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Doctrine of the United Methodist Church on Faith and Science

Doctrine of the United Methodist Church on Faith and Science

A Resource Provided to the Alabama-West Florida Conference by the AWF Board of Church and Society

in Response to a Request from the AWF Annual Conference 2013

by Harry Hodges

Background

 

In June of 2013 at the Annual Conference of the Alabama-West Florida (AWF) United Methodist Conference, several petitions were submitted regarding the theory of evolution.  The petitions would have the AWF Annual Conference ask the next General Conference (worldwide) to change the current United Methodist positions on science and evolution.   These petitions supported the teaching of the Biblical account of creation as science in public schools, and they asked  that the Church rescind its endorsement of the Clergy Letter Project which holds that evolution is consistent with faith.  The petitions were discussed extensively and voted upon, but they failed to pass.   The next day at the conference the following motion was placed before delegates: 

 

"I move that the annual conference request that the Conference Board of Church and Society consider holding conversations with the Religion Faculty and the Science Faculty of Huntingdon College for the purpose offering to the 2014 annual conference a list of resources that would be helpful in exploring the relationship between faith and science."

 

During the discussion, the President of the Conference Board of Church and Society was consulted, and he agreed that the request was consistent with the duties of the Board.  The motion was voted upon and passed. 

 

Response to the Request

 

Members of the Board of Church and Society met with faculty representatives from science and religion departments at Huntingdon College, the only Methodist-affiliated college in the Alabama-West Florida Conference.  The consensus was to offer three products: a document addressing current Methodist official positions on faith and science, a list of resources churches may use as a basis for further study, and an extensive online bibliography accessible to all through the library at Huntingdon College.  This document is the first product: a report on current Methodist positions on faith and science.

 

Methodists and Society

 

United Methodists, from the beginning with John Wesley, have been involved in society and its issues (as was Jesus, when He walked this earth as a model for us all).  Early Methodists took stands on slavery, humane treatment of prisoners, smuggling, and other issues that had political and economic ramifications.  Every Methodist can be considered a minister, called to be engaged and to seek justice; this engagement occurs in society.  Our church is called to be in connection with other churches and even with other denominations so that the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ may be realized.

 

Though John Wesley may not have formulated the exact succinct statement now referred to as The Methodist Quadrilateral, it is widely viewed as a core declaration for Methodists.  The Quadrilateral illuminates four pillars that support the development of faith in each individual: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  The importance given to reason and experience demonstrates the willingness of Methodists to use the tools that the Creator gave us; multiple references in our doctrines testify to the power and potential of science.  From the beginning United Methodists have been unwilling to impose their beliefs on others. Wesley famously admonished us “to do no harm,” and he stated in one of his sermons to:  “Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion.”

 

Rules, Principles, and Resolutions

 

Anyone curious to know the official position of United Methodists on a prominent social issue can consult readily available sources to inform himself.  Primary among these is the Book of Discipline, which sets forth the rules, organization, and theology of Methodists.   The Social Principles (contained in the Book of Discipline) are statements by Methodists that speak to contemporary issues.  Their biblical foundation encourages members to extend God’s grace to all.  The Book of Resolutions is a compilation of statements passed by General Conferences that address specific concerns; anyone may profess ideas or beliefs, but only the Book of Resolutions expresses current official statements by the United Methodist Church.  The Social Principles are of great import to Methodists, and they are frequently the subject of petitions as occurred at the AWF Annual Conference in June 2013.

 

The Methodist Structure and Societal Issues

 

All local churches are members of the Annual Conference, which is both a yearly meeting and a regional governing  organization.  Our conference covers the southern half of Alabama and the Florida panhandle.  The Annual Conference is composed in equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates.  Even though the assigned Bishop is the elected leader of the conference, only the Annual Conference can speak for all AWF Methodists.  Each annual conference elects delegates to the General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s top legislative body which meets every four years. The next meeting is scheduled for 2016 when approximately 1000 delegates from around the world will conduct the business of the church and set policy.  The General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the United Methodist Church and its 12 million members – it is important to note that Methodism has no supreme leader and no one central office. 

 

Delegates to the General Conference have the authority to revise The Book of Discipline.  This collection of documents regulates the organization of local churches, annual conferences, and general agencies; it also sets policy regarding membership, ordination, administration, property, and judicial procedures.   The Book of Resolutions can also be revised.   This is a volume declaring the church’s stance on a variety of social justice issues. Currently there are more than 300 statements in the book. 

 

Any Methodist can petition to make changes in the Book of Discipline, The Social Principles, and the Book of Resolutions – including changes in resolutions that have already passed.  Many petitions come to the General Conference from the annual conferences, stronger because they have previously received an affirmative vote.  In the AWF Annual Conference, petitions are studied by the Conference Committee on Resolutions and Petitions, and then positive or negative recommendations are made to the Annual Conference.   The delegates vote and if the petitions pass, they are forwarded to the General Conference.   

 

Methodist Doctrine on Science and Faith

 

Does science challenge scripture?  Should believers reject science – weighing, for example, evolution versus the creation story in the Bible?  Must the faithful choose between faith and science.  The petitions to the AWF Annual Conference of 2013 concerned these and similar questions.  Methodist doctrine has answered these questions unequivocally.  (To find the answer on evolution, for example, consult the official United Methodist web site at  "umc.org" and search for “What is The United Methodist Church's position on evolution?”).

 

The first petition to the 2013 AWF Annual Conference was to change paragraph 160 in the Book of Discipline, in the Social Principles.  This first paragraph is The Natural World.  It contains a subcategory, Science and Technology, from which the following text is taken.   (The petition sought unsuccessfully to delete the words in bold type.)

 

¶ 160 F) Science and Technology — We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology. We recognize medical, technical, and scientific technologies as legitimate uses of God’s natural world when such use enhances human life and enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world. We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.

 

In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.

 

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2012. Copyright 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

 

A second petition from June 2013 AWF Annual Conference sought to reverse the United Methodist official statement on creationism and intelligent design (sometimes referred to as the “young earth” belief that the world was created by God in a short time between five and ten thousand years ago.)  The petition asked for the endorsement of teaching creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution in the science classrooms of public schools.  The text from the Book of Resolutions follows, again taken from umc.org. 

 

Evolution and Intelligent Design

WHEREAS, The United Methodist Church has for many years supported the separation of church and State (¶ 164C, Book of Discipline, 2004, p. 119);

 

Therefore, be it resolved, that the General Conference of The United Methodist Church go on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools.

 

ADOPTED 2008

Resolution # 5052, 2008 Book of Resolutions

See Social Principles, ¶ 164E.

 

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church — 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.  

 

A third petition asked the 2013 AWF Annual Conference to recommend rescinding the United Methodist official statement in the Book of Resolutions endorsing the Clergy Letter Project.  Begun in 2004, the Clergy Letter posits that the science of evolution is “fully harmonious with religious faith.”  Here is the entire resolution, which has much to say about science and faith, from umc.org; reference to the Clergy Letter Project is in bold type.

 

God’s Creation and the Church

As disciples of Christ, we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation. Accordingly, we call upon The United Methodist Church to adopt fresh ways to respond to the perils that now threaten the integrity of God’s creation and the future of God’s children.

 

Specifically, The United Methodist Church:

 

·         designates one Sunday each year, preferably the Sunday closest to Earth Day, as a Festival of God’s Creation, celebrating God’s gracious work in creating the earth and all living things, incorporating it into the church’s liturgical calendar, and developing appropriate ways for congregations to celebrate it;

·         endorses The Clergy Letter Project and its reconciliatory programs between religion and science, and urges United Methodist clergy participation;

·         endorses the work of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and the World Council of Churches Climate Change Program and urges conferences and congregations to support their activities and programs;

·         supports the annual observance of the United Nations’ World Environment Day and encourages conferences and churches to participate in programs such as Environmental Sabbath;

·         recommends that annual conferences establish annual awards to honor prophetic defenders of God’s creation from within their own constituencies;

·         affirms the importance of nurturing, community-building approaches such as the Global Action Plan’s Household Eco-Team Program designed to foster resource efficient lifestyle practices;

·         encourages a simplified and environmentally sound lifestyle throughout the church and requests that Church agencies, conferences, and congregations be stewards of God’s creation by reducing levels of consumption and participating in programs that reuse and recycle goods; and

·         encourages United Methodist institutions to perform energy audits, improve energy efficiency, and pursue use of alternative clean energy sources such as wind and solar power where available.

ADOPTED 1996

AMENDED AND READOPTED 2004

AMENDED AND READOPTED 2008

Resolution #1027, 2008 Book of Resolutions

Resolution #11, 2004 Book of Resolutions

Resolution #11, 2000 Book of Resolutions

See Social Principles, ¶ 160B, E.

 

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church — 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

 

Summary

 

Our Methodist faith informs us that the Creation is the Lord’s.  Our faith informs us that human beings are part of that Creation and that Jesus taught us how to relate to one another in love and peace.  We are commanded by our faith to be stewards of God’s Creation.  Methodist doctrine, derived from open and gracious debate, recognizes that science is a tool God has given us to help us understand the Creation and how we can perform our stewardship.  There is no need to choose between science and faith.  Science can assist us to accomplish what our faith, our God, has commanded us to do. 

 

Note: Methodists not only take stands on key issues in our society, but they also vote on those stands and come to a resolution.  We are open about this process.  The petitions discussed above are available in the 2013 Brochure of Reports for the AWF Annual Conference which can be found online at

http://www.awfumc.org/console/files/oFiles_Library_XZXLCZ/BOR2013_final__VCIZWCFR.pdf

The petitions begin on page 27. 

 

The complete record of the Annual Conference, the AWFUMC Journal, can be found online at

http://www.awfumc.org/console/files/oForms_YJ7JB6/journal_website_MHRNQWIC.pdf

Reference to the petitions begins on page 274.  The motion to create this study is on page 281.

Subject Guide

Eric A. Kidwell
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Houghton Memorial Library
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