United Methodsit Bishop Offers Controversial Message at Pro-life Service

on January 29, 2008

In a denomination whose official statement on abortion is ambiguous enough to be considered pro-choice, the faithful witness of United Methodist officials and pro-life groups can be very powerful. At the annual Lifewatch worship service in Washington, DC, Bishop William Willimon of the North Alabama Annual Conference recognized the influence of the organization’s commitment to truth and the sanctity of life, remarking candidly, “For twenty years Lifewatch has witnessed against the sin of abortion.”

Lifewatch, a pro-life caucus within the United Methodist Church, holds this service every year in the Simpson Chapel of the United Methodist Building, coinciding with the January 22 “March for Life.” The March, attended by hundreds of thousands of pro-life demonstrators, commemorates the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling of 1973.

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon praised pro-life activists in the church for “witnessing against the sin of abortion.”  (Photo courtesy UMNS)

Not surprisingly, the Bishop’s usage of the word “sin” to describe killing an unborn child has already provoked terse disapproval among other denominational officials. Linda Bales, one of a handful of General Board of Church and Society executives who attended the service, told the United Methodist News Service, “What the church doesn’t need are episcopal leaders who add shame and guilt to the millions of women caught in circumstances leading to abortion by categorizing abortion as ‘sin.’”

In his remarks, Bishop Willimon argued that extreme “North American pragmatism” feeds the culture of death, regarding as valueless all life that is not useful. He added that this pragmatism is also present in some popular apologetics for the Christian faith. Often, commented Willimon, “The Gospel is commended on the basis of its utility.” Explaining abortion as one manifestation of a bigger problem, the Bishop noted, “The abortion debate has a way of smoking out our theological flaws.” Offering Lifewatch what he termed “a peculiarly Christian complement,” Willimon contrasted their work with the negative utilitarianism of modern Western culture, saying, “Lifewatch, bless you for your pointless, useless…ministry.”

A similar pragmatism existed in Biblical characters, as well, contended Willimon. He cited Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz, who was threatened with invasion. Willimon pointed out that Isaiah prophesied that “A virgin will be with child,” in response to Ahaz’ request for a sign, and that even today, people “chafe against the non-utility of the peculiar truth of the name Emmanuel.”

Willimon argued that Christ’s refusal to turn bread into stones when Satan tempted him was a rejection of myopic pragmatism for Jesus’ actual messianic mission. “Built right into the heart of the Gospel is this ultimate in non-utility, this cross,” Willimon told the audience. Speaking of the Christ child, he said that “We wanted help, we prayed for security, and God gave us a Baby.” 

Ultimately, said Willimon, our search for something that is obviously useful to our situation affects other national patterns of behavior. Rather than living by the slogan on our currency, “In God We Trust,” he asserted that “when our national sovereignty was threatened we didn’t reach for God, we reached for the army.”

While the Bishop recalled that he had recently heard one study report that “eight out of ten Americans disapprove of abortion,” he objected to the equating of morality with a majority of public opinion. Willimon offered the definition that, “Christians are those who are remarkably unconcerned about what eight out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. Christians are those who [appeal to divine] revelation… a truth we did not make up.” Citing past reliance on public opinion, he questioned, “Why did we [United Methodists] remove [our stance against divorce and remarriage]? We decided to do our doctrine on what will play in Peoria.”

While advocates of unlimited abortion have self-identified as “pro-choice,” Bishop Willimon lamented the irony that women who have chosen abortion felt as if they had no other choice. He said that, at his time at Duke University, he encountered a graduate student who had researched the reasons local women had aborted their children. The student recalled, “The number one reason given for having an abortion was, ‘I had no other alternative given my situation.’”

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