The trend in mainline Protestantism is clear: denominations become more liberal over time, especially on sexual ethics and social issues.Churches gradually become more accepting of sex outside of marriage, homosexual clergy, and a definition of marriage that includes same-sex relationships. Traditionalists resist but their numbers gradually decrease until they have eroded into minority status. Many of them end up joining other churches or forming their own.
At their just-concluded General Conference in Tampa, the United Methodist Church bucked the trend. By a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent, the quadrennial legislative body of the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination rejected a proposal to change its position on homosexuality. The measure would have deleted the Book of Discipline's contention that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching," replacing it with a call to "refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices until the Spirit leads us to new insight."
The motion to change United Methodist teachings on homosexual behavior was defeated by a bigger margin than a similar proposal at the 2008 General Conference. This year 54 percent of delegates also rejected a compromise that would have expressed Methodist disagreement on issues pertaining to homosexuality. "I see no reason why we should state (in the Book of Discipline) that we disagree," the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary was quoted as saying by Religion News Service. "We disagree on almost every issue we consider."
Liberal Methodists believed the compromise would reflect the fact that church members have real disagreements on the subject. Conservatives countered that it would water down biblical standards and legitimize teachings contrary to Scripture.
Gay rights activists then took to the convention floor singing "What Does the Lord Require of You?" When the chairman of the morning session warned them they were hurting their cause by disrupting the General Conference, the gay rights demonstrators kept singing. An early lunch was called and there were threats to bar protestors from the proceedings.
What happened next was remarkable: proposals to ordain gay clergy and bless same-sex unions were effectively tabled. They were first pushed to the back of the agenda and then not voted on at all. "Leaders of the demonstration were told that the legislation was postponed to avoid more harm to LGBT people and their supporters," the Love Your Neighbor Coalition said in a statement.
Avoiding further hurt feelings and unnecessary conflict was likely part of the equation. But the proposals weren't voted on for another reason: they had no chance of passing. It now remains United Methodist policy that marriage is the union of one man and one woman; clergy cannot solemnize same-sex unions; and ordained ministers must be celibate outside of a marriage between a man and a woman or monogamous within marriage. Avowed, practicing gay clergy is prohibited.
Tabling sexually charged issues spared Methodist liberals another defeat that would have actually changed the status quo -- there was no vote on the denomination's participation in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. There had been a committee vote to defund the pro-choice group. The 2008 General Conference came within 32 votes of pulling the United Methodist Church out of the coalition and one could read worried tweets that the church's coalition membership was hanging by a thread.
United Methodists have charted a different course than other mainline Protestants for a reason: while their church is losing members in the United States like the others, it is growing in Africa. Overwhelmingly orthodox Africans and American evangelicals are increasingly making up a working majority at General Conference. On many issues, the overseas delegates -- now approaching 40 percent of the total -- are more outspoken than their U.S. evangelical counterparts.
The United Methodist Church is a long way from becoming the Southern Baptist Convention, and the denomination's bureaucracy still leans left. But among the historic mainline Protestant churches, the Methodists are marching to the beat of a different drum.