The United Methodist Church is holding its general conference in Fort Worth, Texas, this week. Every four years, a representative delegation of the largest Methodist denomination in the United States meets to hash out theological issues and resolve political debates.
The General Conference is a source of much tension, because the United Methodists have for some time been on the verge of a split. Bible-oriented traditionalists find themselves opposing a leadership that is dragging the church in a direction defined by liberal political activism. The same schism is developing in a lot of Protestant church bodies.
While American conservatives have focused resources and talent on highlighting the alleged takeover of academic and political institutions by liberal activists since the 1960s, comparably little attention has been paid to the same development in churches.
When it comes to honestly assessing the problem of politicization, the liberal leadership of mainline church denominations lives in Bizarro World. In a 25-minute video produced just prior to the General Conference by the group Talk to Action, United Methodist Bishop Beverly Shamana claims that “They have targeted mainline denominations — Presbyterian, Episcopalian, UCCs, United Methodist Church. And they are vigilant at watching what we’re doing, undermining the work that we are doing and clearly their agenda and their mission is to dismantle our church — our denominations.”
Who is this “they,” you might ask? In the same video, Jim Naughton, the director of communications for the Washington D.C., Episcopal diocese, claims “we’re dealing with an attack funded by the same donors who have funded the establishment of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, who fund The American Spectator magazine — the whole sort of intellectual infrastructure of the far right wing in this country has decided to target our mainline churches because it doesn’t like where they stand on social issues, on economic issues and to some extent on theological issues.”
Apparently, Naughton doesn’t pay much attention to the Episcopal Church’s own membership rolls: It’s not just the vast right wing conspiracy that has a problem with the politicization of these churches. It’s the laity that objects, and they’ve been voting with their feet. Nearly every one of these church bodies has been hemorrhaging members for decades now.
Case in point: the United Church of Christ, which has been grabbing headlines as the denomination of Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has lost some 40 percent of its membership over the last 40 years. When the Wright scandal broke, the church leadership vigorously defended Wright and his comments on the church’s website and elsewhere. Is it any wonder that a church body that would embrace him is unpopular? The scandal with Wright isn’t just that his views may represent a particular politician; it’s also that his identity politics and arrogance may reflect those of many denominational leaders.
However, some members of the laity are fighting back. Back in Fort Worth, a number of United Methodist groups are uniting to make sure their church body remains truer to John Wesley than Nancy Pelosi. These groups, such as Confessing Movement, Good News/Renew, Transforming Congregations, and UMAction, have united under the banner of the Renewal and Reform Coalition to organize against the liberal factions at the General Conference.
To increase its political power, the Renewal and Reform Coalition reached out to foreign Methodists. The United Methodists have approximately eight million members in the United States, making it one of the largest denominations here. But maybe not for long — that’s down from over 11 million in 1990.
Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church currently has some 3.5 million additional members worldwide. That’s up from 1.2 million in 1999, and except for a few hundred thousand members in the Philippines and Europe, they reside in Africa. As Ray Nothstine noted on the blog of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, “African Methodists are much more conservative and evangelical than America’s contemporary brand of Methodism. Denominational leaders in Africa are becoming more critical in their rebuke of United Methodist leaders in the U.S. Additionally, they are speaking refreshingly about the timeless truths of Evangelical Christianity and evangelism.”
Naturally, the Renewal and Reform Coalition saw the African delegation to the United Methodists’ General Conference as allies. “We calculated that even here, close to 30 percent of the delegates were U.S. evangelicals, and then internationals were close to 30 percent, so at least on paper [we had] a majority,” Mark Tooley, the United Methodist Action director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, told National Review Online. “But since it’s a brand-new majority, you can’t really call it an effective working majority.”
In order to help the emerging majority work better toward its goals, the Renewal and Reform Coalition threw a reception for the members of the African delegation when they arrived in Ft. Worth. The coalition also provided leaders of the delegation with cell phones to use during their stay so the two groups could communicate at the General Conference.
How did the United Methodist leadership react to this burgeoning alliance? Incredibly, they accused the Renewal and Reform Coalition of racism. A member of the church’s Orwellian-sounding “joint monitoring team” from the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the Commission on Religion and Race declared to the laughably biased United Methodist News Service that providing cell phones “is inappropriate behavior and it destroys community. We have gathered for Christian conferencing, which requires trust, honesty, openness and respect. Whenever there is an imbalance of power relationships with the expectation of reciprocity, this behavior gives the appearance of paternalism, manipulation, exploitation and of course, racism.”
Given that the African delegation has been quite outspoken in its theological and political views, the idea that they could be swayed so cheaply is absurd. Even more troubling than this amazingly patronizing attitude is that at past General Conferences, free meals, gift baskets, and other tokens have been offered by those supporting the political agenda of the church hierarchy to the international delegations. But the use of cell phones, provided by the reformers, is a bridge too far.
But hypocrisy is the least troublesome thing here, especially when church officials have the gall to accuse others of racism. Here at the General Conference, the church leaders gladly hide behind kangaroo “monitoring teams,” to claim there’s a speck in their opponent’s eye while ignoring the log in their own.
In recent years strife has also been centered on electing members to the United Methodists’ top court, which had become the primary enforcing mechanism for the church’s prohibitions against practicing gay clergy — which has been a major point of contention at every General Conference since 1972.
“We had the elections to the Judicial Council Monday and there had been a conservative majority on that court and the bishops and the liberal caucus groups supported an alternative slate, which excluded all Africans, and they won with that,” Tooley said. “It was revealing that they would not nominate anyone from where over 30 percent of the church now lives.” That this 30 percent happens to reside in Africa makes one wonder how these same groups have the temerity to run around calling others racist.
However, the Methodist leadership is right to worry about “imbalance of power” — it’s just not the Africans who are threatened. Given the African Methodists’ incredible growth and increasingly large delegation at a time when American Methodists are losing a thousand members a week, the balance of power is tilting in their favor. “By 2012 the internationals will probably be up to 40 percent of the church and certainly by then it will be a working majority,” notes Tooley. The Methodists’ current church leadership has every incentive to wield power and silence the Africans while they can.
Jeremiah Wright is still the big religion news story of the week. There’s nothing the chattering class enjoys more than decrying the negative effects of religion in our political debates. Meanwhile, not many people will care about or even notice the events in Fort Worth. But for those hardy Christians paying attention, it should serve as a powerful reminder that the problem of politics in our religious institutions is often far more destructive.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.