Methodists Behaving Conservatively

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Last month, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) voted to allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained as ministers, elders, and deacons. This outcome was a dramatic reversal from just two years ago, when the church last reaffirmed its traditional position, as articulated by a 1997 constitutional amendment, that candidates for ordination were required to live "either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman" or in "chastity in singleness."

But the Presbyterians' vote was part of a larger trend within mainline Protestant denominations. The PCUSA now joins the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church in accepting openly gay leaders and liberalizing their sexual teachings more generally.

Conspicuously absent from this list is the largest of the historic mainline Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church. The New York Times describes United Methodists as "still fighting over this issue." While that is certainly true -- debates over homosexuality and Scripture have broken out every four years at the church's governing General Conference since 1972 -- it downplays the extent to which some in the denomination see these fights trending in the opposite direction from the rest of mainline Protestantism.

By some measures, the United Methodist Church is becoming more theologically conservative. The denomination's Book of Discipline affirms that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." At their 2004 General Conference, United Methodists endorsed "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman." It wasn't close; the motion passed with 70 percent of the vote. The Methodists' generally pro-choice position on abortion has been revised in a more pro-life direction.

Some would say that this proves United Methodists are less inclusive than their other mainline brethren. But this relative conservatism is partially a product of inclusion: roughly 3.5 million United Methodists now live outside the United States, mostly in Africa. Over 1 million live in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. The African Methodists are orthodox in faith and morals, and are active participants in the denomination's governing process.

Nearly one-third of the delegates at the 2008 General Conference were from outside the United States. While conservative Episcopalians reach out to African bishops within the global Anglican Communion, the U.S. church is led by Americans and is not directly accountable to Anglicans abroad. In the United Methodist Church, American and overseas Methodists govern their denomination together.

Some Methodists prefer the Episcopalian model. Around the time of the last General Conference, there was a proposal to partially divide the church with a U.S.-only regional conference for some matters. While supporters portrayed the idea as empowering Africans by being respectful of cultural diversity within the denomination, opponents, like Mark Tooley of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, called it a "global segregation" plan.

Faced with the long-term prospect of black Africans and white American Southerners forming an evangelical majority inside their denomination, some liberal Methodists wanted to preserve an enclave of their own. The Africans frequently held the balance of power at the most recent General Conference. It was their votes that kept the conservative language on homosexuality from being deleted from the Book of Discipline. Similarly, the absence of many African delegates likely led to the narrow defeat of an effort to yank the United Methodist Church out of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The U.S.-only conference was endorsed by the United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops in 2008. But the plan was rejected by over 60 percent of Methodists voting in local conferences, including nearly 95 percent of Africans. The measure did much better in the more liberal U.S. Western Jurisdiction. The bishops announced the proposal's defeat last May.

Interestingly, the infusion of Africans may be keeping some American evangelicals in the United Methodist Church. It has been speculated that the Presbyterians reversed themselves on gay ordination in part because some 100 mostly conservative congregations had already left the denomination. With Africans and other international delegates likely to comprise 40 percent of the total at the 2012 General Conference, there is much less reason for conservative United Methodists to depart.

The different trajectories of the United Methodists and other mainline Protestants show that diversity, like the Lord, works in mysterious ways.

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