United Methodist culture-war clash in Portland

Mark Tooley,
President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Featured in Wall Street Journal

As 864 delegates gather in Portland, Ore., for the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial General Conference, they face a fork in the road: Will United Methodism turn inward and remain a mostly liberal Protestant church? Or will it become increasingly evangelical and global?

United Methodism, with more than seven million American members, is the largest of the big seven mainline Protestant denominations. Nearly all the mainline churches in recent years have officially affirmed same-sex marriage and actively gay clergy, followed by schism and decline. The United Church of Christ, once a flagship mainline denomination, recently predicted losing 80% of its members over the next 30 years.

Methodists have not followed that path. Yet in the 1970s, as the late Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus once recalled, United Methodism was expected to become the first major denomination to adapt to post-1960s sexual mores. Of the great Protestant communions, Methodism was arguably the most democratic and American, and the least tied to tradition.

Methodists have debated Christian sexual ethics at every General Conference since 1972, but delegates have repeatedly affirmed traditional teachings. The church prohibits same-sex rites, and clergy must be celibate if single and monogamous if married. For decades what made the difference was Methodism’s large evangelical subculture. But recently the decisive factor has been the church’s growing membership in Africa.

While other mainline denominations shrank, United Methodism grew, thanks to its overseas membership. Since the 1960s the church has lost four million Americans but gained five million new members in Africa, mainly in former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies, where early 20th-century missionaries didn’t have to compete with British Methodism.

Africans, who are in general theologically conservative, now account for 40% of members and will soon become a majority. This leaves liberal Methodists frustrated. The church’s General Conference has long included colorful protests against traditional sexual standards. These have become more heated: One LGBT activist suggested that protesters show up to this year’s convention with “gallons of piss and vinegar,” adding “just think of the trouble we can cause.”

At the same time comes increasing public defiance from liberal clergy who celebrate same-sex rites—often with only perfunctory response from liberal bishops. More than 100 clergy publicly announced their homosexuality in time for this General Conference. One retired bishop, censured for conducting a same-sex rite two years ago, helped perform another last month.

The debate has expanded to transgenderism. One leading United Methodist activist is a woman married to another woman who was denied ordination. After “top” surgery, the activist now professes to be a “non-binary person,” not a he or she but a “they.”

For all their energy, liberals may be hard pressed to change the church’s teaching on marriage. In 2012 the African delegates were organized, often voting as a bloc, and especially outspoken on sexuality. This year 31% of delegates are from Africa, joined by another 10% from the Philippines and Europe. Only 58% are from the U.S.

Delegates will also discuss abortion. United Methodism has been officially pro-choice since 1970 and in 1973 helped found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Quitting that group (now known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) is perennially debated. With African support, leaving finally might win out, which would be a historic milestone.

Delegates could also give Africans proportional representation on the boards of church agencies like the denomination’s prominent Capitol Hill office, for decades a headquarters of the religious left in Washington. This would shift the lobby away from liberal political priorities.

But nothing is certain, and tensions in Portland are high. Any major liberalization of the church’s marriage stance would likely lead to a global denominational schism—and the same kind of decline faced by other mainline churches. Affirming traditional teachings would allow continued overseas growth, making United Methodism less and less a conventional mainline church.

Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign has cited a common saying in Methodism, attributed in myth to its 18th-century founder, John Wesley, about doing “all the good you can.” A divided denomination has long disagreed about what doing good means personally and societally. But if the church survives its battle in Portland, its expanding global reach might please Rev. Wesley, an evangelist who saw the “world as my parish.”

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