- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

The nation's United Methodists tomorrow in Cleveland open their first policy assembly in four years, torn on issues of homosexuality but ready to be a global church and to visit American living rooms through television.

"There are three main issues. One is the ongoing struggle on the questions of homosexuality," said the Rev. Dean Snyder, communications director for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Since the last quadrennial gathering in 1996, United Methodist courts have disciplined two clergy who presided at same-sex unions. For activists, however, such ceremonies and the ordination of avowed homosexuals are hardly settled.

"There are more resolutions concerning unions of homosexual persons than any other single issue," Mr. Snyder said.

Last year, the Baltimore-Washington Conference narrowly defeated a plan to ask the church to remove bans on homosexual unions and ordination in the 8.4-million-member church's Book of Discipline and Social Principles.

A second major topic for the assembly, the church's highest decision-making body, is a restructuring plan that gives the 1.2 million United Methodists abroad mostly in Europe, Africa and the Philippines more say on the use of U.S. financial resources.

This would come by establishing a Global Conference on par with the U.S. Central Conference. Methodism was founded in the United States.

"The plan could be accepted and implemented immediately," Mr. Snyder said of the restructuring, which also includes creation of churchwide "covenant councils" to invigorate the church.

"With the councils, the focus becomes less on administration and budgeting, and more on spiritual life," said Mr. Snyder, who went to Cleveland with 20 clergy and laity delegates from his region.

The third major issue is of special interest to the Rev. James Logan, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and head of the 32-member Virginia delegation.

The church will vote whether to pour $20 million into a four-year "Igniting Ministry" plan to air 40 different promotional spots on cable television to welcome the public to United Methodism.

"The church has got to get into public media," Mr. Logan said. "More decisions made for Christ and the church are going to be made within the church community, and not out in society."

He said the public information campaign is "proto-evangelism" that first persuades the public to take interest in church life.

One spot has two boys breaking into a church basement to play pool. The pastor finds them and says, "You are the only people trying to get into this church." He gives the boys the keys. In the real-life story, the boy who took the key entered the ministry.

The TV ads and restructuring, Mr. Logan said, show new interest in evangelism, which often has lagged behind social justice initiatives. "I detect across the church a renewal of questions of both group and personal spirituality," he said.

The United Methodist Board on Church and Society, meanwhile, has led a fight for Cuba in the dispute over Elian Gonzalez.

The Baltimore-Washington conference has 217,041 members, while the Virginia conference's 343,519 adherents make it largest in the denomination.

In Cleveland, the 992 delegates half laity and half clergy also must vote on reducing by one the number of bishops from the District of Columbia to Maine because of church membership decline since 1996.

Among the other issues at the meeting, which ends May 12:

• Making 2001 a year of repentance for racism, recognizing that black Methodism formed because of exclusion from white churches, and giving $2.3 million to "strengthen black congregations," which have 382,200 members.

• Giving $2 million for theological education in formerly communist countries of Europe.

• Updating pre-1988 social justice resolutions, which otherwise will be dropped from the 763-page Book of Resolutions under a new 12-year rule.

• Clarifying the membership difference between infant baptism and adult confirmation.

• Measures to bolster Korean-American and Asian-language ministries. The 56,000 Asian-Americans in the church outnumber Hispanics.

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