives express a desire to take property away from congregations that decide to leave.

For now, it’s unclear how many might go. In the days after the conference, Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UMC congregation in the United States, suggested those dissatisfied with the vote might pursue other avenues for trying to stay in the UMC. He called starting a new denomination a last resort.

Some church leaders may continue violating church teaching and force the UMC to discipline them. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is pastor of Foundry UMC, a high-profile Washington, D.C., congregation that has hired gay clergy and performed same-sex weddings. She told The New York Times: “We’re not going anywhere. If someone wants to come for me, for us, then bring it.”

A protracted fight could lead weary conservative churches to leave, but Tooley says he’s hopeful they’ll stay and work to strengthen the denomination: “If the church becomes more orthodox … then we have the possibility to grow again.”

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Bulgaria’s parliament building, with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on the left (Jens Kalaene/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

Religion

Prayer and protest

A draconian bill on religion goes down to defeat in Bulgaria

In a dramatic turnabout rarely seen in formerly communist Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian parliament passed a law protecting the liberties of the country’s religious minorities on the final day of its 2018 session.

The original version of the bill threatened to restrict the rights of religious groups representing less than 1 percent of the population—which included at least 100 of the country’s growing evangelical churches. How the turnaround happened—through eight weeks of prayer vigils and organized protests—is a lesson for other threatened believers.

When the government first proposed revisions to an existing religion law in spring 2018, many Bulgarian evangelicals assumed the restrictive articles would be rejected outright. But by autumn, concern turned to alarm as the revisions moved forward, according to Vlady Raichinov of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance.

The proposed law would have negatively affected evangelical and Catholic churches, some Muslim communities, and other minority religious groups: It called for restricting seminary training, limiting foreign donations, banning foreign preachers without the presence of a Bulgarian minister, and banning worship outside of designated registered buildings. 

The government claimed the measures were to protect Bulgaria—one of the EU’s border nations—from outside radicalism. Critics voiced alarm that majority parties would back a proposal that threatened a return to communist-era repressions. Although exempted by the 1 percent population threshold and standing to gain financially from the new law, Orthodox and Muslim leaders also criticized the proposal as dangerously intrusive on religious life.

By October it became clear parliament would proceed with considering the measure. Evangelical leaders across denominations gathered to plan a unified response. Pastors mobilized churches to pray and encouraged congregants to write their parliamentarians. They also organized protests. For seven consecutive Sundays in November and December, evangelicals went from church services to the streets, rallying 4,000 demonstrators in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, alone. The peaceful protests spread to 11 other major cities.

Initially Bulgarian media ignored the protests, but the letter-writing campaign spread to European diplomatic institutions, and the movement gained wider traction. Bulgarian television invited evangelical leaders to present their case, and international pressure began to mount on the Bulgarian parliament.

“This is a quick issue with far-reaching effects that caught our leaders there by surprise,” Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Elijah Brown told WORLD, as the group’s network of congregations on five continents took a stand against the proposed law.

In December, blizzard conditions threatened but didn’t halt protests. Leaders gathered in front of the parliament building, gave Bibles to passing lawmakers, and explained why they opposed the legislation. Evangelicals held a vigil outside the parliament building during the Dec. 21 vote on the law, praying for an outcome that seemed anything but certain. “It’s amazing that the parliamentarians took out every offensive article when only two months before they had voted the complete opposite,” said Raichinov. “Only God can do that.”

Raichinov believes the legal challenge brought unity to the Bulgarian evangelical churches. An unexpected positive outcome is recognition of the evangelical community by government and society: Even with protests still underway, a government committee invited evangelical leaders to provide input on moral considerations regarding other issues, like human organ donation.

“We were encouraged by the response of the global Christian community. No country is an island, and every denomination is a global family. We want to support other countries in the same way,” said Raichinov.

Sofia was the setting in A.D. 311 for the “Edict of Toleration” that paved the way for the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Evangelicals believe they’ve again witnessed a victory over excessive state control. Said the Baptist World Alliance’s Brown: “God has granted us a remarkable blessing, by allowing us to see the will of the political powers changed.”

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LittleT889

Covenant Theological Seminary (LittleT889)

Religion

Strained voices?

Events in St. Louis raise concern about the PCA

A canceled event at South City Church (PCA) in St. Louis, Mo., brought renewed attention to ongoing friction among Presbyterians in the city also home to Covenant Theological Seminary—the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.

In January, South City Church leaders had agreed to allow an event to take place on its campus that was sponsored by an organization called Faith for Justice. The MLK Day-related gathering was set to include speaker Jay-Marie Hill, a lesbian and an activist for transgenderism. 

A Faith for Justice announcement said Hill would “teach us how to not only mourn the tragic death of trans folx, but learn to celebrate their lives and humanity.”

In a Jan. 14 statement, the session of South City said the elders and pastoral staff had become aware of the details over the past few days and “determined that some of the planned elements … appeared to be inconsistent with South City Church’s theological convictions.” They retracted the offer to use the church’s building.

The statement didn’t mention that one of the founders of Faith for Justice is Michelle Higgins, South City’s director of worship. And one of the group’s board members is Mike Higgins—the father of Michelle Higgins and the lead pastor of South City.

The event moved to a nearby PCUSA church, and both Mike Higgins and Michelle Higgins attended. (South City elders and the Higginses didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.) 

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