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Africans’ Orthodoxy Steadies United Methodist Church
by Mark Tooley
It was once the oft-stated goal of American missionaries to win Africa to the gospel. But is Africa now helping to win America’s troubled churches back to the gospel?
For the United Methodist Church, America’s third-largest religious body (behind the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention), that might be the case. Much of that denomination’s recent General Conference was devoted to talk about sex, primarily of the same-sex variety. And without the substantial, and growing, presence of African delegates, the denomination very likely could have gone wobbly on what has become the central theological and cultural flashpoint between liberals and conservatives.
Unlike Episcopalians, who elected their first openly homosexual bishop last year, the United Methodists reaffirmed traditional teachings about marriage and sex. Meeting April 27 to May 7 in Pittsburgh, the delegates to the denomination’s quadrennial governing body voted by significant margins to reaffirm their church’s stance that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The nearly 1,000 delegates also voted to continue the prohibition on self-avowed, practicing homosexuals serving as clergy and on any church celebration of same-sex rituals, to continue the requirement that clergy remain celibate if single and monogamous if married, and to expand the ban on funding for any pro-“gay” advocacy from the national church to include local conferences as well. More remarkably, the General Conference voted to endorse civil laws that define marriage as a union of one man and one woman, making the United Methodist Church the first mainline denomination to adopt a stance on the political issue of same-sex unions.
On most of these votes, the margins for the traditional side were substantial, ranging from 60 to 80 percent or more. In most cases, the margins were larger than at the last United Methodist General Conference four years ago. In almost every case, it was African delegates who took the lead in arguing in legislative committees and on the floor against any compromise on homosexuality.
But several “compromise” proposals that would have formally acknowledged inter-church differences over homosexuality were defeated by smaller margins, as they have been in the past, with the smallest majority this time being 55 percent. Without the nearly 20 percent of delegates from outside the United States, mostly from Africa, some of these compromise proposals, crafted to appeal to moderates who wish to preserve institutional cohesion at nearly all costs, would have passed.
It is true that the 8.3 million United Methodists in the United States are, as a whole, historically and demographically more middle-class, more suburban and rural, more Southern and Midwestern, and consequently more culturally conservative, than their more elite elder brethren in the Episcopal Church, whom they outnumber by nearly 4 to 1. (Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, was an Anglican priest.)
But the bishops, church bureaucrats, seminary professors, and professional activists of United Methodism do not differ that dramatically from those of the Episcopal Church. United Methodists in the United States mostly belong, philosophically, to the culturally conservative “red states” of America. But the denomination’s governing elites, many of them working at church agencies in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, philosophically and often geographically belong to the culturally liberal “blue states.”
Hence, while conservatives predominate in the local churches, liberals usually dominate the governing bodies. The deciding factor at the General Conference increasingly has becoming the growing overseas presence of United Methodism, which has nearly 2 million members outside the United States, 80 percent of them in Africa, and much of the rest in the Philippines.
There are about 70 million Methodists around the world, most of them not affiliated with the 10-million-member United Methodist Church. However, even many of the independent churches, including Great Britain’s, Brazil’s, and South Korea’s, are allowed two delegates each to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, in an act of ecclesial fraternity.
The Episcopal Church of the United States is almost exactly just that. Almost all of its 2 million members are US citizens, many of them clustered in urban areas on the East or West Coast. The Anglican Communion, with its 70 million members, is comprised of autonomous national churches, and has no direct juridical power over the US church or any other national body. Anglicans in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World offer moral support to conservative Episcopalians in the United States as they attempt to construct a new communion within what they regard as an apostate Episcopal Church, whose governing body approved the election of the openly homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson by a 60 to 40 percent margin. But there were almost no voting delegates from the Third World at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention.
In contrast, Third World delegates were strongly present and quite vocal at the United Methodist General Conference, some of them making very clear that their churches could not stay in a denomination that compromised on homosexuality.
Unlike the US portion of the United Methodist Church, which often seems dominated by oldsters whose ancestors were evangelized by circuit-riding Francis Asbury two centuries ago, African Methodism is dominated by enthusiastic converts not inhibited from bold talk. “I’m wondering by what mechanism what the church yesterday considered to be a sin can now turn today and [make it] a God-blessed practice?” asked a delegate from the Congo during the debate over homosexuality.
A delegate from Zimbabwe explained that when the missionaries came to Africa, his polygamist ancestors were instructed that the “ideal marriage” is monogamous. “Over the centuries we have been striving to get to that ideal,” he noted. “I don’t think we change values to suit our human weaknesses. I think it is the other way around.” He added, in response to the pro-“gay” civil rights arguments: “It’s not about a person’s identity. It is about a person’s practice.”
A pastor from the Congo told the Conference that “if the United Methodist Church today is passing through a time of confusion, our children will live through a time of destruction in the church.” “Is it permissible to us to waste so much time speaking about sin?” he asked. “And if this is our vision, as the United Methodist Church, our church will surely die. [Do we have] the right to cover up what God has told us?”
A delegate from Liberia was more blunt than any US delegate would ever dare to be: “I don’t think the United Methodist Church can license people to go to Hell. . . . It is a sin that leads to Hell. And the church must speak against every kind of sin.”
Liberal delegates, who have long prided themselves as being advocates of the oppressed Third World, were somewhat flummoxed by the strenuous opposition of Third World delegates to their favored cause of the day. Some gently and multi-culturally suggested that what is “contextually” not accepted in African culture could be acceptable in the American church. But the African delegates would have none of it.
In the end, United Methodism not only reaffirmed but strengthened its stance on homosexuality. Performing same-sex unions and engaging in anything other than marital sex, were specifically made chargeable offenses that could result in church trials.
Also, the delegates strengthened Evangelical control of the church’s top court, which is playing a growing role in enforcement of church law about homosexuality. Six out of nine members on the Judicial Council, including a Filipino and an African, are now expected vigorously to uphold the church’s stance.
All of this is very bad news for the church’s pro-“gay” liberals, especially its Western Jurisdiction, which has been the most defiant of church law. Last year, a church court in Washington state refused to take action against an openly lesbian pastor. Despite this region’s emphasis on “inclusivity,” it is the church’s fastest declining area. There are now more United Methodists in Georgia alone than in all of California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming Conference, and that number is falling.
How frustrating for liberal United Methodists, who were ascendant in the church for decades but are now increasingly realizing that their future is not bright. Their brand of Christianity is unable to win many converts and cannot keep up with even the mildly conservative brand of Methodism found in the deep South, which is the only growing part of the church in the United States, much less the robustly Evangelical faith of the fast-growing African church.
Compounding the demographic dilemma for liberals, the General Conference voted to receive into the United Methodist Church the one-million-member Methodist Church of the Ivory Coast. This will expand its non-US component to nearly 30 percent, making any pro-“gay” shift by future General Conferences increasingly impossible.
The rising ratio of Africans in the denomination inevitably will lead to more Africans in posts of leadership in the church bureaucracy, which American Evangelicals have long failed to penetrate.
None of this means that United Methodism’s explosive battles over homosexuality are likely to conclude soon. Liberals still expect their victories in secular society to carry them to victory in the church. And the fight has been so exhausting that one prominent Evangelical publicly violated a traditional taboo by suggesting during the General Conference that the denomination consider an “amicable separation” between liberals and conservatives.
But if United Methodist Evangelicals will be patient, time is inexorably on their side. Ironically, but joyfully, it is not so much savvy political action that is saving their church, but the germinating gospel seeds of missionaries planted in Africa decades ago.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.