May 25, 2012

A Sober Look at General Conference’s Growing Conservative Majority

The United Methodist Church may have just officially slipped out of reach for official embrace of sexual liberalism.

Pro-homosexuality advocates appear to have done EVERYTHING they possibly could, many times over, to prevail at the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church which recently met in Tampa. They raised massive amounts of money, including many hundreds of thousands of dollars of secular political groups, while caucus groups defending the church’s conservative position on sexual morality raised only a fraction of the liberal caucuses’ financial war chest. They had an ambitious, nationwide grassroots-organizing effort to train 1,500 activists around the country in lobbying General Conference delegates. They launched apparently unprecedented efforts to reach out to overseas delegates. They had an army of energetic, colorfully clad volunteers on site for the duration of the April 24 – May 4 conference. They even had a former board member of the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) strategically placed as the chair of the commission responsible for organizing the General Conference. This key commission’s membership was structured to unjustly over-represent individuals from declining, liberal-dominated areas of the denomination while under-representing the much larger, more conservative regions in the U.S. South and almost entirely excluding Africans. All delegates were required to participate in an hour of questionably structured “holy conversations” that generously allowed defenders of sexual liberalism plenty of time to have their concerns heard, before a single petition was even considered. The plenary debate schedule was re-arranged to make sure that liberals had generous time for the lengthy debate they wanted on changing the denomination’s teaching that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (a special arrangement that the powers that be were apparently only willing to make for advocates of this one cause). In the debate, two denominationally prominent mega-church pastors with moderately evangelical reputations, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, even arose as prominent spokesmen for at least partially liberalizing the church’s teaching on sexual standards.

If I were a strategist for the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), I could hardly have asked for more.

With all of this effort and energy – plus the confidence-booster of sexual liberalism’s recently triumphing in (and speeding the decline of) other mainline Protestant denominations – many of those hoping for the UMC’s surrender tor secular Western sexual values were exuberant that THIS would be the big year of their takeover.   There were even plans to organize a same-sex union ceremony by the Convention Center immediately after the General Conference, as the very first one officially sanctioned by the denomination.  About the most cautious prediction I heard from a leader of revisionist activists was RMN chief Troy Plummer, who told Religion News Service last fall, “We might not get everything we want, but we’ll get some of it,” and that “I think something dramatic will happen in Tampa. The vote will be close, by just a handful of votes this time. We’re about to make it happen.”

Okay, so LGBT activists failed to get “everything.” But how about Plummer’s confident prediction that they would surely at least achieve “some” of their many desired changes?

Delegates decisively re-affirmed the current Social Principles statement on human sexuality, by a significantly GREATER margin than the last General Conference.  The historic turning point of this General Conference was further marked by the fact that a normally liberal-dominated committee voted decisively (43-33) to reject changing this part of the Social Principles.

Incredibly, after this vote, sexual liberalization advocates (successfully) called for an effective tabling of their other priorities:

  • Changing the teachings that marriage is understood as a union of “a man and a woman” and “support[ing] laws in civil society” enshrining the same definition of marriage Social Principles
  • At least winning endorsement for civil unions
  • Ending prohibitions on clergy (or clergy candidates) being homosexually active or engaging in premarital sex
  • Ending prohibitions on United Methodist clergy performing or United Methodist congregations hosting blessings of same-sex unions
  • Repealing bans on use of apportioned annual conference or general-church funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality”
  • Chastising the Boy Scouts of America for their policies on homosexuality
  • Supporting transgender rights

The bulk of these liberalizing proposals failed by wide margins in committee. Even previous General Conferences generally described as overall failures for the homosexuality-affirming cause have adopted one or two lower-profile pronouncements on LBGT issues that have cheered liberals and angered conservatives, such as opposing “homophobia” or supporting gay rights in the U.S. military. But not this General Conference.

“Something dramatic” indeed happened in Tampa. Theologically orthodox delegates accustomed to hoping mainly to just “hold the line” on sexuality and normally boisterous progressive delegates aggressively charging ahead with their agendas to get the church to “catch up with” secular American culture found they have switched places. Now sexual liberals find themselves defensively seeking to merely “hold the line” (i.e., prevent things from getting worse from their perspective) and for the first time, gave up on even trying to change the denomination’s prohibitions of same-sex unions and the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”

Theological liberals described the Tampa meeting as “the most conservative General Conference ever,” in reference to the makeup of delegates. With the juggernaut of the denomination’s membership (and General Conference representation) steadily shifting towards theologically orthodox African churches at the expense of shrinking liberalized regions of the northern and western United States, any objective observer would expect the growing conservative majority to continue to strengthen at future General Conferences. A proposal informally dubbed “the Global Segregation” plan – which would have allowed U.S. United Methodists to set their own policies without international (i.e., biblically grounded African) input – was already tried and overwhelmingly rejected a few years ago. An attempt to resurrect Global Segregation in Tampa got nowhere in its committee.

In my years of professionally observing theologically liberal United Methodist groups and attending a liberal divinity school within one of our denomination’s most liberal annual conferences, I have found a striking lack of any discernible commitment to – or often even basic knowledge of – Wesleyan theology in most of the denomination’s pro-homosexuality “Reconciling” movement (and no, a couple of scattered sound-bite, out-of-context quotes from John Wesley don’t count). But a driving motivation for many “Reconciling” activists to stay within the church has been their hope in the alleged inevitability of getting closer and closer at each General Conference until the UMC finally officially embraces sexual liberalism.

But supporters of RMN and its allies are now left with the question of why they wasted so much money and energy on what turned out to be a losing cause. To be sure, some United Methodist pro-homosexuality activists will continue to make noise in the years ahead, with the angry shrillness they displayed in Tampa becoming a dominant tone.  But with their lack of commitment to the United Methodist theological tradition, the increasinglyconservative trend of General Conference on sexuality issues, and the self-imposed implosion of the areas of the church most sympathetic to the LGBT cause, I would expect more and more United Methodist advocates of sexual liberalism to not see a compelling reason for staying within the UMC rather than transferring to the UCC or the Unitarian Universalist Association.


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