The current UMC-related news is dominated by the draining, destructive conflicts caused by the “biblical [dis]odebience” movement of renegade clergy refusing to keep their own word to uphold our denomination’s biblical policies on sexual morality. News reports and commentaries have largely focused on such matters as the UMC’s globally shifting demographics, the anarchic and divisive implications of a church lacking effective communal standards, and the usual arguments between theologically liberal and culturally conformed vs. biblical and counter-cultural approaches to the Christian faith.
But an important point of this recent stage of conflict that seems to have not gotten enough notice is sexually liberal United Methodists increasingly conceding defeat in their decades-long effort to persuade the majority of fellow United Methodists to abandon biblical, historic Christian teaching on sexual morality.
As a side note, it is important to remember that the range of sexuality morality in question is far broader than just homosexual practice. We have documented elsewhere on this site how the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) has repeatedly, if sometimes secretly, supported “polyamory” (concurrent multiple sexual partners) – here and here – while the cases of Mary Ann Kaiser Barclay and Phil Thomason have laid bare RMN activists’ moral and personal embrace of non-marital romantic cohabitation – see here and here.
In any case, homosexual practice remains, at this point, the most prominently contested tip of the “anything goes” iceberg into which RMN and its allies have been trying to steer the UMC.
And one thing they can never be faulted for is not trying hard enough. Since 1972, sexual liberationists have relentlessly made their case at every level of the denomination. Church officials have bent over backwards in all sorts of ways to give them opportunity to promote their cause, along with the formation all sorts of study committees and official dialogues – often to the point of crowding out room for the church to address other important concerns. The UMC’s would-be sexual liberalizers have further enjoyed the energetic and very public support of countless UMC seminary professors, denominational agency structures, and bishops.
Yet towards the end of the 2004 General Conference, I happened to hear a pro-homosexuality activist complain of delegates’ votes: “We aren’t converting anyone!” Since that moment, “reconciling” activists continued pouring untold amounts of time and treasure into trying the same thing and expecting different results. In this time, they enjoyed an influx of strong support from well-heeled secular gay-rights groups.
Yet another ten years later, they find themselves facing General Conference trending in an increasingly orthodox direction, half of RMN’s own constituency (according to their own survey released last year) saying they want to refocus on forming their own denomination, and RMN’s longtime CEO recently leaving the UMC for a largely LGBTQ denomination. In fact, at the 2012 General Conference, after Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter’s failure to liberalize the Social Principles statement on sexual morality, liberal delegates made the unprecedented move of giving up on even trying to achieve their longstanding goals of removing such binding policies as the ban on blessing same-sex unions.
To be fair, it is not as if no United Methodists have changed their mind. But this has been largely limited to three main categories. First of all, many U.S. and European “cultural Christians” in the UMC simply followed their surrounding secular cultures when they were unaccepting of homosexuality and then continued following their cultures as they liberalized. Hollywood likely played more of a role than homosexuality-affirming sermons in such changes of heart. Secondly, as other United Methodists either converted from nominal to true Christianity or else deepened in their discipleship, they came to understand and accept relevant biblical teaching. This was my own experience as someone who was once on the other side of this debate. Finally, whenever significant numbers of disgruntled United Methodists in a given annual conference leave the denomination, the theological balance of power of the remaining conference can notably shift, creating the illusion of persuasion. But convincing someone to leave a house and hand you the keys is not the same as convincing them to agree with you. (I do not dispute the importance of having a family member “come out” in shaping some individuals’ views of homosexuality. But the way in which such responses have ranged from liberal postures of simple affirmation to more biblically grounded “compassion without compromise” demonstrates how simply having a same-sex-attractive loved one is not, by itself, automatically liberalizing.)
In any case, if we are to look only at those individuals who remain in our global denomination, the shift towards biblical orthodoxy is clear. The clear majority of United Methodists remain steadfastly unpersuaded by RMN. While the ongoing open support of purely secular, politically powerful gay-rights groups like GLAAD can amplify even relatively small minority voices in our denomination for some time, such external LGBT activist interference in our church is not shifting the increasingly orthodox and global character of United Methodism.
Last summer, I noted that sexually liberal United Methodist activists’ shifting their energies towards their “biblical [dis]obedience” campaign can be traced to the dramatic failures of their decades long-campaign to persuade General Conference, the most representative body of UMC leaders.
More recently, Matt Berryman, RMN’s new chief, openly confirmed this connection. In December, he told the New York Times, “After 40 years of playing nice and attempting a legislative solution, we will not wait any longer.” And within the last couple of days, he told the Associated Press, “At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are,” candidly conceding that “Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way.” While RMN is sometimes portrayed as relatively more moderate than the shrill militancy of the group’s close friend, ally, and poster child, Amy DeLong, such statements from Berryman raise the question of whether there is truly any way in which RMN rejects DeLong’s extremism.
I have yet to personally experience much from the RMN crowd that would qualify as “playing nice.” That hardly describes their militantly unloving, bullying, and anti-Golden-Rule tactics to tie the last General Conference into dysfunctional knots.
But it is striking to see the arguably most prominent advocate of sexually liberalizing the UMC admit that not only have RMN’s efforts at winning the heart and soul of more than a radicalized minority of United Methodism been a colossal failure, but that “the brute facts are” that persuading the bulk of United Methodists to adopt RMN’s values on the strength of the arguments in their favor is something that simply “won’t work.”
Such brute facts should normally provoke folk with a little humility, and courage, to honestly face the inherent weaknesses in RMN’s unpersuasive position.
But instead, the new message of the sexually liberalizing activists can be fairly summarized as follows (except where indicated, this is my own attempt at an accurate paraphrase, not Mr. Berryman’s actual words):
“We believe that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexual morality is unjust. We cannot dispute the objective facts of how this same position is strongly affirmed in Scripture, church tradition, and in the writings of John Wesley. We have our own reasons for nevertheless believing that the church should dramatically change to take a different position.
“However, we admit the brute facts that with all of the institutional support, lavish funding, powerful secularizing cultural influences from outside the church, and decades of attrition we could realistically hope for, we have still been unable to persuade more than a radicalized minority of the people currently in our denomination. At the 2012 General Conference, we ultimately decided to not even try to discuss the prohibition of United Methodists blessings for same-sex unions. We further admit that we will not be able to persuade more than a secularized minority in the future, and that even with the most carefully developed and prominently promoted arguments we can muster in favor of our position won’t work.
“While we were never open to ourselves being persuaded by the church’s teaching, now we will have no more Golden-Rule, dialogue, discussion, debate, or playing nice with United Methodists who are not in our narrow faction. In case you did not hear us earlier, we will make very emphatically clear that we are not interested in loving, mutually respectful, non-individualistic, promise-honoring, covenant community with the rest of you people. Instead, those of us sexual liberals who remain in the UMC will now insist on selfishly hogging even more of the denomination’s attention than we already have, in an aggressive way, as we either forcibly achieve our goals in the United Methodist Church by an extended, destructive battle of wills – or else drain and divert as much of United Methodism’s ministry resources as possible in the increasingly bitter, angry fight we have chosen to pick.”