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How 192 Delegates Saved Methodists from Madness & Other Stories from the General Conference
by Mark Tooley
One United Methodist observer described it as “The Empire Strikes Back.” Realizing that time is not their ally, liberals in the 11-million-member United Methodist Church maximized their campaign at the church’s 2008 General Conference, held from April 22 through May 2, 2008, in Fort Worth, Texas. They succeeded in ousting the conservative majority on the church’s top court, which often rules on crucial cases involving the church’s official disapproval of homosexual behavior.
But liberals fell short of pushing through “compromise” language that would have diluted the church’s stance on marriage. And the delegates finalized induction of the roughly 700,000-member Methodist Church of the Ivory Coast into the U.S.-based denomination, helping to ensure that theologically conservative Africans will comprise at least 30 percent of the delegates at the next General Conference in 2012.
Liberals’ Last Chance
This year, Africans comprised 20 percent of the nearly 1,000 delegates, with Filipinos and Europeans comprising another nearly 10 percent. Currently, 7.9 million United Methodists are in the United States, while 3.5 million are overseas, primarily in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Possibly non-U.S. United Methodists will comprise a majority of the church in less than two decades. For this reason, church liberals knew that 2008 could very well have been their final opportunity to liberalize the church’s teachings on sex.
By a vote of 517 to 416, the delegates voted to retain the church’s official stance holding homosexual practice as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The margins on the church’s prohibition against actively homosexual clergy and same-sex unions were larger, sometimes surpassing 70 percent. But a loss on the “incompatible” phrase, which dates to 1972, likely would have ignited a conservative exodus from the denomination.
Liberals proposed deleting the “incompatible” phrase with new language declaring: “Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness.” The next text would have asked the church “to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices as the Spirit leads us to a new insight.” Evangelist Eddie Fox led the argument against the deletion, insisting that the church must be “clear, concise and faithful to biblical teaching.” Fox said: “I have seen and experienced the pain and the brokenness in parts of our global movement whenever our church has failed to hold fast to this essential teaching of the Holy Scripture.”
Clearly, the presence of 192 African delegates, who were outspoken in their defense of the church’s current position on homosexuality, was crucial. And had the African presence not increased by 84 delegates since 2004, the liberals would have prevailed in deleting the “incompatible” clause. “That’s why I brought them here,” explained one African bishop when thanked for his delegation’s resistance to changing the church stance.
The General Conference also voted, by larger margins, to “support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” to affirm that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage,” and to maintain the current prohibitions of same-sex union services and ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Attempts at Intimidation
Some liberal groups openly complained about the Africans’ growing influence. “We have feared this for years,” said a spokesman for the pro-homosexuality “Reconciling Ministries Network,” complaining that international delegates are in “clear alliance with the most conservative elements” of the US church, and “they are far more conservative than even the average American conservatives, on a wide range of social issues.”
Some African delegates reported receiving “intimidating notes and pictures” on their desks. One African delegate was angrily told by a liberal US delegate: “Remember, the money for your conference in Africa comes from our conference here.” Other African delegates were given plane tickets mandating their departure before the end of the General Conference, so that they missed important votes on the last day. The African churches, unlike the US churches, could not afford to send alternate delegates. Many Africans, suffering from jet lag and the 18-hour daily schedule across eleven days, simply quit attending some sessions, though all their seats were filled during the most crucial votes on homosexuality.
Most decisively, over 100 Africans missed the votes during the final afternoon on the church’s participation in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). By 52 percent to 48 percent, delegates sustained United Methodist membership in the abortion rights group, which opposes any restrictions on abortion. RCRC prevailed by 32 votes, out of 800 cast. Several RCRC staffers were in Fort Worth to lobby during the General Conference, and supportive delegates during the debate carefully avoided discussing abortion. Instead, they pointed to RCRC’s ostensible work on teenage pregnancy and AIDS prevention.
While RCRC’s supporters focused on the RCRC membership vote, pro-life legislation won quiet victories. Delegates voted to a “affirm and encourage the church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.” They replaced language about “devastating damage” from “unacceptable pregnanc[ies]” with the affirmation that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” They declared opposition to abortions for “trivial reasons,” described abortion as “violent,” called for global action against sex-selective abortions, opposed fertility treatments that selectively kill embryos with undesired genetic traits, and voted to “reject euthanasia and pressure upon the dying to end their lives.”
Evangelicals won some other victories at the General Conference. They defeated requiring that pastors grant immediate church membership to all applicants. This proposal responded to a well-publicized case about a Virginia pastor, whose bishop removed him from his church for refusing to accept into immediate membership an actively homosexual congregant. A church court later restored the pastor to his pulpit, upholding pastoral discretion about church membership.
Thanks to Evangelicals and others, the delegates rejected a proposed church divestment policy against Israel and strengthened the church’s recognition of the negative consequences of divorce. They also approved $2 million for theological education in Africa, where United Methodist seminaries currently receive no regular funding from the denomination’s seminary education fund. And the delegates mandated that church payments to United Methodist seminaries “only be used” to benefit United Methodist students. Currently each of the church’s 13 official seminaries in the United States receives about $1 million annually from the denomination, even though United Methodist students sometimes number only in the dozens. Meanwhile, a majority of United Methodist seminarians now attend non-United Methodist seminaries, such as the Evangelical Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.
Delegates voted to reduce the number of US bishops by four, subtracting them from declining and primarily liberal areas of the US church. Previously, the church had 50 bishops in the United States, plus 18 overseas. Very aware of their receding demographic power, church liberals fully exploited their influence over the church bureaucracy and the Council of Bishops in gaining other wins. Most significantly, all five new members of the church’s Judicial Council, or top court, were nominated by bishops and supported by liberal caucus groups. The bishops declined to nominate any of the conservative incumbents, who had repeatedly upheld the church’s enforcement of prohibitions against actively homosexual clergy. Revealingly, although 30 percent of United Methodists live in Africa, no African now serves on the nine-member council, which has eight Americans and one Filipino.
Liberals, with support from the bishops, also passed a proposed constitutional amendment that potentially would mandate “open” church membership, clearly aiming at homosexual church members, and would partially separate the US church from the international church. The amendments need adoption by two thirds of the total votes at the local annual conferences in 2009.
The proposed new US-only “regional conference” would exclude overseas delegates, which one homosexual caucus hailed as “a positive development.” Ostensibly, the church’s ordination standards and prohibitions against same-sex unions would still remain under the authority of an international General Conference. But Evangelicals fear that a US-only conference would present opportunities for liberals to prevail in the governance of the US church without African interference.
A small brouhaha occurred at the General Conference when Evangelicals offered free cell phones to all non-US delegates, which prompted liberal church officials to allege “bribery” and “manipulation.” But almost all of the nearly 300 international delegates claimed a cell phone, and all internationals quoted in a United Methodist News Service story about the controversy expressed appreciation.
Many Evangelicals were exasperated by their defeat in the Judicial Council elections and frustrated by the continuing battle over homosexuality, now in its fourth decade. But church liberals were more openly angry and disappointed that their attempted “compromise” had been rejected, thanks to African votes.
Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination’s lobby office in Washington, D.C., alleged that “certain organizations and individuals manipulated many African delegates, but many of those delegates willingly permitted themselves to be manipulated.” That the Africans do not need “manipulation” to affirm the biblical stance on marriage strains the credulity of some church liberals. Clearly United Methodist liberals realize that their options are dwindling, and their hopes increasingly depend on somehow separating the US church from the international church.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.