I wrote this entry to explain why the United Methodist Church voted to keep its gay-unfriendly policies at its recent General Conference. To my regular readers this might sound a bit repetitive. To any new people, welcome and I hope you stick around.
I attended the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, not as a delegate, but as a volunteer with a coalition of groups trying to make the denomination more progressive and gay-friendly. In 1972 the GC inserted the phrase “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian Teaching” in the Book of Discipline, which governs the denomination. Every four years since then we have been trying to remove that phrase, which serves as the foundation of the rest of the anti-gay mischief (such as banning officiating at gay marriages). In 2008 the vote to remove that phrase failed by a margin of only 4%. This year the church took a giant step backwards when removal failed by a margin of 20%. This is the short answer why that happened:
* The delegates to the General Conference are proportional to membership in a region and there was a sharp shift away from the progressive North and West and towards the conservative South. The Detroit region went from 10 delegates to 8 out of a total of 988 delegates.
* The denomination has members in United States (61% of delegates), Europe (4%), Africa (29%), and the Philippines (5%). There are also associate members from other parts of the world (1%). Membership in America has been dropping and has been rising in conservative Africa. This is a shift of about 10% of the delegates in the last four years.
The long answer:
The United Methodist Church is different from other mainline Protestant denominations in America in that its polity is determined by delegates from around the world. However, those regions outside America are able set aside polity issues that they deem inappropriate for their region. American churches don't have that option. African churches can reject American influence. American churches cannot reject African influence. Conservative advocates exploit that situation to enforce their views on progressive churches in America. A petition to change that was considered in 2008 and rejected. This time it wasn't even considered.
The European and Filipino delegates were very much with us. It is not possible to determine who voted which way because votes were done in secret -- African delegates faced ostracism or death if it became known they voted for us.
One reason for Africa's views is historical. Back in the 1950s missionaries in Africa preached the widespread polygamy was contrary to Christianity (never mind Solomon). Families were ripped apart and the discarded wives were left destitute. That memory makes them resistant to changing their social code now.
Many outsiders say that LGBT people should simply leave the denomination. One member of our coalition responds by saying, "Leave it to whom?" No matter how many LGBT people leave and no matter how conservative the remainder becomes there will always be gay kids growing up in the church. Will we fight for them?
I was part of a coalition headed by Reconciling Ministries Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action. There are also Black, Native American, and Asian American groups in the coalition. We had a sizable (perhaps 500 volunteer) presence at GC.
Last year the coalition started reaching out to the African delegates and will step up that effort between now and the next General Conference in 2016. There are several parts to the discussion. (1) Simply talking about gay issues. Most Africans have only heard one side of the issue. (2) Africans may set aside parts of the Book of Discipline. Please allow Americans to remove the anti-gay language, which you can reinsert. (3) 99% of the money to keep the African church running comes from America. Votes against LGBT issues may prompt some American regions to stop sending money.
Members of the coalition are getting feisty. Last summer pastors in Minnesota started the Altar for All campaign to ask pastors to perform same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies when asked. So far, over 1100 pastors have signed such a pledge. They are declaring their allegiance of the Bible over the Book of Discipline. Pastors can be put on trial for performing such ceremonies and punishment could be removal of credentials. It will be difficult to hold trials for and dismiss 1100 pastors. The most recent trial (last summer) resulted in only a three week suspension.
The coalition hoped for the removal of all of the anti-LGBT policies. However, after seeing the size of the defeat protesters in the hall negotiated with the bishops to put all the other LGBT petitions (both favorable and not) at the end of the agenda so that our losses would not grow. For example, there are currently no prohibitions against transgender pastors. The last day of GC became a waiting game, working to run out the clock before our issues came up. In that we were successful.
You may read my personal account of General Conference. The first post was from before I arrived and is about Holy Conversations that went painfully wrong. Then my postings Arriving at General Conference, An agenda of hospitality, Pain, and Waiting complete the story.