United Methodists Maintain Traditional Stance on Sexuality

United Methodists Maintain Traditional Stance on Sexuality May 8, 2012

After a week of vitriolic debates and parliamentary wrangling, the United Methodist Church has concluded its quadrennial General Conference. In the lead story coming out of the meeting, delegates voted to maintain the denomination’s traditional stance on human sexuality, which holds that homosexual acts are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” That vote was keyed by the presence of theologically and socially conservative delegates from outside the United States, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, where Methodism is thriving. African delegates represented about 30% of attendees.

The status quo on sexuality represented a broader trend: almost no major reforms were enacted, with a plan for denominational reorganization struck down on the last day of the conference as unconstitutional.

As I wrote in my recent column “The Rise and Fall of American Methodism,” the story of the Methodist Church may be the “most statistically striking in American religious history.” Methodism’s stunning emergence as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in the nineteenth century has been matched in recent decades by a precipitous decline, a numerical downturn experienced by all the theologically moderate to liberal mainline denominations in America.

Conservatives such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley hailed the vote on sexuality as an indication of Methodism’s “bright future,” and noted that the denomination is likely to be majority African within a decade.

Liberals such as Boston University’s Christopher Evans deplored the vote, saying that conservatives have used the denomination’s decline as an excuse to target “scapegoats,” especially gays and lesbians.

Evans lamented that African delegates, as a result of “complicated historical and cultural factors,” tend not to affirm homosexual acts and relationships. (Might one add that their traditional readings of Scripture also play a role?)

And what next for the United Methodist Church? A breather, for sure, as the next General Conference will not take place for four years. But it seems almost certain now that the United Methodist Church will not go the way of the American Episcopal church hierarchy, with its full normalization of homosexual acts and relationships, and its ordination of gay clergy and bishops. Africans will also assume an increasingly influential role, in accord with their numbers. This development will raise questions similar to those wracking the Anglican Church about how long a denomination’s power can remain in western hands, if its numerical future lies in the global South.

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  • johnturner

    When you (or I suppose in this case Mark Tooley) say that the denomination is likely to be “majority African within a decade,” does that mean that the UMC counts members who live outside the United States as part of its membership? There aren’t separate Methodist denominations/churches in those African countries?

    Also, I was surprised to see that the vote was so lopsided. I thought it would be closer.

    I agree with Evans that it is unfair to blame gays and lesbians (and their advocates) for the longterm decline in mainline membership. I am, however, curious to see how the PC(USA)’s decision in 2011 to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians affects membership over the next several years. My hunch is that the steady decline in PC(USA) membership is going to accelerate.

  • Mark

    It is actually a form of hatemongering to suggest that those who affirm traditional sexual mores are bigots or unenlightened. Most would have no problem with a gay person worshipping in their church. The problem comes when people ignore or disingenuously interpret Scripture in an attempt to selfishly promote a personal agenda (tolerance is no longer tolerated….there must be endorsement). The supposed new openness to alternative sexual behavior, to include marriage redefinition, is not a result of enlightenment so much as it is a result of rabid activists dictating the conversation through willing advocates in the media.

  • Phil Morrill

    The PC(USA) has been losing conservatives for years (when the PCA and EPC split off). But I do agree with John, because of this latest ruling in the PC(USA), many PC(USA) churches are looking to split off or form some kind of subset within the PC(USA). It will be interesting to see if any of those become Methodists. Both are similarly liberal and only differ on ordination, there is just that Calvinist vs Arminian thing ;).

  • The United Methodist Church is a global church. The church in Africa and the church in America are one church. There are some regional variations, but we all gather in one General Conference every four years.

    The UMC, however, is not the only Methodist church. It is the largest but not the only.

  • Thomas Kidd

    John, the Africans in question–from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo–are officially, denominationally affiliated with the United Methodist Church. I assume this is partly due to 19-20c UMC missionary work, but others will know more about the history than I do.

  • As a reply to the question, there are Methodists in many denominations around the world that spring from the original 18th century Methodist movement in the British Isles. The worldwide United Methodist Church is the largest of those ecclesiastical bodies, and yes, all those who are in the UMC are ecclesiastically connected to one another in the same body. (The UMC has over 12 million members worldwide.) Right now the UMC in the U.S.A. has a little under 8 million members, while in Africa it has somewhere over 3 million members. As it continues its slide in the United States, it is experiencing fairly dramatic growth in Africa. Because our General Conferences (once every four years) are made up of delegates representing the whole church, the trend over the past couple of decades has been that GC representation has reflected the global number shifts. A part of our polity is what Methodists call “connectionalism,” which is a commitment on our part to remain a single church. Hope that helps.

  • Dianne Stark

    As a Methodist Minor (analogus to being a ‘Cradle Catholic’) baptised therein as an infant in the 50’s and confirmed in the ’60’s, I am confused at what the Methodist Church seems to have become (I left the denomination in the late 70’s). Mine was a rural midwestern church in a village of 2300 souls, a goodly portion of them Methodists. A family scandal two generations before my birth was that when one of our ancestors got rich, they stopped attending the local Methodist church and became a Presbyterian. I can’t imagine my old church preaching a sermon about politics at all, except perhaps that one shouldn’t vote for John F. Kennedy because he was a Catholic. I guess we should have looked for trouble when my friend and classmate, voted Methodist Youth Fellowship ‘man of the year’ decided to become the first conscientious objector in the county during early years of the war in Vietnam. He returned to visit me in a couple of years ago and said that he no longer believes in God but is still committed to social justice, and he indeed has a long track record in working for it, and he still attends our little Methodist church when he’s in town. I recall us as being mainly focused on our farming and factory work,, blending into our society as good American citizens, and doing no mission work at all except Trick or Treat for Unicef, seeing a film in Sunday school about the dangers the tse-tse fly posed to Africans and reading a story about the strange lives of American migrant workers who seemed to all live in their cars and be poor. Of course, we teens were asked to pledge never to drink (I refused, even then figuring the rest of my life might last a long, long time.) and once all of us teens who were “really interested in ‘really’ talking about sex, not just making a joke out of it” were invited up to a little-used Sunday school room and told by our youth leader “don’t do it”–more or less end of discussion. Going to the Methodist church was not only my family’s sincere worship of the Lord but also a way of declaring our morality and Christian beliefs to the local community, but I don’t think we ever focused on changing theology or a world much beyond our central Illinois county. When I re-visited my old Methodist church on the web recently I was surprised to discover that now the church goes in for large spiritual pep talk conferences in the South, and most of the people conducting those conferences don’t seem to be Methodist preachers or Methodist at all. Also, word from my pacifist but unbelieving classmate is that while the minister has a “heart of gold” about helping people with problems in the community, he is very enthusiastic about end times prophecy. In my days of attendence, we woould have paled at that theology as being almost ‘Baptist’! Also, we now have several nice ladies who have a puppet ministry. Some things never change!

  • Thomas Kidd

    very helpful, Andrew, thank you! this helps clarify the nature of the connection globally.

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes–but how many serious Calvinists are left in the PCUSA? 🙂

  • Thomas Kidd

    thank you, Dianne–reminds me of some of my own background!

  • Rev. Andy Oliver

    If you were really serious about protecting traditional marriage, why not fight to have divorce be incompatible with Christian teaching? You may have won this culture war, but you will lose a generation. 53% of the UMC is on the wrong side of history.

  • Rev. David Trawick

    Actually, I’m not aware of anyone lobbying for the acceptance and blessing of divorce as a God-given gift. The only reason the UMC spends so much time and develops legislation on homosexuality is because homosexuals DO have such a lobby.

  • U.S. membership in the United Methodist Church in 2010 fell to just over 7.5 million, having lost 100,000 members in the most recent reporting year. There are at least 4.5 million United Methodists outside the U.S., including 145,000 in the Philippines, 64,000 in Europe, and 4.2 million in Africa, over half of whom are in the Congo. The African churches gained over 900,000 over the previous 4 years. At this rate, African church membership may equal U.S. church membership in 10 years. It’s probably already true that more people are attending church in African United Methodism on a typical Sunday than in the U.S. church.

  • Thomas Kidd

    excellent information, Mark, thanks for sharing this.

  • Rev. Mike McInnis

    To one of the early posters here: I don’t think anyone would blame gays or lesbians for the decline of membership in the United Methodist Church. That has happened because many of our clergy (and seminaries) have bought into the notion that “any road leads to God,” therefore salvation through faith in Christ is not necessary. Which means we have abandoned evangelism as a denomination. This is simply a symptom of our deeper theological malaise; many clergy no longer hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, sin, the Church, judgment, etc.

    I look forward to seeing how the rise of the UMC in Africa may lead the church here back to orthodoxy AND orthopraxy – my prayer is that we see pockets of revival in the UMC soon. I’m 54, and hope in my lifetime to see a turnaround in our denomination: it is what many of us are praying and working for – both clergy and laity.

  • well said, Rev. McInnis, thanks.

  • Trondheim

    Disingenuously interpret Scripture? Conservative Christians, as much as anyone, often IGNORE parts of Scripture, calling them irrelevant. Is that better than “interpreting”? No one does/does not do, all that Scripture commands. The Old Testament, which speaks of homosexuality, also says that it’s okay to own slaves, that it’s okay to have disobedient sons killed by village elders. In Old Testament passages, God is asked to abort the fetuses of enemies. If we, as Christians, speak out against slavery and son-killing or abortion, are we therefore disagreeing with the Word of God, which all of Scripture IS, or is God schizophrenic? Clearly, God gave us the gifts of reason as well as Scripture, and we HAVE used reason to discern the meaning of Scripture. Roman Catholics used Scriptural interpretations to justify the very things that Protestants opposed. Protestants CHANGED long held meanings of Scripture, and all Christians HAVE changed or ignored Scriptural meanings/dictates over the centuries. In the Bible, God sanctions polygamy, yet most Christians today would call that immoral. To say that passages touching on human sexuality are unchangeable is quite frankly silly.