Special Report

United Methodists Transition from Liberal to Global

The ongoing empowerment of millions of African United Methodists.

By 5.14.12

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The global 12 million member United Methodist Church, now likely the world's 9th largest communion, is no longer a predominantly liberal U.S. denomination. Its quadrennial governing General Conference, which met for 10 days in Tampa ending May 4, refused to alter the church's official disapproval of homosexual practice. 

Some news stories huffed disapproval and surprise. After all, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and United Church of Christ have all surrendered to American culture on sexual ethics. Their membership spirals subsequently accelerated into formal schisms. But United Methodism, unlike these other historic denominations that once dominated American religion and liberalized in the early 20th century, is now a growing church and has a record number of members.

Unlike the other traditionally liberal-led Mainline denominations, United Methodism is fully global in membership. (The 2 million member Episcopal Church of the U.S. does include the small churches of Latin America, Europe and Taiwan but is still 90 percent U.S. persons.) There are 7.5 million United Methodists in the U.S. and 4.5 million overseas, almost all in Africa, mostly in the Congo. With the U.S. church losing about 100,000 members a year (down from 11 million 44 years ago) and the African church gaining over 200,000 a year, the denomination likely will become a majority non-U.S. church in about 10 years or less. 

These statistics frustrate United Methodist liberals who have dominated the domination for 50 years or more. Homosexuality has been debated at the church's General Conference every four years since 1972. And the church consistently decreed that homosexual practice was "incompatible with Christian teaching." Over the years, the denomination formally prohibited clergy who were actively homosexual (as well as any clergy sexually active outside traditional marriage) and banned same-sex unions. For the last 12 years it has even supported "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of man and woman," though normally loquacious bishops and other church elites decline to articulate this stance even as the nation debates it.

United Methodist liberals always assumed their church would follow American culture on sexual permissiveness, just as the church had followed on so much else across the 20th century, starting with divorce and contraception. They always consoled themselves, "If not this time, then next time!" Sounding like deterministic Marxist Hegelians, they believed history sided with sexual inclusion.

But this year in Tampa, the church once again rejected any dilution of his disapproval of homosexual practice, despite a full court lobby campaign. Liberal caucus groups pitched a full size tent outside the Tampa Convention Center, served daily lunches to any delegates, mobilized hundreds of volunteers in rainbow stoles, and distributed a full-size daily newspaper, sometimes translated into other languages. As chronicled by the just released Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism's Compromise with the Sexual Revolution by the Rev. Karen Booth, pro-gay caucus groups have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from non-church philanthropies. 

It was largely wasted money. A record 30 percent of delegates came from Africa this time, up from 20 percent just 4 years ago (and 10 percent 8 years ago), and they voted uniformly against any liberalization of the church's sexual teaching. Combined with many Filipino and European delegates, plus U.S. evangelicals, who were themselves about 20 percent of the total, there was an insurmountable conservative majority on key issues. The final vote on homosexual practice's "incompatibility" with Christian teaching showed 61 percent supporting the current stance. 

Two prominent, formerly conservative evangelical clergy who now oppose the church's stance offered a seductive substitute that left the church's current disapproval in place while merely acknowledging disagreement within the church. Even this admission was rejected by 53 to 47 percent. After the defeats, pro-gay demonstrators angrily disrupted the conference, as they always do. But remarkably, there were no more votes on petitions about sex.

Summoning conservative and liberal caucus groups, United Methodist General Conference leaders, including two bishops, suggested that evening in a closed meeting that further votes regarding ordination standards and same-sex marriage issues, among other items, be effectively tabled. Realizing they only faced further defeats, even the liberal caucus groups largely agreed. It was a historic first across 40 years of debate. And the tabling of sex issues perhaps presages future United Methodist General Conferences. 

In 2016, the Africans will likely have about 40 percent of delegates, making any inroads for sexual liberalism almost impossible. Church liberals in the past have tried to manipulate or marginalize the Africans. In 2008, with support from the U.S. bishops, they even proposed creating a new U.S. only governing convention to exclude the Africans. Even the regional bodies in the U.S. church voted against it, and the African churches rejected their proposed exclusion by over 90 percent. 

With over 4 million and soon to be 5 million members, the African churches are now too large to ignore. A few liberal activists, in their blogs, complained about Africans from impoverished countries who don't contribute dollars into the denomination now having so much power. But disenfranchising the poor is not a successful battle cry for progressives. Some U.S. liberals quietly try to paint the Africans as primitives who reject enlightened Western liberalism. 

These canards will only backfire. More so than ever, the African delegates were organized as a bloc and were effective legislatively. They gained 25 percent of the legislative committee officer seats, previously typically getting none. They also filled two of four open slots on the church's top court, the Judicial Council, with a Congolese pastor and a Harvard Law trained Liberian, as well as electing a Congolese university president to the oversight body for United Methodist seminaries. 

When church liberals tried to persuade the General Conference to divest from firms doing business with Israel, Africans overwhelmingly opposed it, sending divestment to defeat by 2 to 1. One Nigerian delegate unapologetically argued that such anti-Israel measures would only encourage Israel's Arab and Muslim enemies to seek its destruction. During the General Conference, the Islamist terror group, Boko Haram, attacked several Nigerian churches, killing over two dozen Christians. Although there are over 400,000 United Methodists in Nigeria, the General Conference said not a word.

As at every General Conference for the last 50 years, dozens of far-left political resolutions were passed with nary a debate. Most United Methodists would be surprised to know their church favors socialized medicine, Global Warming regulation, unilateral disarmament, and open borders for the U.S. These utopian stances will disappear into a 1,000-page Book of Resolutions ignored by all except for the denomination's busy Capitol Hill lobby office, which even liberal legislators largely disregard. 

A traditionally liberal dominated legislative committee approved by a significant margin withdrawing United Methodism from the archaic and radical Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, founded by the church in the wake of Roe v. Wade in 1973 to rally religious support for abortion rights. With African support, including the bishop of Nigeria, withdrawal almost certainly would have passed in the plenary, except for a legislative log-jam on the final night. It will happen next time. 

Inevitably the growing African membership will alter these preoccupations with American leftist themes. They believe the church's role is primarily evangelistic, not political. But to the extent the church does speak politically, the Africans focus on economic growth, disease eradication, clean water, government corruption, promoting traditional family structures and defending religious liberty, especially against encroaching Islam in Africa.

The Africans will almost certainly influence the worship focus of future General Conferences. This year, in typical fashion, a Berkeley trained California activist led the worship services, pantheistically at times focusing on rocks and driftwood. A radical American Indian professor angrily denounced America's ostensible genocide of his people while citing his veneration for the spirits of his ancestors, the elk, and even corn. Some overseas delegates, including some East Europeans who pondered a formal protest, thought these services neo-pagan. 

Many U.S. delegates left Tampa frustrated by a bureaucratic General Conference that seemed trapped in the status quo. But beneath that veneer was the ongoing empowerment of millions of African United Methodists. They represent surging global Christianity. But they also are salvaging what otherwise would be another dying American Mainline denomination.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.