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Methodists: The Challenge of Fortune

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There are people in the pews, dollars in the collection plates, and 65 million Americans who claim to be Protestants. But the outwardly prosperous Christian churches are beset with inner anxiety. Ministers fear that their congregations are no more committed to the church than to the country club. Denominational leaders despair at the widespread lay unwillingness to recognize the race question as a moral issue. In the current national controversy over school prayer, and in the rising challenges to church tax exemptions, theologians detect a trend toward secularism that will soon call for a revolution in church attitudes and institutions. Changes in manners and morals summon Protestantism to find a new mode of relevance in a “post-Christian” world.

It is a crisis that faces every faith —but none more so than the Methodist Church, which last week opened its quadrennial General Conference in Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. With 10,234,986 members, Methodism is the second largest Protestant communion in the U.S.*After the Roman Catholic Church, it is also the wealthiest and the one that, because of its history and geographical distribution, has the best claim to be the only truly national Protestant denomination. This year many of the 858 Methodist delegates arrived at their conference with the deep conviction that their church had reached a turning point in history—and with a scarcely concealed fear that the vitality that once burned in Methodism was lost when fiery evangelism gave way to today’s organized, institutional church.

The Better Way. Fear there may be, but not to the exclusion of hope. Methodism would not be itself without a large measure of Christian optimism, and the conference’s sense of expectation was expressed by Bishop Gerald Kennedy of Los Angeles in the episcopal address that opened the meeting. The Christian task, he told the delegates and more than 8,000 visitors from Methodist churches around the world, is “to pursue our ancient course of attacking our own imperfections, keeping our life open to God, and perfecting our society. We are not trying to sell a system, but to demonstrate a Way which is incomparably better than all others, and shines with the promise of a more abundant life for all men.”

Kennedy’s episcopal address was a kind of spiritual state-of-the-union message, and he had been selected by his church’s 81 bishops to write and present it in their name. The right man, in this case, was in the right pulpit, for the Bishop of Los Angeles has assumed the mantle worn by the late G. Bromley Ox-nam as unofficial spokesman for Methodism to the rest of the U.S. Nobody gave Kennedy the job, and nobody could. Democratic Methodism has neither Pope nor primate; the presidency of the Council of Bishops—an office held by Kennedy in 1960 and currently by New York’s Lloyd Wicke—passes yearly from man to man, and involves only the function of chairing the semiannual meetings of the Methodist hierarchy. The church speaks with a united voice only once every four years, at the General Conference. Between times, Methodists everywhere in search of guidance listen with special care whenever Gerald Kennedy takes a stand.

Best & Worst. One reason they listen is that Kennedy is unquestionably among the four or five most dazzling preachers in the U.S. today—an oratorical genius with a commanding baritone, and the pace and timing of a Broadway pro. The bishop is also a stylish and fluent writer whose lectures and 23 books (his latest: For Preachers & Other Sinners) sometimes express complex theological issues as gracefully and clearly as did the works of Anglicanism’s late C. S. Lewis. As writer, preacher and bishop, Kennedy is the contemporary Methodist who best seems to express the peculiar quality of his church’s active, outgoing faith: pragmatic but perfection-aimed, equally concerned with personal morality and social order, loving discipline yet cherishing freedom. Kennedy calls it “sanctified common sense.”

To Bishop Kennedy, the genius of Methodism is uniquely displayed at a General Conference, which he describes as “democracy at its best and worst—the process of a large church trying to find its way.” This year’s conference, suggests Methodist Layman Charles Parlin, a Manhattan lawyer and a co-president of the World Council of Churches, “might be historic.” In twelve brisk days of debate—interspersed with sessions of prayer, preaching and hymn singing—the Methodist legislators are considering petitions and commission reports that could, if accepted, help rekindle much of the church’s old zeal. Among the principal issues:

∙WORSHIP. Almost certain to be accepted is a proposed new order of worship that will bring a welcome measure of austere dignity to Methodism’s sometimes freewheeling Sunday mornings. In language and spirit, the revised services resemble those contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which Methodism first used. The order takes account of the contemporary liturgical revival by providing a greater variety of seasonal prayers for the Christian year. Last week delegates approved the first new Methodist hymnal in 29 years. The songbook drops some familiar samples of 19th century hymnody, such as Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional, which Negro Methodists claim has an unmistakable racial slur in its reference to “lesser breeds without the law.” Added are 122 new texts, including such non-Methodist favorites as The Old Rugged Cross and How Great Thou Art. Also new are 91 all-but forgotten hymns by John and Charles Wesley, a number of Negro spirituals (cleansed of dialect wording), tunes and lyrics borrowed from Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic hymnals. But the hymnal committee, Kennedy explained, did draw certain lines: it firmly rejected I Want to Be a Jesus Cowboy in the Holy Ghost Corral.

∙ECUMENISM. Although it is traditionally wary of church-union proposals, the Methodist Church is almost ready to approve a formal merger with the 756,600-member Evangelical United Brethren, who are German in origin but close to the Methodists in doctrine and discipline. The conference will consider a proposal that the merger should be carried out in stages during the next twelve years, but it faces a sharp conference-floor fight. Some younger ministers believe that the timetable for union is too slow, while Southern Methodists are wary of the Midwest-centered Brethren’s adding numerical strength to the church’s Northern majority. Kennedy personally deplores the proposal to call the merged denominations the United Methodist Church. “We have spent more than a century getting rid of adjectives,” he says.

∙DISCIPLINE. The world will never be saved by organization, but it will never be saved without it, Methodists like to say. The church probably has more boards, committees and jurisdictions than any other U.S. denomination—and it spends endless hours tinkering with its ecclesiastical machinery. Scheduled for discussion at this year’s conference are such problems as a reorganization of the big Board of Missions, a proposal to combine the deaconate and the ministry into a single order, a recommendation that bishops be allowed to move from one jurisdiction to another.

∙MORALITY. Theoretically, Methodists are not supposed to smoke or drink, but many of them do. Says one Methodist pastor in Salt Lake City: “Try to fill posts of leadership in any church with nondrinkers and still get capable people. You just can’t do it.” This year, the Division of Temperance and General Welfare is offering a new statement on alcohol that urges Methodists to abstain not just in obedience to church law but out of their sense of Christian responsibility. For the first time, the church will probably come out and admit that “Christians may differ on the use of alcoholic beverages.” Many younger ministers believe that the proposed new position on drinking is a healthy step in the right direction. “It recognizes the fact that Methodists do drink,” says the Rev. James Bristah of Detroit, “and it challenges the people to find a new basis for abstaining.” -SEGREGATION. “The main issue before us now,” says Kennedy, “is race.” The Methodists include more Negroes (about 400,000) than any other integrated Protestant church; at the same time, almost half of the church’s white membership is in the South. The major issue facing the conference was whether to abolish the nation-spanning Central Jurisdiction that governs most of the 2,900 Negro churches; white Methodist churches, by contrast, are divided into five geographical jurisdictions. Southerners wanted to preserve this separate-but-equal institution—and so, paradoxically, did many Negroes, since the Central Jurisdiction guaranteed them a disproportionately strong representation on church boards. For example, 10% of Methodism’s active bishops are Negroes, although Negroes constitute only 4% of Methodist strength. But many young ministers and laymen from the North wanted to abolish the Central immediately, and held a prayer vigil at the conference to publicize their cause. Last week the delegates voted overwhelmingly to integrate Negro churches into white jurisdictions voluntarily over a four-year period. The compromise disappointed the civil rights advocates, but it reduced the likelihood of a walkout by Southern churches, increased the chances of a formal conference denunciation of segregation.

Beyond the Statistics. By its decisions, the General Conference will be measuring the current health or sickness of Methodism. Measured in statistics—a good Methodist way of doing it—the patient seems to be blooming. Last year parishioners put $599 million into their church collection plates-equivalent to the sales of the nation’s 80th largest industrial corporation. The capital worth of Methodist institutions, including 79 hospitals and 105 colleges and universities, is more than $4.8 billion. Nashville’s Abingdon Press is the world’s largest religious publisher, with sales of $27 million and an output that ranges from Sunday-school texts to a new, scholarly three-volume history of the church (price: $27.50). More than 1,400 Methodist missionaries from the U.S. are spreading the Gospel abroad in 44 countries.

Methodists grant that there are statistical downs to match statistical ups. The church’s growth rate is far smaller than that of the U.S. population as a whole, and Methodism is beginning to face a severe clerical shortage: there are only 900 ordained preachers graduating from seminaries each year to fill 2,697 ministerial openings. Nonetheless, the gravest issue facing the church is not a matter of numbers; it is whether Methodism has rightly adapted its structure and spirit to fit the shifting conditions of modern life.

Fellowship at the Center. In the time and place of its founding, Methodism was a great response to a great challenge. The 18th century was a time of torpor in the Church of England, which was slow to answer the antireligious skepticism of the Enlightenment and to meet the new missionary challenge of the unchurched poor in new industrial towns. John Wesley, a High Church priest turned highway preacher, found the answer. Instead of confounding the deists with reason, he responded to their arguments with religious fervor; and when the poor were reluctant to enter the church, he brought the church to them on city streets and country roads. In place of liturgy and creed, he put fellowship and the personal experience of salvation at the center of Christian life. It was an emotional faith, summoning men to work hard and live well for their Saviour’s sake.

By 1760, lay preachers had carried Wesley’s brand of religion to the New World, and 24 years later, at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Francis Asbury convened the first conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Methodism proved to be a faith ideally suited to the U.S. frontier. In a land without churches, theological argument and orderly Communion services were as out of place as a Pope. What Asbury’s tireless circuit riders provided instead, at impromptu worship hours in country kitchens and camp meetings, were florid sermons, full-throated hymns, and an upright way of life. They represented a puritanical church that separated the men from their women in prayer services.

“Methodism brought what the frontier needed,” says New York’s Bishop Lloyd Wicke, “a certain discipline and a moral sense. You didn’t gamble because that was taking unfair advantage of a man. The church also forbade drinking, dancing and card playing: it was not the deed itself that the church was worried about, but what it did to a man’s soul.”

Preceding the Flag. While many other churches waited for the railroad, Methodism trekked west with the settlers—and thereby grew faster than any other Protestant denomination during the 19th century. The far-ranging circuit rider not only followed the flag; he sometimes preceded it. In 1838, Methodist Missionary Jason Lee rode from the Pacific Northwest to warn Congress about the southward expansion of Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company, thereby spawned a westward migration that helped save Washington and Oregon for the U.S.

Around 1880, when the frontier began turning from a reality to a historical memory, Methodism began to consolidate its gains and became more of an ecclesiastical institution than a moving wind of evangelism. Born in poverty, Methodism gradually matured into a church for the nation’s growing middle class—and in so doing became so close a mirror of all that was both strong and weak in America that sometimes the nation and church seemed inseparable. There was, for example, that formidable Methodist amazon, Frances Willard, who helped create the W.C.T.U. and grandmothered the “noble experiment” of Prohibition.

Conservative in personal morals, Methodists were often liberal in social ethics; many of their ministers, such as New York’s stormy Bishop Francis J. McConnell, were leading advocates of the “social gospel”—the earnest, pre-World War I movement that attacked child labor and defended the right to unionize by directly applying Jesus’ ethics. In the rural areas where they were strongest, Methodists less happily became active in the Ku Klux Klan, and in immigrant-hating native-American movements.

Forgotten Roots? Today, a number of young Methodists detect more weakness than strength in their church, and complain that it has lost much of its spirit in the transition from frontier chapel to the Gothic “fortress church” of middle-class suburbs. “The church is so nondescript that it doesn’t carry an ax any more,” thunders the Rev. Ralph L. Roy, a leader in a reform-minded group of ministers and laymen called Methodists for Church Renewal. “It lis tens more to the voices of society than to the voice of God.” To the rebels, nothing demonstrates this more than the open avowal of segregation by Methodist churches in the South—a stand dramatically proven last Easter when Boston’s Bishop James Mathews and Negro Bishop Charles Golden were prevented from attending morning worship at a church in Jackson, Miss.

Methodism’s critics-from-within com plain that it ignores all of Wesley’s ideals except his passion for detail. “The Methodists began among the so-called ‘outs’ of England,” says the Rev. John Barclay of Boston. “But we have to a degree become fat and prosperous and forgotten the roots from which we sprang.” Ministers complain that their churches have become “cults of congeniality” instead of societies for spiritual rebels, and that the old spirit of Christian fellowship has been all but lost in a swamp of “administrivia.” Complains the Rev. John Lilly of Boston’s Old West Methodist Church: “The local church has an organization that would rival General Motors’. It’s ridiculous.”

Mediocre Pietism? The new breed of minister wants a “tough” Christianity; instead he finds in Methodism a mediocre pietism with an increasingly narrow range of appeal. Rural pastors complain that the hierarchy has forgotten the needs—and the value—of small churches. Urban preachers sadly note that newcomers to city slums turn, if at all, to Pentecostal and Holiness storefronts—and rarely to the Inner City’s empty cathedral-size Methodist churches left over from the days when the neighborhood was an enclave for the wealthy. What is left as an audience for Methodism is the suburb; in this kind of environment, charges the Rev. Thomas Oden of Enid, Okla., church thinking “is oriented around an unBiblical legalism which acts on the assumption that when we do good works for God, he accepts us because of our goodness.”

But other Methodist voices are not yet ready to see the Mene, mene on the wall. “We’ve never been stronger,” insists Lawyer Parlin. “Methodism is not a dying or decadent church,” adds Dr. Earl Brewer of the Candler School of Theology in Georgia. “It is a giant of a church—justly proud of its past, relatively satisfied with its present, but slightly timid about its future.” Still another voice that chimes in—loud and clear—to defend Methodism is that of its bishop for the Los Angeles area.

At 56, Gerald Hamilton Kennedy is still young for a bishop but old in term of service (16 years)—and he stands just about midway in the spectrum of Methodist opinion. He shares the concern for relevance that motivates the young ministers; with the older hierarchs, he speaks proudly of the church’s accomplishments. Along with Bishops Fred Corson of Philadelphia, James Mathews of Boston, Richard Raines of Indianapolis and John Wesley Lord of Washington, he ranks among the most respected and influential figures in the church. “He’s the best of the old wing,” says one radical minister. “He’s bright, creative, not stuffy at all.”

Traveling the Connection. Kennedy is certainly not, as he puts it, “a very bishopy bishop.” He is far more at home in sports clothes than in the hair shirt of clerical garb. He drives to work in a sports car—currently a white Karmann Ghia Volkswagen, which followed an MG, an Austin-Healey, and a Nash Metropolitan. In an age of episcopal administrators, Kennedy is primarily a preacher who happily forsakes paper work for the chance to deliver a ser mon. He takes seriously the injunction in the Methodist Discipline that bishops should “travel through the connection,” and averages 50,000 miles a year on inspection and lecture tours.

It is unthinkable to Kennedy—or to anyone who knows him—that he would ever have accepted anything but what he calls “the greatest calling in the world.” Born in Michigan, the son of a Methodist lay preacher, he grew up in California, and with his parents’ faith. “My whole life has been centered in the church,” he says. “I went to church in my mother’s arms and slept on the back seat while my father was finishing his Sunday evening sermons. It seemed inevitable to me that the ministry was my calling as long ago as I can remember.”

Kennedy began preaching when still in high school; at 15, he was licensed as a lay preacher, and during his college years he spent his weekends as a supply pastor. “The church can stand anything,” he wrote about his first charges. “When I think of those sophomoric ser mons, I marvel at human endurance and at Christian forbearance.” After high school, Kennedy went on to the College of the Pacific where, as a junior, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Grace Leeper. He was 20, and she 18; today, Mrs. Kennedy notes, “we have a hard time advising young people against early marriage.” Eventually, Kennedy’s round-the-clock schedule caught up with him, and he got a resounding F in an Old Testament class —”which makes me the only bishop in the Methodist Church to have failed a Bible course in college,” he says.

Kennedy made up for lost grades, and in 1932 started work on his Ph.D. at the Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut. Methodist churches in that part of the country were in short supply, so Kennedy accepted the pastorate of a nearby Congregational church. “But Methodism was in my blood,” he recalls, “and I began to miss the organization, the quotas, the pressures, the programs.” Returning to California in 1936, Kennedy was assigned to pastorates in San Jose and Palo Alto be fore moving outside the Western Jurisdiction to the St. Paul Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb.

No Trade. During his years in the parish ministry, Kennedy earned church-wide fame as one of Methodism’s finest young preachers. “If you keep on talking like that, young man,” said Bromley Oxnam after hearing a Kennedy sermon, “you’ll end up as a bishop.” The prophecy was fulfilled one day in July 1948, when Kennedy was elected one of the four bishops in the Western Jurisdiction. At 40, he was the youngest member of the hierarchy and the first white Methodist bishop ever picked by one jurisdiction from another.

Kennedy spent four years as Bishop of Portland before moving to Los Angeles. He enjoys preaching so much that twice after his election he briefly contemplated resigning his office to accept pastorates; eventually he decided that being a bishop was not so bad after all. “I find it difficult to feel sorry for myself,” he says. “I would trade salaries with some men I know, but I would not trade jobs with any man.”

John Wesley thought that preaching at 5 o’clock in the morning was one of the world’s best exercises. Kennedy has never tested his oratory on predawn Los Angeles, but he does rise at 5:30 for a quick breakfast, then scoots off to his office for an hour or two of serious theo logical reading (he still likes Reinhold Niebuhr best) before office work begins. Kennedy heads the fastest-growing area in his church; with his “bishop’s cabinet” of nine superintendents, he heads 700 ministers and 460 churches, and his lay membership has grown from 143,000 to 270,000 in twelve years. In church circles, he is admired as a first-rate fund raiser who has built 24 new churches in the past three years. He is also considered a shrewd judge of personnel, with a knack for appointing the right man to the right pulpit—and for trading off weaklings to unsuspecting brother bishops. Kennedy seldom takes work home from the office, spends much of his evenings reading contemporary novels, which he reviews for the Methodist monthly Together.

Spare & Witty. Kennedy believes that a bishop should be a teacher as well as an administrator, and just about every Sunday of the year he finds a vacant pulpit to preach from. His sermons are a far cry from the stem-winding exercises in dour purple prose that 19th century congregations loved. His language is spare and unchurchy, larded with wit and timely references to the secular world around him. Yet his message is always related more to eternal truths than to the morning’s headlines.

Like Oxnam or McConnell, Kennedy has never been afraid to discuss political and social issues from the pulpit, but he picks his controversies with care. “A fellow that’s shooting off his mouth all the time—nobody listens to him after a while,” he says. In 1957 Kennedy led a fight to elect some moderates to Los Angeles’ conservative-dominated school board—and as a reward found himself named to the State Board of Education.

Kennedy has been one of the church leaders most active in battling the campaign to repeal a state fair-housing law.

Is Separation Sinful? The bishop is willing to risk unpopular stands on ecclesiastical issues as well. Kennedy approaches the topic of church union as a

Methodist first and an ecumenist second, has long had grave doubts about Dr. Eugene Carson Blake’s proposal that the Methodists should join with five other faiths to form a great new denomination, both catholic and reformed. “I don’t use the term ‘sinful’ about our separation,” he explains. “Our unity must be of the spirit. I don’t think it demands one organization.” Kennedy firmly believes that the sermon should remain at the center of Methodist worship. He has no patience with what he calls a “sloppy, unbuttoned service,” but he is skeptical about claims that more and better liturgy is the solution to the church’s problems. Says he: “The church with the most beautful liturgy is probably the Russian Orthodox, and they sat by while Communism took over their country.”

Integration-now Methodists regard Kennedy as a reactionary on the racial issue because he shudders at the thought of Northern Methodists picketing churches in Jackson. Kennedy believes that men’s hearts as well as church law must be changed if integration is to work—and he has quietly managed to do some of both in his own area.

Last year he appointed a Negro pastor to a white congregation in Tucson, and he has pledges from more than 50 churches that they will accept any minister he assigns, regardless of color.

The Reluctant Caboose. Kennedy agrees that “the church has many weaknesses,” but he also believes that the church has many strengths, and among them is the rules-laden organization that so many younger ministers complain about. To Kennedy, the right use of organization can foster successful evolution instead of schism-creating revolution. Methodism, he says, is a “strange combination of discipline and freedom—and it is the discipline that makes the freedom possible.” Wesley’s instinct for order was wise, he argues, “because nobody stands alone. We’re a connectional church—and you just can’t be a Christian standing alone.”

In their actions, if not in their words, many of Methodism’s modern rebels are halfway willing to concede Kennedy’s point. “We look to the church to lead and often find it a reluctant caboose to the train of history,” says the Rev. John Russell Jr., a chaplain at M.I.T. “The amazing thing, in the face of all that we have seen to be wrong, is the stark fact that we have not quit.” And instead of abandoning the church, they have stayed to set it on a rightful course.

Serious Theology. It was Asbury’s stern belief that “the saddlebags are the best schooling for traveling preachers.” Today, says the Rev. Walter Vernon of the church’s Board of Education, Methodism is “taking theology more seriously.” The Methodists have no Tillich or Barth, but they have seldom before had so many competent and respected thinkers to boast about. Among them: Ecumenist Albert Outler, a Methodist observer at the Vatican Council last year, and radical young (37) Systematic Theologian Schubert Ogden.

Methodist seminaries—notably Drew in New Jersey, Southern Methodist’s Perkins, and Claremont in California —are almost interdenominational in faculty and student membership, and are wide open to the study of fresh currents in modern theology. Last month, for example, Drew imported a number of ranking European thinkers for a seminar on hermeneutics—the science of reinterpreting the Bible’s message for contemporary man. Out of this environment is emerging a new generation of preachers who sometimes annoy their elders by their contempt for church routine, but please them by their sense of commitment. “If they stay in the church,” says one seminary professor, “at least they know why they are there.”

Such signs of life impress critical observers outside the church. “Methodism was the hottest lava in the 19th century,” says Lutheran Theologian Martin Marty of Chicago. “If it is true to its own genius, it should be a religion that ‘heats up’ again easier than some others.” Some of the heat can be felt now in the Inner City slums, where young Methodist ministers are beginning to rehabilitate all-but-abandoned churches. It can even be felt in the suburbs, where thousands of Methodist laymen have formed Christian “cells” for Biblical and theological study.

And there is plenty of vitality in the Methodist debates on the moral issue of race and the relevance of the church. Obviously, it is relevant, and fully entitled to the optimism summed up by Gerald Kennedy in the episcopal address to the conference: “We do not share the current pessimism which speaks of a ‘post-Protestant era.’ We believe that the signs of the times proclaim that ours is still the relevant Word. Let the Methodist Church proclaim that so far as it is concerned, the best is yet to be.”

-Biggest: the 10,395,940-member Southern Baptist Convention.

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