Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 30, 2000
It is America's third largest religious denomination, and one that for decades has been renowned - or notorious - for its reflexive liberalism, on politics, on sex, and on theology. Its most famous congregation in recent years has been Foundry United Methodist Church, where Bill and Hillary Clinton are faithful attendees, and where the pastor outspokenly backs "gay" and abortion rights.
But the 8.4 million member United Methodist Church may be moving back to the center, and perhaps even slightly towards conservatism. Delegates at the church's quadrennial General Conference decisively defeated any effort to accept homosexual practice or same-sex unions, condemned partial-birth abortion, abandoned its pacifist stance in favor of just war theory, supported voluntary school prayer, and elected some solid conservatives to the denomination's highest church court.
The delegates even voted to join with evangelicals and Catholics to pray for persecuted Christians around the world, despite warnings from some church liberals that the "Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church" was a "religious right" ploy. Delegates also voted to seek observer status with the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Fellowship, both of which were once dismissed or ignored by mainline Protestants.
Delegates at the General Conference, which convened May 2 - May 12 in Cleveland, were signaling, if only subconsciously, that the era of unquestioned liberal domination in mainline Protestant churches is ending after nearly a century of ascendancy. "We who are liberals shouldn't pretend we're in the majority," Bishop Roy Sano of Los Angeles acknowledged last year. "We're in the minority. We're no longer mainline. We're sideline. Evangelicals are in the majority."
Demographically, liberal piety is not faring well. The United Methodist Church, like most mainline denominations, has been losing membership for 35 years. But the fastest rate of decline has been in the church's most liberal precincts, like Bishop Sano's southern California region. United Methodism on the West Coast and in the upper northeast is imploding. In the south and lower mid-west, it is holding steady. Overseas, it is growing.
In recognition of these trends, the General Conference voted to reapportion delegates for its next meeting in 2004, subtracting numbers from the west and northeast, and adding new delegates from the south and overseas. In four years, for the first time, the southern and overseas churches will have a clear majority of delegates.
This means that homosexuality's proponents will likely fail by even greater margins next time, with their western and northeastern supporters facing ever dwindling representation. The pro-gay lobby within the church, accustomed to growing acceptance within the secular culture, now must confront the realization that victory within United Methodism may no longer be inevitable, or even possible.
Every United Methodist general conference since 1972 has voted against initiatives to accept homosexual behavior. But the margins of the votes sometimes seemed to narrow over the years. And pro-gay advocates scored a coup four years ago by persuading 15 bishops to announce their support for homosexuality's acceptance by the church.
Over the last four years, a number of pro-gay clergy have conducted same-sex unions in defiance of church law, hoping to create a fait accompli for the 2000 general conference. Either the church would have to accept same-sex unions or face a schism, they had supposed. "After this General Conference, someone will be leaving the denomination," promised the Rev. Greg Dell, who was suspended from the pastorate for a year after conducting a same-sex ceremony at his Chicago church.
In fact, the votes in Cleveland were not even close. Solid two-thirds majorities rejected any effort to water down United Methodism's disapproval of homosexual practice. Pro-gay United Methodists were joined the day before the crucial votes by "Soulforce," an ecumenical pro-gay lobby. Soulforce's leader, the Rev. Mel White, a former Jerry Falwell aide who came out of the closet, instructed several hundred supporters in the art of civil disobedience.
White and almost two hundred others, including United Methodist Bishop Joe Sprague of Chicago, were arrested outside the convention center by polite police officers. The next day, during the votes, several dozen demonstrators occupied the floor of the convention in protest against their impending defeat. Delegates voted to allow them to stay if they were not disruptive. But after delegates re-affirmed the church prohibition against same-sex ceremonies, the demonstrators desperately began singing "We Shall Overcome." Cleveland police quietly ushered them away. This time, two bishops were arrested, while fifteen other bishops sang in solidarity.
"You've made it clear that I don't belong in this church," shouted one angry delegate who, after losing a vote, ripped up his speech in front of a microphone on the convention stage. "We are being disenfranchised," complained another delegate from the church's Western Jurisdiction, which strongly backed the pro-gay lobby. The vote to reduce the West's future representation at general conferences, and the conference's refusal to elected a westerner to the church's Judicial Council - a sort of ecclessial Supreme Court - were additional rebukes of the church's most liberal region.
Although pro-gay bishops were outspoken, moderate bishops were reticent about their personal views on sexuality. The exception was Bishop Arthur Kulah of the Ivory Coast who preached against homosexual practice in a sermon to the general conference. In later remarks to a black clergy association, Kulah explained that as a child he had had two mothers in his polygamous culture. Then the missionaries came, he recalled, teaching that marriage is one man and one woman. And now some want to say that marriage can be one man and one man, or one woman with one woman, he observed. The African church will not accept that, Kulah insisted.
Church liberals, who like to represent themselves as spokespersons for the oppressed Third World, seemed unable to explain why their most forceful opponents on sexuality were Africans, Asians and Latin Americans.
They also seemed unprepared for the decisive vote against partial-birth abortion, with backing from 70 percent of the delegates. The United Methodist Church helped found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights 25 years ago, and the vote was the first abortion procedure ever condemned by the denomination since the Supreme Court's pro-abortion decision in 1973. Just four years ago, United Methodist officials supported President Clinton' s veto of legislation that would have banned the procedure.
Just as surprising was the easy election of three conservatives to fill five vacancies on the Judicial Council. So too was the election of the president of a private evangelical seminary to the University Senate, which oversees the church's official seminaries, and which is traditionally the preserve of liberal academics.
United Methodists were not yet willing to give up on the nearly comatose National and World Councils of Churches. But they did vote to seek observer status in the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Fellowship, a move that few could have predicted only a few years ago. Liberal mainline Protestants no longer occupy the center of America's religious discourse, most delegates seemed to acknowledge by their votes.
Liberals still won victories. Capital punishment was denounced. Without discussion, resolutions were passed that condemned the U.S. Navy presence in Puerto Rico, demanded an end to U.S. trade sanctions against Iraq and Cuba, called for a "Jubilee" global debt cancellation, and urged closure of the U.S. Army's School of the America's training school of Latin American military officers. Conservatives saved their ammunition for more crucial battles over sex, church polity and theology. Perhaps most important to them was a resolution that easily passed declaring that Jesus Christ is the Lord and the Savior of the world. This statement implicitly ruled out syncretistic theologies that declare all religions to be equally true.
Conservative victories arose, in part, from better organization by evangelical caucus groups at this general conference. But more was at work than that. Even moderates are starting to realize that twentieth century theological liberalism has largely failed the church, just as radical, secular ideologies have failed societies. The United Methodist Church's decisive reaffirmation of traditional sexual morality, along with its moves to the center-right on several other issues, signals a significant redirection not only for mainline Protestants, but perhaps for American culture at large.