A recent ruling by a United Methodist court, which affected Oral Roberts' status in the denomination, simply affirmed church law in place since 1968, according to church officials.
Hoover Rupert, secretary of the United Methodist Judicial Council, which ruled Oct. 23 that "local elder" is not a clergy category, denied that the ruling was directed at Oral Roberts or that it took anything away from the evangelist.
Confirming this intepretation was the Rev. Donald Treese, chief executive of the denomination's Division of Ordained Ministry, who explained, "Local elders were always lay persons."
But Oral Roberts had a different impression when he was taken on as a local elder in 1968 by then-Oklahoma Bishop Angie Smith. The evangelist thought that the category would make him a full-fledged professional in the denomination while, at the same time, excusing him from the requirement that he be available for regular pastoral assignment in a United Methodist church.
Roberts' illusions were quickly shattered, according to Wayne Robinson, who at the time was vice president for communications at Oral Roberts University. In 1969, a year after affiliating with the Oklahoma Annual Conference, Roberts' name did not appear on the list of clergy appointments.
Roberts was "crushed," according to Robinson. But the new leader of the area, Bishop Paul Milhouse, said he had checked with local board of ministry officials, who confirmed his impression that local elder did not carry full clergy status.
Church officials agree that the Roberts case was an unusual one that came at a time of some confusion and transition in the denomination. When the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches united in 1968, there were several categories of ministers. Key factors in the new standards for ministry were professional membership in the annual conference (regional body) and appointment by the bishop. Roberts' category fell outside the new guidelines.
Another awkward element was Roberts' educational level. At the time, he was not a college or seminary graduate. So he was required to take the denomination's Course of Study by correspondence. Members of Roberts' staff actually did the work, according to Robinson, though he insists that Roberts reviewed all the work submitted in his name.
Robinson said he didn't feel it was dishonest because the Course of Study was designed for younger men just entering the ministry. By then Roberts had been preaching for 30 years and had founded a university and a seminary, he observed.
Roberts went on to earn degrees from his own college and seminary and in the mid-'70s applied for full clergy status in the Oklahoma Conference. He was turned down, again on the technicality that he wasn't really available to serve in a United Methodist church.
Local officials chafed under Roberts' persistent public identification as a United Methodist clergyman. A number of persons who did not wish to be identified acknowledged that the issue finally came to a head when Roberts said last winter that if he didn't raise $8 million, "God will call me home." However, documents from the Oklahoma Conference requesting the ruling on "local elder" did not mention Roberts by name.
In a statement issued Monday, Roberts expressed his love and appreciation for the United Methodist Church and said he was glad to have played a part in the charismatic renewal of the church.