For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the “union of one man and one woman” and “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Now, a special meeting of their denomination’s General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them — even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.
Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: “The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity.”
Leaders in Africa’s booming United Methodist churches — key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex — find it “far-fetched” to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.
It’s understandable that many United Methodists are “angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated,” said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.
Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the “global south” (developing nations) believe they have centuries of church history on their side.
“For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman — as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents — not between two persons of the same sex,” he said. “No argument. No compromise.”
At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide — a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining — especially in the more liberal North and West.
The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.
In St. Louis, most U.S. representatives backed the One Church Plan, while American evangelicals and United Methodists from overseas — especially Africa and Asia — united to pass the Traditional Plan.
America’s United Methodist establishment is standing its ground, even as its General Conference numbers decline. After all, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll indicated that 60 percent of United Methodists in America believe “homosexuality should be accepted,” and 49 percent already favored same-sex marriage.
On the website of the General Board of Church and Society, the leader of the UMC’s lobbying office in Washington, D.C., reminded “LGBTQIA friends, colleagues and neighbors” that “you are beloved of God. … Your relationships are sacred and holy.”
Conservative victories in St. Louis “broke the heart of God,” said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe. “I will pray for forgiveness in my part of having participated in a church that has excluded, pushed out and damaged many faith-filled LGBTQIA people. … We must also put our faith into action and continue to work for LGBTQIA equality.”
Retired Bishop William Willimon, long considered a centrist during his years at Duke Divinity School, argued that UMC traditionalists are simply on the wrong side of efforts to help churches adapt to changing times.
In a blunt Christian Century essay, Willimon asked the “right-wing schismatics”: “Do you really think that your vote at General Conference can stop the Trinity from creating LGBTQ Christians and then recklessly sending them to lead Methodist churches? … As for those in the global church who participated in this smackdown of North American Methodist mission and evangelism, they may soon regret the loss of financial support from a considerably weakened North American Methodism.”
But there is more to faith than money, stressed Kulah, speaking in St. Louis.
“Please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics,” he said.
“We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to grow up. … So if anyone is so naive or condescending as to think we would sell our birthright in Jesus Christ for American dollars, then they simply do not know us.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.