By Mary Jacobs*
FORT WORTH , Texas (UMNS)-The president of a conservative United Methodist renewal group bristled during the opening worship service of the 2008 General Conference when Bishop Janice Riggle Huie referred to “special-interest groups,” particularly ones that “believe that they have cornered the market on righteousness.”
The Rev. Jim Heidinger thinks Huie was referring to groups like Good News, and he said the characterization is unfair. Heidinger describes the organization as a “catalyst for renewal” within The United Methodist Church.
“What we’re doing is simply affirming what is in the Book of Discipline and affirming the doctrinal position and the church’s teachings on human sexuality,” he said.
The organization is actively lobbying this General Conference, along with other members of the Renewal and Reform Coalition, including the Confessing Movement, UMAction, Renew, Transforming Congregations and Lifewatch. Most members of these organizations are United Methodists who consider themselves conservative and evangelical. They are among a variety of groups, representing different viewpoints and causes, that are lobbying at the assembly.
General Conference is the denomination’s top legislative meeting, held once every four years. It is the only body that can speak in behalf of the entire church.
Cell phone buzz
The coalition created some buzz among delegates who got word that it had provided cell phones free of charge to more than 150 African delegates to use during the General Conference. Some delegates and church leaders are concerned that the group is trying to sway the votes of African delegates who are typically more conservative than their U.S. counterparts, and that the coalition might use the phones to offer suggestions on how to vote on particular issues.
“We simply want central conference delegates to have the same access to information that other delegates do,” Heidinger said. Central conferences are the church’s regions in Africa, Europe and Asia . “These folks will make their own decisions.” He said the coalition does not have the capability to send text or voice messages en masse on the cell phones.
Heidinger spoke during an interview following an April 25 breakfast hosted by the coalition for delegates at a hotel near the Fort Worth Convention Center , where General Conference is meeting through May 2. Following the daily breakfasts, evangelical leaders update delegates on legislative action. Some organizations in the conservative coalition also host luncheons during General Conference.
About 300 delegates and observers attended the April 25 breakfast where the Rev. William R. Bouknight opened the event with prayer.
“We have tried to create our own gospel rather than faithfully declaring your biblical truth,” Bouknight prayed. “We have tried to redefine sin or even deny it altogether. We have forgotten how to blush.”
Attendees received a brochure listing candidates supported by the coalition for the Judicial Council, the church’s top court: the Rev. Keith Boyette, the Rev. Gloria Brooks, James D. Karblee, Mary Daffin and Raymond Mande Mutumbo.
“We don’t want ideologues,” Heidinger said. “We want strict constructionists of the Book of Discipline.” He said he feared “judicial activism” might overturn the church’s stance on homosexuality, which has been affirmed by General Conference since 1972. The United Methodist Church holds that, while homosexuals are people of “sacred worth,” the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Other issues on the coalition’s agenda are:
- Membership: Following the Judicial Council’s Decision 1032, which affirmed a United Methodist pastor’s decision to deny membership to an openly gay man, the coalition supports the principle that a senior pastor may make the determination of who is ready to join a church.
- Education ministries: The coalition wants to strengthen educational ministries to candidates from the central conferences. “As the church has grown in Africa , it’s important to empower the seminaries there,” Heidinger said.
- Homosexuality: The group wants the church’s stance on homosexuality to remain unchanged.
- United Methodist Women: The group would like to establish in the Book of Discipline the option for United Methodist churches to choose alternative women’s ministries in addition to UMW, such as those in the Renew women’s network.
*Jacobs is a staff writer for the United Methodist Reporter.