PITTSBURGH - A leading Methodist evangelical pastor called yesterday for a split in the denomination over the issue of homosexuality - a sign of a widening fissure in the United States' second-largest Protestant church.
"Our friends on the other side are not going to leave the church," the Rev. William H. Hinson said. "We're not going to leave the church. They will not stop their struggle. We will not stop ours. It is therefore incumbent, we believe, upon us to have a just and amiable separation."
Hinson, who formerly headed the denomination's largest congregation, First United Methodist Church in Houston, made his remarks at a breakfast involving some 400 people here for the United Methodist Church's General Conference. The conference, the church's highest rule-making body, meets every four years.
Delegates and church officials here said Hinson's remarks were believed to mark the first time that an influential churchman had publicly called for a breakup of the denomination, which claims 10.3 million members worldwide, over the issue of homosexuality.
Divisions over that issue - whether to allow gay men and lesbians as clergy, whether to bless same-sex relationships and how to interpret scriptural condemnations of sexual relations between men - have troubled many of the nation's largest church bodies in the past several years, including Lutheran, Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations.
Last summer, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of an openly gay priest, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire and gave tacit approval for bishops to allow the blessing of same-sex unions in their local dioceses. Those decisions touched off furious opposition within the 70-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, including threats of schism.
Hinson echoed statements made by conservatives in the Episcopal Church who have repeatedly said liberal American positions on sexuality have embarrassed church members in parts of Africa and Asia where Christianity has been gaining adherents.
"A part of the excitement of the separation is to stand in solidarity with the global South, where the wind of God's spirit is blowing," Hinson said. "We desperately want to be a part of the revival. We desperately want to catch that wave here in this country."
But his proposal to split the church caught most delegates, including many rank-and-file conservatives, by surprise.
One conservative, the Rev. H. Eddie Fox of Houston, said of Hinson's plan: "I am not there. I'm an eight-generation Methodist. I have not left this church, nor has this church left me."
Within hours of Hinson's remarks, key conservative delegates balked at a plan to introduce a resolution here that would authorize a church task force to plan for a separation.
But even those opposed to the idea of a split called Hinson an influential church leader who had to be taken seriously. "His voice has not been a strident voice," said the Rev. William K. Quick, associate general secretary of the World Methodist Council and a lecturer at Duke Divinity School. Quick said he did not favor a split.
"There's no question. This ruptures the body. The body's already bleeding. This further wounds the body," Quick said of Hinson's plan.
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