A church meeting causes a shockwave

A close relative of Australia’s Uniting Church, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has delivered a key result in the culture wars that engage some churches.

The UMC has voted to go in the opposite direction to its Australian cousin: no to gay clergy and no to same-gender marriage. Meeting in St Louis, Missouri, USA delegates from around the global church defeated an attempt to remove language from the church’s teaching that says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” while also maintaining all people are of “sacred worth”.

After days of debate, the church voted 54-46 per cent to retain its conservative teaching.

The United Methodist Church has traditionally held together a mix of evangelical and social-justice-oriented Christians, inheriting both impulses from its founder John Wesley. It has 7 million members in the US and a total of 12 million worldwide, with strong branches in Africa and the Philippines. This makes it the second largest Protestant church in the US (after the Southern Baptists).

After days of debate, the church voted 54-46 per cent to retain its conservative teaching.

The vote means that the three largest churches in the US – Catholic, Southern Baptist and then the UMC – are retaining a traditional view of marriage.

“Church history made before our eyes” is how conservative commentator Albert Mohler headlined it. He accurately described the event this way: “The United Methodist Church stands as the last mainline Protestant denomination that has not yet fully surrendered to the sexual revolution.”

The word “mainline church” is used in the US in a special way. It originally referred to the “seven sisters”, the large and respectable churches that could be found on the “mainline” – a train-line running through Philadelphia’s respectable suburbs, a bit like Sydney’s North Shore Line, or the tramline through Melbourne’s Toorak. The seven sisters included Episcopalians (Anglicans), Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ. All but the United Methodists have become more liberal, with evangelical offshoots from most of them.

It seems that the United Methodists may be headed the other way, with the main denomination becoming evangelical – and the progressives in a quandary, possibly setting up a new church.

The 2019 St Louis meeting – officially a “special called General Conference” (it appears that both conservative and progressive Methodists don’t do adverbs) –  was called after an acrimonious 2016 meeting. The Bishops (regional leaders) were asked to set up a special “way forward” commission to draw up a plan. The Bishops favoured the “one church plan” which would have allowed each church to choose whether to hold same gendered weddings or appoint gay ministers. But the “Traditional Plan” aimed at strengthening sanctions against a growing number of both, and promoted by evangelical coalitions, prevailed.

“The United Methodist Church just died, about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 25” wrote Christy Thomas in the Progressive “UM-Insight” news service as the final votes occurred. “The delegates have spoken and the UMC is dead: gays are irredeemably bad, evil and unacceptable. I’m about to throw up.”

One of the only journalists on the conference floor was Sam Hodges of the United Methodist News Service: “‘There are a lot of crestfallen faces,’ said John Hannifan, an observer from Memorial United Methodist Church in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. ‘The sun might come out tomorrow but it’s a dark day.’

“That was not the view of Antoine Umba Ilunga, a delegate from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. He was glad that the Traditional Plan — which would retain church restrictions against ordination of “self-professed practising homosexuals” and the hosting and performing of same-sex unions by churches and pastors — had enjoyed majority support as it was moved on to the plenary.

“Why does he think that plan should prevail? ‘Simple reason, because the Bible says a man must be married to a woman,’ he said.”

“The center of gravity in the United Methodist Church is shifting from the United States and to the vibrant, growing Christian faith of the Global South,” —Mark Toohey.

Ilunga and people like him made the difference. Swinging the vote was the presence of delegates from Africa, the Philippines and Russia, which have conservative Methodist churches, added to the one third of US delegates that support traditional marriage.

One keen observer was Mark Tooley of the Washington-based Institute for Religion and Democracy, a key lobby group which has supported evangelical causes in church votes, losing badly with the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, but having gained a victory with the Methodists.

“This General Conference is further proof that the center of gravity in the United Methodist Church is shifting from the United States and to the vibrant, growing Christian faith of the Global South,” said IRD President Tooley.

“The United Methodist Church is no longer rooted in a declining liberal U.S. mainline Protestant tradition and is instead reflecting its identity as a global church.”


Some prayer points to help

Pray for both grace and truth to prevail in God’s family