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From the January/February, 2001
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The Fear of Renewal by Mark Tooley

The Fear of Renewal

Seminary Event Blasts Mainline Reform Groups

by Mark Tooley

An October 19, 2000 conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York City spotlighted the “threat” posed to “mainline Christianity” and “fundamental democratic freedoms” by conservative renewal groups within mainline churches.

Speakers included a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a United Methodist Women’s Division executive, the head of the Interfaith Alliance, and the president of Union Seminary. A cosponsor of the event was the Institute for Democracy Studies (IDS), a fairly new leftist group that seems to specialize in investigations of vast right-wing religious conspiracies.

IDS has recently published a book, A Moment to Decide, which chronicles the allegedly ominous rise of renewal groups within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Hate Mail & Dark Nights

Perhaps the most enraged among the speakers was former Presbyterian Moderator Robert Bohl, who opened by saying, “I’m damned mad and here’s why!” Referring to leaders for renewal within his own denomination, he exclaimed, “I wish they would go away!” He claimed that renewal leaders are not, as they profess, really concerned about biblical authority but about “control and power.”

Bohl alleged that the issue of biblical authority has been employed historically to justify slavery, denial of civil rights, and opposition to the ordination of women. “Damn them! They will not go away!” he again complained about conservatives and their program for “theological cleansing.” Bohl predicted that the “extreme Right” will continue to exploit the Bible and abuse human reason in its quest for power.

“They rebuke civility as irrelevant,” Bohl said of renewal leaders. He portrayed the pro-homosexuality Covenant Network that he helped to found as an effort to create dialogue between the opposing camps within Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But he predicted that dialogue with the “Religious Right” won’t go anywhere.

Bohl claimed that he regularly receives hate mail from Presbyterian conservatives, one of whom supposedly told Bohl that he regularly prays for Bohl’s death. “I’m accused of being evil and of being an agent of Satan,” Bohl said. He now advises ministerial candidates not to use his name as a reference because conservative churches will be prone to reject them because of it.

The “extremism,” “absolutism,” and “insidious malignancy” of the extreme Right “will eat away at those of us who are its victims,” Bohl despaired. “But we can’t sit by quietly and hope it doesn’t happen to us,” he implored. “I wish to hell I weren’t here!” he added, but duty compelled him to speak out against the threats arrayed against the church he loves.

“I long for the long dark night [for our church] to be over,” he said. “But I have no intention of giving in.” Employing more temperate language, Bohl then explained that the church needs liberals to create new ways of thinking and conservatives to ask where God can be found. “We don’t all have to be the same,” he said. “God alone is the judge and Lord of the conscience.”

Then reverting to more apocalyptic language, Bohl pointed to a “chasm” within the church between the “extremists on the Right” and “the rest of us.” He predicted that the “Religious Right” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “will exhaust every ounce of energy and every dollar to take us over.” He lamented that conservatives are more determined, better organized, and “more adept at destroying the enemy.”

Bohl specifically deplored the 1997 passage of a constitutional amendment that called for fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) officials. He called it “bad theology” and emblematic of conservative inroads. He also lambasted the latest effort to prohibit same-sex unions as a further attempt to “micro-manage the church.” And he predicted that it “will destroy our participatory democracy.”

With disdain and sarcasm, Bohl recalled a meeting he had, as the denomination’s Moderator, with the board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee. It began as a “lovely evening” at a resort. But he quickly realized that Lay Committee leaders “wanted to tell me what to do.” Then they “attacked the church.”

“They offered me wine, but I wanted a martini,” Bohl remembered with a smile. “I was outnumbered.” Judging that the Lay Committee had no interest in reconciliation, he “got out on the first flight out of there.”

“They want to drive us out,” Bohl warned. But he pledged: “I won’t roll over and play dead.” Bohl told the crowd at Union Seminary that groups like theirs were needed all over the country to counteract growing conservative influences in the mainline churches.

Women Through the Gutter

A little less fiery, but no less determined, were J. Ann Craig, Executive Director for Spiritual and Theological Development for the United Methodist Women’s Division, and Anne Hale Johnson, a Presbyterian who chairs the board of directors of Union Seminary. In introducing Craig, Johnson called the Women’s Division the strongest agency within the United Methodist Church. She approvingly recalled the Women’s Division endorsement of the “magnificent” Re-Imagining Conference of 1993, which she regarded as the “greatest church council of this end of the century.” (Re-Imagining was controversial because of its worship of feminine deities and advocacy of lesbianism.) According to Johnson, the “right-wing” couldn’t stand what happened, and they “dragged Re-Imagining through the gutter.” Johnson rejoiced that numerous Re-Imagining participants were present that evening for the symposium.

In her own speech, J. Ann Craig said that the Women’s Division was “targeted by so-called renewal groups.” She complained that her organization was under “constant attack” by “monthly newsletters” that accuse them of heresy and goddess worship. “But this is not news to us,” she said reassuringly. “Women following Jesus have always faced criticism.”

“The rhetoric of the Right-wing talks of culture wars,” Craig said. “But women and children are always the losers.” She specifically cited the issues of abortion and homosexuality as flash points in the culture wars. “When is dialogue a platform for promoting dissension?” she asked. “What if your critic sits next to you in church?” she further asked rhetorically.

Craig expressed gratitude that the autonomy of the Women’s Division had been preserved within the United Methodist Church, when the women’s programs of other denominations were dismantled in the 1960s. But she warned that “external forces are undermining our social witness.”

She said this campaign began when a list of organizations funded by the United Methodist Church that were being “investigated by the FBI” surfaced publicly in the 1980s. “Who gave somebody permission to reveal this?” she asked ominously. “Were United Methodism’s stances against the Contras and Apartheid just too much for those in power to accept?”

“Red baiting has been replaced by cries of ‘heresy,’” Craig alleged. “Are you now or have you ever been a heretic?” she sarcastically asked. She further alleged that racism and “heterosexism” were alive and well among United Methodists. Although racial prejudice is “kept under wraps,” heterosexism still “makes sense” to most church members, who think homosexuality is a “personal choice” and “immoral.” This view has provided an entrée to “extremists.” She also alleged that demands for prayer in public schools and school vouchers are actually motivated by anti-Semitism.

Craig cited one Methodist group in particular that was targeting abortion rights and homosexuals: the Confessing Movement. Criticizing that group’s having named itself after anti-Nazi Christians in war-time Germany, she alleged that if you don’t agree with its doctrines, the Confessing Movement implies you are “aligned with Nazis.”

This year’s General Conference and its votes against any acceptance of homosexuality were especially discouraging to some, Craig noted. The arrests of pro-homosexuality demonstrators were a special blow, and some have given up on the church. She warned that the reapportionment of delegates in favor of the South and overseas churches, along with the election of conservatives to the Judicial Council and the University Senate, provide “chilling parallels” to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But Craig promised that the “struggle is not over.” She pledged that the Women’s Division will continue to provide church members with “reliable information” to counteract “slander and innuendo.” Craig pointed to the story from Genesis, in which Lot offered up his daughters to be raped by the angry mob in Sodom. Unlike Lot, Craig promised, “we won’t push women through the doors to protect ourselves.”

Ruthless & Well-Financed

Offering his full support to Craig and the others, Joseph Hough, president of Union Seminary, recalled his school’s longtime commitment to studying the Bible “critically.” He pledged that Union will remain a voice for “progressive Christianity.” Mainline churches, especially Presbyterians, are now facing their most “serious crisis.” Union will stand with them against “self-righteousness and injustice,” he promised.

Warning the others what could happen in their denominations, Welton Gaddy of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance recalled the details of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. He alleged that “biblical inerrancy” was never the real issue, but was merely used to “stir and manipulate emotions” by conservatives who had another agenda.

Stressing that the struggles for the churches have wide implications, Anna Hale Johnson, board chair of Union Seminary, asked the audience of several hundred to ponder the “moral position of our society” if “so-called renewal movements” continue to gain ground within the mainline churches.

Al Ross, president of the New York-based Institute for Democracy Studies, introduced himself as a former “investigator” for Planned Parenthood. He echoed Johnson in stressing that the battles within the churches are part of a much larger struggle. Ross warned of the “ruthless and well-financed” organizations within the mainline churches that are “determined to overturn hard-won gains for racial and gender equality.” The mainline churches have been a “bulwark” against the most “dangerous efforts of the Right,” he said.

The audience at Union Seminary’s James Chapel included several notables who were introduced, including William Sloane Coffin, the celebrated social activist and retired pastor of Riverside Church; Delores Williams, the radical Union “womanist” professor who opposes the “theory” of Christ’s atonement for the sins of the world; and the president of Planned Parenthood.

Much of the rhetoric that filled James Chapel would probably amuse and surprise the targeted renewal groups, most of whom are probably unaware of their vast power. But the IDS-sponsored event at Union Seminary was perhaps illustrative of the overall atmosphere within mainline church power structures, where radical theological trends are “mainstream,” where orthodox religious believers are “right-wing,” where populist efforts to inform larger numbers of church members are “anti-democratic,” and where efforts to reclaim politicized church structures for evangelism and discipleship are derided as power grabs.

The fact that such efforts will not simply “go away” now seems to be causing some degree of panic and paranoia in the circles represented at Union.


Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.

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