ON HOPE FOR METHODISM -
A TESTIMONY (PART 3)
By Dr. Riley B. Case
(One person’s testimony on living the events which have brought the United Methodist Church to the point of division)
In 1967 I was appointed to Calvary Church, Elkhart, IN. It was a time of tremendous turmoil—social, political, religious—and Elkhart was experiencing all of this. The Methodist-EUB merger was at hand; six EUB churches would merge with eight Methodist churches to give us 14 churches in a city of about 45,000 (overkill?). Many of us were excited about the merger. For Methodist evangelicals there was the hope that the more theologically conservative and less institutionalized EUB church would help to influence a new denomination more balanced theologically and less power-concentrated at the top. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened (more on this later) but it would take us another 20 years to realize this.
These were the days of the Viet Nam war. These were also the days of racial unrest, Woodstock, the sexual revolution, a growing drug culture, and student demonstrations in colleges. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then Bobby Kennedy. My circuit churches had seemed unaffected by all of this, but Elkhart was not. I worked at a coffee house, a ministry of presence sponsored by several churches, and got my education on hippies, and the sexual revolution, and drugs (the police had accused us of being a drug-dealing center).
Traditional morality, which at the time included such issues as smoking and alcohol and drugs and sexual purity and homosexual practice and marriage fidelity, was being challenged on every hand, even in the church. Within days of arriving in Elkhart I received an invitation to join some people at a church member’s home. When I arrived 22 persons were present, of which 21 were smoking cigarettes. I was confronted: “We want to know how you stand on things.”
The biggest social issues revolved around race and the Viet Nam war. The Elkhart area included a Mennonite College and two Mennonite seminaries. Since my mother had been Mennonite, I thought I understood Mennonites. Not necessarily so. My wife Ruth and I sat across from a Mennonite pastor and his wife at a dinner. The wife, her hair in a bun and without make-up, sat quietly while her husband went into a rant on the police as pigs. I would call these militant pacifists. I audited several courses at the Mennonite seminary. John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) was a professor there.
When my church, Calvary, was wanting to sell land close to the church for the development of low-income housing, several of our own church members argued against rezoning (and the sale) before the Zoning Board (with obvious racial implications). Finally, the riots came. Three hundred blacks marched on city hall with a list of demands. The next day a White Citizens group had formed. They also marched three hundred persons on city hall. The next day a preacher friend, Joe, called. “You know who led the black group?" he asked. “No.” “Simon,” he said. Groan. Simon was in my church. He was a Methodist preacher from Boston on special appointment to be head of the Urban League and he (or at least his family) had affiliated with us. Then Joe asked, “You know who is leading the white group?” “No.” “Jim S.” This time I groaned three times. Jim also was from our church. No more sitting on the sidelines. Phone calls. “Can we get people together to talk about this?” Unexpectedly, at least for me at the time, when we got two groups together there was rational discussion. The whites present were blue collar, union workers and had also encountered police dogs on the picket lines. As a result of discussions on police brutality I got help from a friend, Bob Dungy (uncle of Tony Dungy, though I had no idea who Tony Dungy was at the time), who suggested we see the mayor about police sensitivity training. It worked. Bob was the trainer. Bob later became a Methodist, then a minister, and eventually led Upper Room Ministries. I felt the dialogue sessions were positive and helpful. I was naïve. Little did I know we would be dealing with the same issues 50 years later.
But for me there was a much bigger story. The 1960s and 70s were a time of a spiritual awakening. The revolt of the 1960s included a religious revolt but it was not so much against God and spirituality as against a certain kind of religion—white-dominated, male-dominated, liberal, rational, establishment religion. While that characterized much of Methodism it did not characterize all of Methodism. Methodism was healthy and, or at least seemed, at the height of its influence. Methodists, even without the EUBs and with only a few Africans at that time, boasted of over 10 million members. Our Board of Evangelism supplied evangelists across the connection (remember Harry Denman?) Our missionaries were evangelical and were in almost every part of the world. Our Women’s Society of Christian Service (WSCS) units were mainstays in every Methodist Church. We had Lay Witness Missions and Marriage Enrichment programs. Our conference youth program thrived. I was a district coordinator. We sponsored Bible quizzes and concerts and rallies. We organized a mission trip to Haiti and took 30 youth (that size not recommended, by the way).
But even bigger things were happening. In evangelical circles, signs of a spiritual awakening were on every hand. One of our church’s young men who had gotten into drugs and had been dishonorably discharged from the army, had a glorious conversion through the Jesus People. He gave his testimony in church. Suddenly Jesus People were all around us. They came to our church and invited our youth group to some of their gatherings. Church people, at least some, were dismayed. They thought we had been invaded by hippies and druggies. Then a most unusual situation arose. Instead of Christian parents concerned about the salvation of their children, our Christian youth became concerned about the salvation of their parents.
But there was more. The Charismatic Movement came on the scene. We had Methodists speaking in tongues. I remember some of our youth wanting me to teach them how to speak in tongues. Persons were giving witness to “signs and wonders.” New styles of Christian music were being introduced. New kinds of groups were springing up. I spoke to our Wesley Foundation director at Purdue and asked him how things were going. He replied to the effect that things were OK, but they had competition; 82 different Christian groups were identified as working on campus. One Goshen College related group I was acquainted with—the Gladiola Warehouse—was so anti-establishment they claimed they would operate without human organization and depend wholly on the Holy Spirit (it didn’t work so well). Another group, the Glory Barn, went so far as teaching that Christians didn’t need doctors or hospitals since by faith God would heal every ailment (spiritual overload can lead to cultish tendencies). Fundamentalists were also thriving. In addition to the regular Ministerial Association in Elkhart there was an Evangelical (basically fundamentalist) Ministerial Association (I belonged to both groups). When some churches invited Leighton Ford of the Billy Graham Association to hold a city-wide crusade, 17 churches did not participate. They were not the mainline churches, all of which supported the crusade, but the ultra-conservative churches. The only Baptist church involved in the crusade was the black Baptist church.
Then the biggest surprise of all: the Catholic Charismatic movement. It originated at, of all places, Notre Dame, next door to Elkhart. Several of our church groups visited Christ the King Catholic Church for charismatic services in South Bend and became so excited I was worried they would jump ship and become Catholics. I remember seeing nuns carrying Bibles and guitars.
On the larger scene Christians (not so much Methodist since it was sponsored by Billy Graham) around the world in 1966 held the World Congress on Evangelism. This was followed by the First International Congress on World Evangelism in 1974 which drew 2,700 delegates from 150 countries and issued the Lausanne Covenant. Youth for Christ was attracting thousands to its summer convocations at Winona Lake. Campus Crusade drew 80,000 to the Cotton Bowl in a sort-of Christian Woodstock in 1972.
Is it any wonder that so many Methodist evangelicals of that time were excited about the prospects of a new merged United Methodist Church? There was a lot of talk about a New Day, a New Vision for the Future. Could a merged church tap into this spiritual energy?
The answer, unfortunately, for the most part was no. Liberal church leaders had a different agenda. They were being influenced not by a world-wide evangelical awakening, but by the political and social upheaval represented by issues surrounding war, gender, race, social planning, sexual permissiveness, revolution, and drugs. There would be almost nothing at the 1972 General Conference that would suggest the new church might seek to win the world for Jesus Christ. There was almost everything that would suggest that the new church would seek to bring in a new world order (an updating of the old modernist “Kingdom of God under the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.”) Code words for this new world order were words like justice, rights, liberation, inclusion, and equality. So, we would have a new General Board--one of the super boards no less--of Church and Society. We would have commissions on Status and Role of Women and Religion and Race.
A glimpse into the thinking of those setting the course for the new denomination can be seen in an article by Dow Kirkpatrick, the head of the General Conference Restructure Committee. In an article, “Two Sundays in May: Castro and Wesley,” which appeared in (July 22, 1977) United Methodist Reporter, Kirkpatrick wrote:
Fidel and his people celebrate the revolution they caused; we (Wesleyans} commemorate the ones we prevent. Cubans believe their lives are vastly better because of their revolution. Hunger, poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination and illiteracy have been eliminated…Dignity has been given to every human being…
We can learn what evangelism is from Cuba. Why is Marx believed more adequate than Wesley by millions of people today?....The Cuban Revolution—in contrast to the Christian Church, is one that is with the poor and “he who condemns a revolution like this one betrays Christ.”
Thus, the beginning of the thinking and events that would lead to the call for separation.