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May 5, 2000 GC-020

Church is ‘hanging on for dear life,’ Bishop Huie says

CLEVELAND (UMNS) — United Methodist delegates attending their top legislative meeting were reminded in a sermon that the church cannot step out in mission while hanging on for dear life.

Arkansas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, in a May 5 message revolving around the vine and its branches, told delegates that the weeks leading up to the 2000 General Conference were characterized by a climate of fear and ugly talk. She said that seeds of suspicion and hostility were planted, and distrust and cynicism grew like weeds that drained energy.

People are constantly asking whether the United Methodist Church will hold together, she said. Can the connection be preserved? What will keep it united?

"Sometimes it feels like the United Methodist Church is hanging on for dear life," she said.

Huie began her sermon by recalling the days of her youth, when she picked mustang grapes with her family in South Texas. She noted how the branches of this variety of grapevine sprawl over each other and reach up and out, making a canopy for small animals. The vines are tough and push themselves deep into the earth, she said.

Huie described how a branch withers and dies when torn from its vine, and how it blossoms and produces fruit when connected. Then she asked the General Conference delegates to abide in Christ because those who abide in him and allow him to abide in them will bear fruit.

Growing up, she did not know the lessons that the grapes and vines were teaching, she said, but as an adult, she realized the lessons were about grace. The grapes and vines teach about the body of Christ and how its parts are one body. Other lessons are about connection and fruitfulness, separation and death, and the uniqueness of everyone. The grapevines helped her understand what Jesus told his disciples long ago and what he is saying to his disciples today, she said.

The church cannot be engaged in mission if it is constantly focused on itself, Huie told delegates. "Friends, we can't step out in mission in the world while hanging on to our lives."

She added that clergy and lay members cannot be partners in transforming the world on behalf of children and the poor if they are focused on themselves.

"We don't have time or energy to make disciples of Christ when we spend our energies second-guessing the motives of everybody from the sister and brother in the pew or legislative committee to the bishops of the church," she said.

When people just hang on or survive, they are not the people God called them to be, Huie said. "We've done far too much hanging on and surviving in the last part of the 20th century. Too long, we've tried to love God and love our neighbor and still hang on in fear."

Noting that Methodism founder John Wesley defined schism as "a failure of love," Huie asked whether the United Methodist Church will once again allow a volatile issue to break it apart. Slavery was an issue that broke the church into northern and southern pieces.

"Will the United Methodist Church disconnect again?" she asked. "In God's beloved United Methodist Church, I believe that love will triumph over fear."

Jesus Christ and the mission of the church are the two realities that unite the denomination, she said. God wants the United Methodist Church to be one body, she continued.

She affirmed Jesus Christ as the vine and his disciples as branches. In a dig at some of the most divisive issues plaguing the church today, she asked the delegates if they noticed that "branches don't cut off other branches from the vine." This does not occur in nature or domestic production and is unimaginable in the Gospels, she said.

Huie connected her message about the vine to the church’s history of racism. On May 4, the denomination repented of its racism, and remembered the racist acts in the 18th and 19th centuries that led to the creation of the historically black Methodist denominations -- African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal. United Methodists also apologized for the creation of the Central Jurisdiction, a segregated region for African Americans in the former Methodist Church. The Central Jurisdiction was abolished when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches merged in 1968.

"What incredible arrogance it is for one part of the body of Christ to consider pruning another part of the body," Huie said. "Pray we don't do it again, for any reason."

When one part of the body hurts or diminishes another part, "Christ’s own self" is wounded, she said.

"Our very own being is in Christ. Our connection is in Christ. ... We let the vine grower do the pruning," the bishop said.

The word "remain" is important in describing the relationship of the branches to the vine, she said. Recalling how the branches have remained on the vine for a long time and endured the elements, she said perseverance and resiliency are in their nature and their roots run deep. She invited the delegates to remain in Christ and keep reaching out to God and neighbor, even it they become frustrated by General Conference actions or by people who want to change something or don’t want to change something.

As she ended her message, she challenged the delegates to consider how the United Methodist Church at the 2000 General Conference is seen by the world. She asked whether the world sees the face of fear or the face of Christ. Does it see separation, disconnection and dead wood, or does it "see the vine and (a) great wide canopy of branches with room for all God's people?"

Does the world will see set jaws, clenched fists and pointing fingers, or does it see the "joy and delight of a people whose mission is an extension of who they are?" she asked.

Huie thanked God for the United Methodist Church and its work to provide food, housing and health care to children around the world, as well as its efforts to stand as one against hate and violence. "I hope the world will say, ‘Look at the United Methodist Church. We have inspected their fruit, and it is good,’" she said.

Following the message, the delegates turned their attention to business. They received a report from Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and heard its request for $20 million. Some of the money would be used to establish a sixth academic discipline, a school of health science, and to acquire the appropriate technology to link with schools in Africa and in the United States.

The assembly also received the first recommendations from a Connectional Process Team (CPT), the group that is proposing a "transformational direction" for the entire denomination.

The Rev. Minerva Carcano of Dallas, a CPT member, asked the delegates to create a temporary Covenant Council that would initiate a gradual change toward a transformational direction for the denomination. On behalf of the CPT, Carcano proposed that the council would replace the General Council on Ministries and would be accountable to the 2004 General Conference. It would continue the work done by the CPT during the past four years and would report directly to annual (regional) conferences and the Council of Bishops.

More than 63 percent of the delegates voted not to act on the recommendation on May 5 but to refer the entire CPT report to the General and Judicial Administration Committee, one of 10 legislative committees of the General Conference. The committee will review the report and proposals and bring recommendations back to the entire delegation before the conference adjourns late May 12.

In other matters, delegates made nominations from the floor for Judicial Council and University Senate positions.

They also rejected a motion to suspend the rules and allow legislative committee work on membership issues to continue. Discussion about membership issues has been affected by a Judicial Council ruling that the General Conference cannot act upon petitions to amend or re-adopt any paragraphs of the 1996 Book of Discipline that have been declared unconstitutional. Some of those paragraphs deal specifically with baptism and membership. The matter was brought to the floor again at the end of the morning session and again rejected.

The South Carolina delegates brought a resolution regarding flying the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina Statehouse. They reported that the whole delegation, the bishop and the annual conference have asked for the flag's removal. The General Conference added its own voice to the call for removal by an overwhelming vote of 861 to 67.

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-- Linda Green

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