Methodism, America’s third-largest religious denomination, eagerly embraced the Social Gospel nearly a hundred years ago. It supported labor unions, civil rights, and a moderate welfare state. By the 1960’s, the church was supporting Third World revolutions and abortion rights, while opposing school prayer and U.S. military defense efforts. Not surprisingly, Methodist theology became as wacky as its politics. About 20 percent of the church’s membership responded by leaving; by the 1970’s, what had been the nation’s largest Protestant denomination was surpassed by the conservative Southern Baptists.
The march to the left may have been halted at this year’s meeting of the church’s governing general conference, held in May in Cleveland. For 28 years, the denomination has been debating homosexuality at general conferences, which meet every four years. Although the church consistently has rejected “gay” clergy and same-sex unions, the liberals who control the church bureaucracy have long believed that time was their ally, they assumed the church would inevitably follow the secular culture, as it has on so many other issues.
But the window of opportunity may have closed for the homosexual cause within the United Methodist Church. At least two-thirds of the nearly 1,000 delegates at this year’s conference resolutely rejected any compromise on its teachings on sexuality. Clergy who profess their homosexuality or conduct same-sex ceremonies will face the prospect of church trials or other disciplinary action.
The next general conference may be even worse for their cause. The church voted to reapportion its delegates for future conferences; the liberal Northeast and West Coast, where membership has drastically declined, will lose delegates. At the next general conference in 2004, a majority of delegates will come from the more conservative Southern and overseas churches.
The reapportionment, along with the increasing political strength of conservative “renewal groups” within the church, will also affect issues other than sexuality. This year’s general conference condemned partial-birth abortion (Methodist leaders had previously been uncompromisingly pro-choice); abandoned the church’s pacifist stance in favor of just-war theory; supported voluntary school prayer (which church leaders have traditionally opposed); and elected three solid conservatives to fill five vacancies on the denomination’s highest church court.
The delegates also voted to join with evangelicals and Catholics to pray for persecuted Christians around the world, despite warnings from some church liberals that die “Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church” was a ploy of the “religious right.” And the delegates resolved 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. The delegates at the conference were signaling that, after nearly a century, the era of unquestioned liberal domination in mainline Protestant churches is ending. “We who are liberals shouldn’t pretend we’re in the majority,” Methodist Bishop Roy Sano of Los Angeles acknowledged last year. “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, such as Bishop Sano’s Southern California region. Virginia now has more Methodists than all of California, and Georgia has more Methodists than the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states combined. Some Deep South regions have actually experienced church membership growth, while the overseas churches number over 2.5 million members. (There are 8.4 million United Methodists in the United States.)
Hence, homosexuality’s proponents will likely fail by even greater margins at the next general conference, with their Western and Northeastern supporters present in diminished numbers. The pro-gay lobby within the church, accustomed to growing acceptance by the secular culture, must confront the realization that victory within United Methodism may no longer be inevitable, or even possible.
Over the last four years, a number of pro-gay Methodist clergy have conducted same-sex unions in defiance of church law, hoping to force the church to choose between accepting those unions or facing schism. “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 dilute 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 technique of civil disobedience.
White and almost two hundred other trustees, including United Methodist Bishop Joe Sprague of Chicago, were arrested outside the convention center. The next day, during the votes, several dozen demonstrators occupied the floor of the convention to protest their impending defeat. Delegates voted to allow them to remain if they were not disruptive. But after the church’s prohibition against same-sex ceremonies was reaffirmed, the demonstrators began singing “We Shall Overcome,” and Cleveland police quietly ushered them away. This time, two bishops were arrested, while a dozen 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.
An angry rally by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the church’s oldest liberal caucus group, featured the Rev. James Lawson, a retired Methodist cleric and one-time colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lawson organized the 1968 Memphis garbage collector’s strike, which summoned King to his impending assassination in that city.)
Still a fiery orator, Lawson excoriated the conservatives who are taking over his denomination. “They are not interested in serving Jesus Christ. They are interested in the management and control of the United Methodist Church.” The crowd of over 500 roared its approval when Reverend Lawson announced; “They are not voices of God but voices of white privilege, greed, capitalism, racism, wrong and American domination of the rest of the world.”
Reverend Lawson lambasted Methodist conservatives as part of the “right-wing ideological junk of America” who are seducing the church with their money and supposed media savvy, “We will make the church unmanageable until the church decides it will serve God and not America,” Lawson warned. He was later arrested during the carefully choreographed acts of civil disobedience that failed to alter the outcome of the general conference.
If pro-gay bishops were outspoken, moderate bishops were reticent about their personal views on sexuality. The exception was Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia, who preached against homosexual practice in a sermon to the conference. In later remarks to a black clergy association, Kulah explained that, as a child, he was raised by two mothers in his polygamous culture. Then the missionaries came, teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. Now, some argue that marriage can be between one man and one man, or one woman and one woman. The African church will not accept that, Kulah insisted.
Church liberals, who like to represent themselves as spokespersons for the “oppressed” Third World, were unable to explain why their most forceful opponents on issues involving sexuality were delegates from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They also seemed unprepared for the decisive vote against partial-birth abortion, which carried 70 percent of the delegates. The United Methodist Church helped found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights almost 30 years ago, and the vote was the first condemnation of an abortion procedure by the denomination since Roe v. Wade. Only four years ago. United Methodist officials supported President Clinton’s veto of legislation that would have banned partial-birth abortion.
Just as surprising was the election of the president of a private evangelical seminary to the University Senate, which oversees the church’s official seminaries and has been the traditional preserve of liberal academics. But United Methodists were not yet willing to give up on the nearly comatose National and World Councils of Churches. Still, their vote to seek observer status in the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Fellowship was a move that no one would have predicted even a few years ago.
Liberals still won victories: Capital punishment was denounced; gun control was extolled; the U.S. Navy presence in Puerto Rico was condemned; there was a call for a “Jubilee” cancellation of Third World debt and demands that the U.S. Army close its School of the Americas, a training center for Latin American military officers. Conservatives saved their ammunition for more crucial battles over sex, church polity, and theology.
The conference was rife with symbolism. Liberals were led by the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, pastor to Bill and Hillary Clinton at Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church. A former seminary professor now in his late 60’s who was probably attending his final general conference before retirement. Reverend Wogaman pleaded for the delegates to compromise on homosexuality; “Again and again we have learned as a church that we were wrong about women, about slaves, about racial minorities, about monarchy, about feudalism. Will we one day have to hold a service of repentance for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers?”
He was defeated in the election for chairman of the legislative committee that handles sexuality issues by a dynamic black pastor from Houston who responded that there could be no compromise on homosexuality in the church’s rule book, known as “The Discipline.” “There is indeed a discipline that is higher and greater than the one that is made for United Methodists,” said the Rev. Robert Hayes. “It is the Word of God as printed in the Holy Scriptures and it is to that discipline that we must be faithful.” At Reverend Hayes’ urging, the delegates repeatedly rejected any effort at compromise on homosexuality, decisively reaffirming traditional church teachings on marriage and sexuality by a margin larger than four years ago. Newspaper accounts reported the votes with some surprise.
The 20th century began with a Methodist president, William McKinley, who was converted in the great revivals before the Civil War. The century is ending with a President and First Lady who were drawn to Methodism because of the liberal vision of social justice espoused by Pastor Wogaman and other church leaders. The 21st century could begin with another Methodist president, George W. Bush, whose conversion and evangelical faith are more reminiscent of McKinley than the Clintons.
Whoever is elected ‘this fall, Methodism’s era of liberal dominance is drawing to a close. Its potential replacement by a more conservative understanding of Christianity is not just a religious story but a national one; Methodist revivalism forged the character of frontier America, and Methodism’s accommodation of modernity helped shape the 20th century. Methodism’s return to the Christian mainstream could transform America no less profoundly in the years ahead.
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