Sunday, May 13, 2007

CARY MCMULLEN: Methodist draws ire for liberal speak

May 12, 2007

CARY MCMULLEN: Methodist draws ire for liberal speakYou might say Jim Winkler is a professional flak-catcher.

Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, regularly speaks out on controversial issues, trying to explain the church’s positions. The death penalty? Against it. Abortion? Upholds a woman’s choice. The war in Iraq?

Winkler has denounced it from the beginning, traveled extensively to try to head it off and is actively trying to bring it to an end.

All this makes some people mad, and Winkler hears his fair share of heated complaints. But he also hears comments that let him know he’s taking the heat on behalf of more timid Methodists.

“I have clergy and lay people come up to me and say, 'You say things I can’t.’ I tell them, by golly, I wish you would say them," he said with a laugh.

Winkler, 48, was recently in Central Florida doing what he frequently does, speaking to churches. On the Sunday evening I heard him, at College Heights United Methodist Church in Lakeland, he had a sympathetic audience.

However, Winkler and his agency, headquartered in Washington right across from the U.S. Supreme Court, are targets of the conservative wing of the denomination.

Perhaps the fiercest critic of Winkler and his board has been the United Methodist Action Committee, an arm of the conservative watchdog group Institute for Religion and Democracy, and its executive director, Mark Tooley, who told me the board functions “as a liberal caucus group" and is out of step with rank-and-file United Meth-odists.

Winkler’s response is that he is only advocating the Social Principles of the church, which are set by the General Conference, the denomination’s policy making body that meets every four years, although Tooley complained that Winkler and the board are selective in which Social Principles they advocate, ignoring, for example, statements favoring traditional marriage.

“I had a guy come up to me in Texas and say, 'I’m part of a group that’s trying to get rid of you,’" Winkler told me in an interview after his talk. “I told him, if people learn about the board and decide they don’t want it, I can accept that.

"Now that it is politically fashionable for liberals to show that they, too, can talk about God, Democrats have come calling, trying to establish a political alliance with Winkler.

Most of Winkler’s talk at College Heights was devoted to Iraq. He described the meetings he and his agency participated in during the months preceding the war, with the pope and heads of government in Britain, France, Russia and Germany. Those efforts were indeed out of step with his fellow Methodists, if my experience is any gauge.

Just prior to the start of the war, a Methodist men’s group to which I was speaking told me the United States would have to remove Saddam sooner or later. Now, Winkler said, “It’s long past time folks will support the war. The tide has turned."Winkler makes the point that social reform was one of the aims of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism: “It’s part of our Methodist DNA."

“Our task is to be the prophetic arm of the church," he said.

Cary McMullen is religion editor for The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla.

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