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Methodist Alliances

Evangelicals, Africans, and Jews.

12:00 AM, May 20, 2008 • By MARK TOOLEY
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FEW IN THE MEDIA HAVE reported it, but the recent governing General Conference of the 11.5 million member United Methodist Church revealed some fascinating new alliances involving American evangelicals, Africans, and Jews.

American evangelicals and African delegates were together able to preserve the church's definition of marriage, narrowly averting an Episcopal Church-like implosion for America's third largest denomination.

And American Jewish groups, working with evangelicals, were able to stop all divestment proposals aimed at Israel, despite support from church agency bureaucrats and the church's oldest liberal caucus group.

Unlike virtually any other Mainline Protestant denomination in America, the United Methodist Church is international in its membership (see "Will Methodism Tilt Right"). Just under 8 million United Methodists live in the United States, while 3.5 million United Methodists live overseas, mostly in Africa. Over 1 million live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By some counts, there are more United Methodists on church on a typical Sunday in the Congo than in the entire United States.

The dynamic of conservative Africans versus liberal Americans is well known to Anglicans. But here is the difference. The U.S. Episcopal Church, convulsed by schism since its 2003 election of an openly homosexual bishop, is almost entirely a U.S. denomination. Its membership in the global Anglican Communion is symbolically important. Nigerian and Rwandan Anglicans may loudly complain about the U.S. Episcopal Church. But they have no direct, juridical authority over American Episcopalians.

In contrast, the United Methodist Church's governing General Conference, which just concluded its quadrennial 10 day meeting in Fort Worth, includes Congolese, Ivorians, Nigerians, Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Angolans, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and others from Africa, along with Filipinos and Europeans. Almost 30 percent of the delegates this year were from overseas, compared to 20 percent in 2004. And many of these Africans, as hardened survivors of civil wars and repressive regimes, are not easily intimidated.

As the U.S. church continues to hemorrhage, having lost 3 million members in 40 years, the African church is growing. In 2012, as many as 40 percent of the delegates will come from outside the United States, mostly Africa. This year was probably the last opportunity for Methodist liberals to prevail on sexuality issues, which have been the totemic dividing line between revisionists and traditionalists.

By a vote of 517 to 416, the delegates in Fort Worth voted to retain the church's official stance holding homosexual practice as "incompatible with Christian teaching." The margins on the church's prohibition against actively homosexual clergy and same-sex unions were larger, sometimes surpassing 70 percent. But a loss on the "incompatible" phrase, which dates to 1972, likely would have ignited a conservative exodus from the denomination.

Clearly, the presence of 192 African delegates, who were outspoken in their defense of the church's current position on homosexuality, was crucial. In 2004, the Africans had only 108 delegates. The increase of 84 delegates for Africa was vital to defeating the proposed liberal replacement language, which vaguely urged a "new insight" on sexuality. When an African bishop was thanked for the support of his delegates, he replied, "That's why I brought them here."

Liberal church officials preemptively responded with rage to cooperation between American evangelicals and African delegates. Early in the conference, evangelicals offered courtesy cell phones to all African and Filipino delegates. The official United Methodist News Service quickly responded with a litany of condemnation from church officials alleging, "paternalism, manipulation, exploitation and of course, racism" by Methodist conservatives.

The head of the church's Washington lobby office, Jim Winkler, bemoaned: "Not only did certain organizations and individuals manipulate many African delegates, but many of those delegates willingly permitted themselves to be manipulated. They accepted gifts apparently without considering the ethical consequences. This is improper."