The United Methodist Church, having declined from 11 to 8 million members in the United States, spent millions on a television and newspaper ad campaign called “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Those millions were probably wasted, however. The ad campaign has been overshadowed by unwanted publicity over increasingly routine battles about homosexuality. Last fall, a lesbian Methodist minister from Philadelphia was defrocked after a year of appeals. And a Virginia pastor who was ousted by his bishop for declining to accept an active homosexual into church membership was reinstated by a church court.

These rulings by the denomination’s top court gained attention in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and numerous other media outlets, which portrayed them as signals of ascendant conservatism in the traditionally liberal denomination.

Conservative Methodists are hardly poised for a Southern Baptist-style coup d’etat. Working in a more directly democratic church polity, conservative Southern Baptists took power by winning the presidency of their convention back in the early 1980’s, after a few years of intense preparation.

United Methodist evangelicals, who, for years, were just striving for survival within the denomination, have been organizing for over 35 years. Their labors started to bear political fruit in the 1990’s. Even more importantly, the church’s overseas and theologically conservative African membership began to grow exponentially, while liberal Methodism on the West Coast and in the Northeast was declining.

Twenty percent of the delegates at the denomination’s quadrennial governing General Conference in 2004 came from overseas. By the 2012 conference, it will be well over one third. Delegates from the U.S. South and from overseas already make up a working majority. Liberal Methodists aren’t sure what to do.

They rallied to the cause of the now defrocked Beth Stroud, who announced her sexual relationship with another woman from the pulpit to her liberal Philadelphia congregation over two years ago. Coincidentally, a PBS series on religion was filming in her church and captured the moment for a national audience.

Smothering Stroud with appreciation, the congregation responded with casserole dinners. But the Methodist bishop of Philadelphia, having already advised Stroud of the repercussions of her actions under church law, arranged a church trial. In December 2004, Stroud and her partner, Chris Paige, listened in silence as a jury of fellow pastors found her guilty of violating the church’s prohibition against clergy who are sexually active outside of marriage. Another ruling from the church’s Judicial Council had already required clergy not supportive of the church law to recuse themselves from jury service.

In April 2005, a liberal-dominated appeals committee for the church’s Northeast Jurisdiction determined that, since the UMC’s constitution precludes discrimination based on “status,” all church law proscribing homosexual practice was invalid. Stroud, realizing her victory was largely symbolic, declined to resume her pastoral duties until the case was decided by the church’s Judicial Council.

Once a forgotten committee that ruled on obscure church disputes, the UMC’s Judicial Council has become central to the denomination’s struggle over homosexuality. Church laws are approved every four years by the General Conference. Enforcement, however, can be difficult. There is no national church executive to compel the obedience of unwilling prelates. The Judicial Council, with a conservative majority, has stepped into the leadership void, issuing a series of decisive rulings on sexual issues.

Contrary to the liberal stereotypes about Methodism succumbing to white male conservatives from the South, the orthodox majority on the nine-member Judicial Council includes a black female lawyer from Houston, a black pastor from New Jersey, a Filipino, and a Congolese. The last two illustrate the church’s increasingly international nature and the solid theological conservatism of Global South Christians.

The court’s 6-2 ruling against Beth Stroud, a refrain of similar rulings against other openly homosexual clergy, likely surprised very few. Of more importance was the case of the Rev. Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in southern Virginia, which began when a homosexual man who sang in Johnson’s choir applied for church membership. Johnson provided counseling to the man, who was openly living with a homosexual partner. The associate pastor, more liberal than Johnson, was disturbed when Johnson did not grant the homosexual man immediate membership, and she reported him to the bishop of Virginia.

Bishop Charlene Kammerer, previously presiding over western North Carolina, has been reluctant to share her more liberal opinions while presiding over relatively conservative jurisdictions. In this instance, however, she instructed Johnson to accept the homosexual man immediately into church membership. When Johnson refused, she placed him on involuntary leave, without pay. A closed session of Virginia’s clergy, uninformed about the details of the case, and with no debate permitted, voted overwhelmingly to support the bishop’s decision. Johnson then appealed to the Judicial Council.

To the dismay of Methodist liberals, the church court ruled 5-3 that Johnson should be restored to his congregation and compensated for his lost pay. The court did not rule directly on the permissibility of excluding church members based on sexual behavior but declared that local pastors have discretion regarding church membership.

“I must admit that I am shocked by the ruling that gives clergy the right to exclude people into church membership because of their sexual orientation,” responded Bishop John Scholl of the UMC’s Baltimore-Washington Conference. “I will work to insure that gay and lesbian members will continue to have the right to be members of The United Methodist Church.”

Johnson was concerned about the homosexual man’s behavior and his soul, not his “orientation.” Johnson is unusual, however, even among evangelical clergy. Typically, both liberal and conservative clergy are anxious to sign up new church members, no questions asked.

The UMC Council of Bishops was meeting during the week that the court issued its rulings and quickly gave its own unanimous response. “While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier,” it said, sidestepping the issue of the practice of homosexuality as it applies to membership.

Not surprisingly, Methodist liberals responded with rage to the Johnson ruling, warning of an impending inquisition against homosexual church members. “The ruling . . . is chilling in its implications,” warned the Methodist Federation for Social Action, which absurdly raised the possibility of “racial preferences” by bigoted clergy.

The denomination’s chief Capitol Hill lobbyist, responding with equal indignation, wondered if the church might now remove the membership of fellow United Methodists George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who “started a war,” of which he said the church also disapproves.

Most of the shrill complainants know better. But their real fear is that the Judicial Council rulings confirm growing conservative influence within the denomination. There are more United Methodists in the state of Georgia alone than in all of the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states together. The bishop of the Congo estimates that there are more United Methodists at church in his country on a typical Sunday than in the entire United States.

So liberal United Methodists are upset, fretting that conservatives are trying to keep some people out of the church. But they do not seem to appreciate the irony. The liberal congregations are increasingly empty, and the conservative ones are just about the only congregations that are growing.