As if part of its liturgical calendar, the United Methodist Church every several years convenes a high-profile church trial over homosexuality. The most recent one has just concluded, with a semi-openly professing lesbian minister getting a 20-day “suspension” for having conducted a same-sex rite, defying the church’s prohibition.
Virtually any penalty for the Rev. Amy DeLong would be symbolic, as she does not work for any church, instead running her own small liberal advocacy group in Wisconsin called “Kairos CoMotion” for “progressive theological issues.” So her 2009 announcement of intimate cohabitation with a woman, and subsequent performance of a ceremony for another female couple, did not entail any great professional risk. But DeLong and her co-belligerents almost certainly hoped that a jury of her clergy peers in relatively liberal Wisconsin would nullify church law. The jury did acquit her of violating the church’s prohibition against actively homosexual clergy because she coyly declined to testify as to whether she and her partner are sexually involved. But the jury unanimously convicted her for conducting the forbidden ceremony.
Four major Mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. have now abandoned their traditional teachings about marriage. The two million-member Presbyterian Church USA took the plunge earlier this year, having been preceded by the four and a half million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the two million-member Episcopal Church, and the one million-member United Church of Christ. Liberal activists claim momentum, without acknowledging that all these denominations have shrunk for decades, and the shrinkage accelerated after sexually liberalizing. The United Methodist Church, with 7.7 million members in the U.S., has uniquely resisted the trend among liberal-led Mainline Protestants. Liberal Methodists hope next year’s governing General Conference will finally grant the prize.
It’s not likely. United Methodism has lost over three million members in the U.S., where most of its bishops and other elites are liberal. But it now has nearly four and a half million overseas, almost all in Africa, where Christianity is conservative. About 40 percent of the delegates to next year’s convention will come from outside the U.S., up from just 30 percent four years earlier. United Methodist churches in Africa have gained nearly one million members in just four years, more than compensating for the U.S. church’s annual 60-70,000-member loss, and making United Methodism a growing church for the first time in over forty years.
The American church’s preoccupation with sex unsurprisingly amazes African Methodists. To the extent they learn about it, church members in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere will be befuddled by the Rev. Amy Delong’s saga. She and her female companion registered together two years ago under Wisconsin’s Domestic Partnership Law. In a communication to local church authorities, DeLong identified herself as a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” placing the phrase in quotes, in reference to United Methodist law. But during the trial, in a rare instance of real life actually imitating television drama, the church’s prosecutor reportedly ignited “audible gasps” from the audience when he asked DeLong if she had “genital contact” with her partner. Apparently asking an actual question about sex, at a trial about sex, gave the courtroom crowd, mostly DeLong’s supporters, the vapors, though hopefully nobody fainted. DeLong declined to answer. A previous United Methodist high court ruling had declared that “self-avowed” requires the defendant specifically to admit to sexual acts. It’s a policy that apparently does not apply to heterosexual naughtiness. Clergy caught in adultery or fornication don’t have to “self-avow” to merit potential penalty. The jury acquitted DeLong on the homosexuality charge but convicted on the same-sex marriage charge. Besides the 20-day symbolic suspension from pastoral duties that she largely does not have, DeLong was also sentenced to write a paper on upholding the clergy’s accountability within the church. No doubt she will get to work right away.
But it is significant, in a liberal area of the church, that the legal process was followed, and that DeLong was convicted for doing what many of her Wisconsin Methodist clergy colleagues support. In contrast, an Omaha United Methodist minister conducted a lesbian rite in 1997, for which a church court acquitted him. He was convicted and defrocked only after he conducted a similar ceremony for two men two years later. Also in 1999, 68 California United Methodist clergy presided at a nuptial for two prominent lay women. Their sympathetic bishop never brought charges against them. In 2004, a San Francisco United Methodist minister evaded penalty after wedding 14 same-sex couples during that city’s “Summer of Love,” before a court decreed that the city lacked authorization for same-sex marriage. This year, about 500 United Methodist clergy in Minnesota, Illinois, New York, and New England, many of them retired, announced their willingness to perform same-sex unions. The denomination has over 45,000 clergy in the U.S., of whom 24,000 pastor churches.
Despite the defiance over the years, United Methodism’s General Conference keeps reaffirming the prohibitions. In 2008, delegates rejected same-sex marriage by 66-34 percent. Presumably that margin will increase next year, after a nearly 100-delegate shift (out of nearly 1,000) away from the U.S. and towards Africa. DeLong’s Wisconsin will have only six delegates, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo will have about 124. While United Methodism in the midwestern U.S. has lost over 40 percent of its members, the African church multiplied by 10 fold. United Methodism in the relatively conservative Southeast U.S. also has grown slightly, while the very liberal West Coast area has lost nearly half its members. Angola now has more United Methodists than California.
This massive demographic shift for America’s third-largest religious body leaves liberal activists puzzled and often resorting to dramatic defiance, sometimes leading to colorful church trials. DeLong’s courtroom drama, complete with its “audible gasps,” won’t be the last.