As 864 delegates gather this week and next in Portland, Ore., for the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial General Conference, they face a fork in the road: Will United Methodism turn inward and remain a mostly liberal Protestant church? Or will it become increasingly evangelical and global?
United Methodism, with more than seven million American members, is the largest of the big seven mainline Protestant denominations. Nearly all the mainline churches in recent years have officially affirmed same-sex marriage and actively gay clergy, followed by schism and decline. The United Church of Christ, once a flagship mainline denomination, recently predicted losing 80% of its members over the next 30 years.
Methodists have not followed that path. Yet in the 1970s, as the late Catholic intellectualRichard John Neuhaus once recalled, United Methodism was expected to become the first major denomination to adapt to post-1960s sexual mores. Of the great Protestant communions, Methodism was arguably the most democratic and American, and the least tied to tradition.
Methodists have debated Christian sexual ethics at every General Conference since 1972, but delegates have repeatedly affirmed traditional teachings. The church prohibits same-sex rites, and clergy must be celibate if single and monogamous if married. For decades what made the difference was Methodism’s large evangelical subculture. But recently the decisive factor has been the church’s growing membership in Africa.
While other mainline denominations shrank, United Methodism grew, thanks to its overseas membership. Since the 1960s the church has lost four million Americans but gained five million new members in Africa, mainly in former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies, where early 20th-century missionaries didn’t have to compete with British Methodism.
Africans, who are in general theologically conservative, now account for 40% of members and will soon become a majority. This leaves liberal Methodists frustrated. The church’s General Conference has long included colorful protests against traditional sexual standards. These have become more heated: One LGBT activist suggested that protesters show up to this year’s convention with “gallons of piss and vinegar,” adding “just think of the trouble we can cause.”
At the same time comes increasing public defiance from liberal clergy who celebrate same-sex rites—often with only perfunctory response from liberal bishops. More than 100 clergy publicly announced their homosexuality in time for this General Conference. One retired bishop, censured for conducting a same-sex rite two years ago, helped perform another last month.
The debate has expanded to transgenderism. One leading United Methodist activist is a woman married to another woman who was denied ordination. After “top” surgery, the activist now professes to be a “non-binary person,” not a he or she but a “they.”
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal