By Dr. Riley Case

I remember, years ago, teaching a class at church camp on Methodist beliefs. Before the first session, I asked the teen-agers to write down what they had learned as the beliefs of Methodists. One girl, a conference youth officer no less, thought for a long time and then wrote down two words. When I shared some of the responses, there was only one paper with two words. The words? Total abstinence.

That was not an unusual answer for those days. As a church, we were not always clear on our doctrine, but we communicated one moral message quite well: total abstinence.

How things have changed. According to the United Methodist Reporter (Oct. 10 issue), six presidents of United Methodist-related schools have now signed the Amethyst Initiative, an effort on the part of many leaders of U.S. colleges and universities to raise debate about lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. Behind that simple news report lies a reality: the church that once spearheaded moral reform in the nation in matters of temperance is now really no different from the secular society that surrounds us. Our church-related colleges are now known as “party schools” where binge drinking, date rape related to alcohol, and general out-of-control behavior has become a distinguishing mark of some of these schools. Meanwhile, the church has no meaningful prophetic word against the evils of alcohol; nor witness to the importance of high moral personal behavior.

It was not always so. For the first 200 years of its existence in America, the word Methodist was linked with Temperance and moral reform. Francis Willard founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and fought for rights for women.

At the merger forming the Methodist Church in 1940 the church’s new Discipline called for a return to Prohibition and stated that unless Christian and moral forces rally in united warfare against the evils attendant upon the legalized liquor traffic, there would be an unprecedented era of debauchery and degradation.

The Social Principles of 1964 stated: “We believe that the Christian principle of love for God and neighbor calls us to abstain from the use of alcoholic beverages…” Ministers agreed to abstain from alcoholic beverages. Persons serving on church committees were urged to be total abstainers.

But there were detractors. The students in the seminary I attended who frequented the bars indicated they had no intention of following the church’s standards. The 1960s brought rebellion against standards of any kind. In 1968, when the church removed references to ministers and total abstinence, it included an incredible footnote in the Discipline explaining that in removing the prohibitions the General Conference was really seeking to “elevate the standards by calling for a more thorough going moral commitment by the candidate…” This was double-talk, for “standards” from that point on simply disintegrated. It might also be noted that it was at the same time when the church gave up on standards of personal morality that church membership began its dramatic decline.

Alcohol started showing up at receptions connected with the seminaries. The bars no longer lost business at places where United Methodist general agencies met. Bar tabs appeared on so many church expense vouchers that in 2000 the General Conference added a provision that the General Council on Finance and Administration was to see that no church apportionment money would be used to pay alcohol bills.

The index of the 2004 Discipline has 30 listings for “Native American,” 12 for “Peace,” 15 for “Justice,” 12 for “Health,” 9 for “Environment,” and 3 for “Alcohol.” The Board of Church and Society, housed in a building erected by temperance money, is but lackluster in its support of anything that resembles the church’s historic stand. It has been decades since anyone used the word “sin” in regard to alcohol use.

The same Methodist Reporter article that spoke of college presidents wanting to lower the drinking age also quoted a 2000 study by the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, CA. In that study, 40% of United Methodists say they drink no alcohol, only one percent more than the national average.

Our church has spoken of emphasizing “holy living” for United Methodists. But the holy living being discussed has a hollow sound if, as our bishops says, there are no standards for church membership, and people are left to decide right and wrong in their own minds.

This is exemplified by a blog written last summer after an ordination service in one of our annual conferences:

After the ordination service, we went out to the bar and got fabulously drunk. Although I think it’s the three hours of sleep that are kicking my butt just now.

So much for holy living. So much also for United Methodism and the moral high ground.

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