Anti-Nuclear Stand Creates Heat for Cleric : Methodist Bishop Sees Opposition From Pews

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Times Religion Writer

Lanky former lawyer Jack M. Tuell welcomed political activism in the United Methodist Church long before he was appointed bishop of its California-Pacific Conference almost six years ago.

But now, he may have more on his hands than he bargained for: explaining to 140,000 Los Angeles-area Methodists why he and 57 fellow bishops unanimously approved the most sweeping condemnation of nuclear arms yet issued by a national religious group. The April 30 church letter denounces U.S. nuclear deterrence policy as “idolatrous” and calls for a ban on “Star Wars” weaponry and the dismantling of all atomic weapons.

Although United Methodists--the nation’s second-largest Protestant body--are predominantly moderate to liberal, Tuell expects opposition from the pews when the 1,500-word statement is studied by local congregations and read at the church’s regional conference in Redlands next month.


‘Going to Be Disturbed’

“I think they are going to be disturbed about it,” said retired Marine Brig. Gen. Duane Faw of Malibu, a United Methodist who taught law at Pepperdine University for 15 years. Tuell “is in a terrible position because so many ministers in his area are so highly politically active. . . . But the laity are fairly conservative,” Faw said.

A conservative national organization, United Methodists for Religious Liberty and Human Rights, has already attacked the nuclear letter. The Washington-based group said the pastoral did “a serious disservice to the church” by failing “to deal with the threat of Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism . . . (and) fanning the flames of nuclear hysteria.”

Tuell insists that the Methodist bishops’ statement is not a “consensus document” for the church.

“It is intended to provoke discussion and a critical view,” he said during a wide-ranging interview in his Pasadena office. “I feel it’s important for Methodists to . . . respect differences of opinion--both lay and clergy.”

Tuell, 62, is known for his administrative skills and deftness in handling conflict and this is not the first time he has found himself amid controversy.

He has emphasized personal evangelism and spiritual growth in the 400 congregations under his supervision in Southern California, Hawaii and Guam. He successfully led the conference out of a financial and legal morass caused by the bankruptcy of the Methodist-related Pacific Homes retirement complex. A church court decided in his favor after he argued that a homosexual minister should not receive an appointment. And he has vigorously protested legalized gambling, particularly the California Lottery.


But the 6-foot, 2-inch bishop, who practiced law for two years in the small town of Edmonds in his native Washington before entering a seminary at age 29, has a reputation for listening to those who disagree with him.

For example, after the first draft of the bishops’ letter, “In Defense of Creation: the Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace,” was released last November, Faw wrote Tuell a long letter taking issue with the document’s credibility and offering suggestions for revision. Tuell invited Faw to discuss the matter over lunch.

Ban on Testing

In its final form, adopted in Morristown, N.J., the pastoral calls for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing and a mutual, verifiable freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.

Tuell said he successfully spoke against a motion that would “in effect have changed the draft to call for unilateral disarmament”--a change feared by Faw. Tuell also made a Faw-suggested amendment that the bishops accepted, slightly altering the wording.

“So the general got a couple of points in the document,” the bishop said with a smile.

“Tuell kept his word to me,” Faw agreed.

The letter and a 30,000-word background statement--two years in the making--went beyond the tough criticisms of U.S. nuclear policy made by the Episcopal Church in 1982 and the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops in 1983. Both accept maintenance of an arms stockpile to deter potential enemies as long as serious negotiations are being made to eliminate nuclear weapons.

But the statement to be disseminated to the United Methodist Church’s 9.4 million members in 40,000 local congregations says nuclear deterrence “cannot receive the church’s blessing,” even on a temporary basis.


While acknowledging that statements by national church leaders are often at odds with the views of the average churchgoer, Tuell expressed confidence that a majority of Southern California Methodists will agree with the nuclear letter.

“Frankly,” he said wryly, “I don’t think there’s as much gap on this one as on some other issues.”

For instance, Methodists are revising their hymnal. Certain hymns and substitute “non-sexist” wording will be voted “in or out” in 1988, Tuell said, noting that his wife, Marjorie, is a member of the denominational hymnal revision committee.

“That’s a hot issue,” the bespectacled bishop said with a chuckle. “That’s something everyone has an opinion and feelings about.”

Sanctuary Movement Backed

Tuell backs Southern California Methodist involvement in the sanctuary movement--although only two local congregations have declared themselves sanctuaries for Central American refugees. He also has publicly supported Methodist lay workers Peggy Hutchison and Philip Willis-Conger, two of the eight sanctuary trial defendants convicted in Tucson for defying U.S. immigration policy by smuggling illegal aliens into the United States.

And Tuell supports Methodist ministries to homosexuals and persons with AIDS; he speaks of the need for compassion for people afflicted with acquired immune deficiency syndrome “as toward any deadly disease.”


But he also upholds the denomination’s social principles statement that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In 1983, the church’s highest court ruled in Tuell’s favor in the case of Morris L. Floyd, an acknowledged gay Methodist minister who was denied permission to work for a Minneapolis nonprofit agency that deals with the mental health needs of homosexuals.

“I didn’t feel the appointment was appropriate,” Tuell explained, “because the organization didn’t subscribe to the tenets of the United Methodist Church.” Floyd, who now works for another Minneapolis agency serving homosexuals, is still a minister in good standing with the California-Pacific Conference, which Tuell administers.

In September, 1980, after heading the Oregon-Idaho Conference based in Portland for eight years, Tuell was appointed bishop of the then-Pacific and Southwest Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

He inherited a nightmare. Lawsuits asking for $366 million in damages, arising from the 1977 bankruptcy of seven Pacific Homes retirement facilities in three states, hung over the conference and several national church agencies.

Residents had brought a class-action suit in San Diego Superior Court after the Methodist-related homes had people sign lifetime care contracts for lump sums, then required them to pay more when rising costs and the increasing longevity of the retirees forced the operation into the red.


Litigation Dismissed

Tuell was instrumental in arranging a settlement: The residents or their heirs are gradually being paid back under the supervision of court-appointed directors. The litigation has been dismissed.

Tuell said the homes “are actually ahead” of pay-back projections. As the facilities operate at a profit, he added, about $21 million will be repaid to the conference, perhaps by as early as 1990. Eventually, Pacific Homes will be returned to church direction.

“I came at a very critical time, and I think I was able to bring a settlement to a head and resolve it,” Tuell said, crediting his law background as an important aid.

In addition to holding a law degree from the University of Washington, Tuell graduated magna cum laude from Boston University School of Theology, where he earned a master of divinity degree. He served pastorates in Massachusetts and Washington before being elected a bishop and assigned to the Portland area in 1972.

Tuell has written a book, “The Organization of the United Methodist Church” (Abingdon Press), now in its fourth printing. And he helped wield the knife that delicately carved the Pacific and Southwest Conference into two jurisdictions in 1984.

The new Desert Southwest Conference, with about 50,000 Methodists, includes territory in Nevada and Arizona. Tuell now oversees 662 clergy and about 140,000 church members in the California-Pacific Conference.


The conference has suffered net membership losses for 21 straight years, as has the denomination as a whole.

Tuell is soft-spoken, usually non-controversial in style and a good social mixer, according to those who know him. But he is also unafraid to speak out strongly.

Robertson Candidacy Opposed

He says it would “be a disaster” to have Pat Robertson, the television evangelist, elected President. Robertson, who heads CBN television in Virginia Beach, Va., has indicated serious interest in the Republican nomination in 1988.

The so-called Christian Right “has every right to hold the views they do,” Tuell said, “though I don’t agree on many stands they take.”

One issue on which Tuell and most conservative churchmen do see eye-to-eye is gambling.

Tuell wrote an angry letter in 1981 protesting the decision of the California Horse Racing Board to establish an “independent” foundation to administer charitable funds.

“The gambling industry always tries to sweeten the idea of legalized gambling by promising that the proceeds will go for charitable purposes, and then at the earliest opportunity their greed impels them to redirect those proceeds to their own selfish interest,” Tuell wrote.


As chairman of the Coalition Against Legalizing Lotteries, Tuell spearheaded unsuccessful efforts to defeat the California Lottery initiative in 1984. He has not changed his mind about his perceived evils of the lottery. He recently wrote the president of a major Southern California grocery chain suggesting that the outlet stop selling lottery tickets, both on moral and economic grounds.

Tuell follows a busy schedule; his only hobby is daily swimming in his backyard pool in Glendale. He is vigorous and does not plan to retire until 1992, when he will be 68. His superiors could reassign him from Los Angeles to another conference in 1988, but he said he hopes they won’t.

His priorities for the next several years will be reaching out to ethnic minorities and helping Methodists “recover our spiritual rootage,” Tuell said, noting that Sunday services in Los Angeles-area Methodist churches are already conducted in 12 languages.

He is optimistic that the slow-but-steady decline in church membership in the conference--now about 1% annually--can be reversed. One sanguine sign, he observed, is the projected 1987 conference budget--up about $400,000 from this year’s $7 million.

‘I feel it’s important for Methodists to . . .respect differences of opinion--both lay and clergy.’--Bishop Jack M. Tuell