The global 12 million member United Methodist Church, now likely the world's 9th largest communion, is no longer a predominantly liberal U.S. denomination. Its quadrennial governing General Conference, which met for 10 days in Tampa ending May 4, refused to alter the church's official disapproval of homosexual practice.
Some news stories huffed disapproval and surprise. After all, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and United Church of Christ have all surrendered to American culture on sexual ethics. Their membership spirals subsequently accelerated into formal schisms. But United Methodism, unlike these other historic denominations that once dominated American religion and liberalized in the early 20th century, is now a growing church and has a record number of members.
Unlike the other traditionally liberal-led Mainline denominations, United Methodism is fully global in membership. (The 2 million member Episcopal Church of the U.S. does include the small churches of Latin America, Europe and Taiwan but is still 90 percent U.S. persons.) There are 7.5 million United Methodists in the U.S. and 4.5 million overseas, almost all in Africa, mostly in the Congo. With the U.S. church losing about 100,000 members a year (down from 11 million 44 years ago) and the African church gaining over 200,000 a year, the denomination likely will become a majority non-U.S. church in about 10 years or less.
These statistics frustrate United Methodist liberals who have dominated the domination for 50 years or more. Homosexuality has been debated at the church's General Conference every four years since 1972. And the church consistently decreed that homosexual practice was "incompatible with Christian teaching." Over the years, the denomination formally prohibited clergy who were actively homosexual (as well as any clergy sexually active outside traditional marriage) and banned same-sex unions. For the last 12 years it has even supported "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of man and woman," though normally loquacious bishops and other church elites decline to articulate this stance even as the nation debates it.
United Methodist liberals always assumed their church would follow American culture on sexual permissiveness, just as the church had followed on so much else across the 20th century, starting with divorce and contraception. They always consoled themselves, "If not this time, then next time." Sounding like deterministic Marxist Hegelians, they believed history sided with sexual inclusion.
But this year in Tampa, the church once again rejected any dilution of his disapproval of homosexual practice, despite a full court lobby campaign. Liberal caucus groups pitched a full size tent outside the Tampa Convention Center, served daily lunches to any delegates, mobilized hundreds of volunteers in rainbow stoles, and distributed a full-size daily newspaper, sometimes translated into other languages. As chronicled by the just released Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism's Compromise with the Sexual Revolution by the Rev. Karen Booth, pro-gay caucus groups have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from non-church philanthropies.
It was largely wasted money. A record 30 percent of delegates came from Africa this time, up from 20 percent just 4 years ago (and 10 percent 8 years ago), and they voted uniformly against any liberalization of the church's sexual teaching. Combined with many Filipino and European delegates, plus U.S. evangelicals, who were themselves about 20 percent of the total, there was an insurmountable conservative majority on key issues. The final vote on homosexual practice's "incompatibility" with Christian teaching showed 61 percent supporting the current stance.
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The title of this piece signifies a very important truth about the nature of the universal church today. Living in the decadent, late-modern West it is easy to be overwhelmed by the surge of left-wing deconstruction of the pillars of Western society such as the family, marriage, respect for human life and limitations on the power of government. The church is seduced by the line "If you don't join the left-wing revolution now, you will be left behind in the ash bin of history." But look where God is at work: Africa, Asia and Latin America. The universal Church is growing, vibrant and orthodox. Global Christianity is on the upswing; it is just compromised, Western, modern, liberal Christianity that is in decline.
If other Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church in the US or the Anglican Church of Canada were truly ecumenical, they would not exclude the growing majority of Christians from the Global South a voice in ecclesiastical decision-making. But, it is clear from a look at the world-wide Anglican Communion, that if they were ecumenical they would not be accommodating themselves to the late-modern, secular, sexual revolution against civilized sexual morality. Liberal Christianity in the West are cutting themselves off from the ecumenical (world-wide) Church.
In order to rationalize away the fact that they are on the losing side of history and really just a group of sectarians, they try to pretend that the rest of the world just hasn't caught up. A half-century ago they thought that the secularization thesis was undoubtedly true; today it is clearly nothing more than secularist wishful thinking. Then they were sure that Marxism would win the hearts and minds of the Global South and leave no room for non-Marxist forms of Christianity. But Marxism is now a failed ideology and has been tossed onto the dust heap of history, which is to say that it is only alive in the late-modern Western university.
What will it take for us to come to the realization that: 1) the Christian position on sexual morality is never going to change, 2) theological liberalism is a sect that will have its day in the sun and then wither away, 3) biblical orthodoxy is never going to die out, and 4) Western secularism itself is doomed and hitching one's wagon to it is not a wise idea?