THE GOVERNING CONVENTION of America's third largest religious body meets this week. And the results might be a pleasant surprise for conservatives.
Like the elites of other Mainline Protestant denominations, officials of the United Methodist Church have served as an amen corner for the secular left in America for more than 50 years. Episcopalians have imploded in schism since the 2003 election of their first openly homosexual bishop. Presbyterians and Lutherans are locked in gridlock over sex issues. And the more liberal-than-thou United Church of Christ has fully embraced the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a suitable spokesman.
United Methodism, whose quadrennial General Conference convenes April 23 to May 2 in Fort Worth, is heading in a different direction. Like the other Mainline Protestants, its U.S. membership has plummeted continuously for 44 years, falling from 11 million to 7.9 million. But unlike the other Mainline Protestants, United Methodism has become an international denomination. Over 3 million United Methodists now live outside the United States, mostly in Africa, brining the church total global membership to over 11 million. Over 1 million live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the formerly British affiliated Methodist Church of the Ivory Coast, with over 600,000 members, has switched to U.S.-based United Methodism.
Nearly 300 of the 990 delegates who meet in Fort Worth next week will be from outside the United States, up from just 20 percent only 4 years ago. At the current rate of membership decline in the United States, and membership increase in Africa, a majority of United Methodists might soon be outside the United States. This contrasts with the U.S. Episcopal Church, which belongs to the global Anglican Communion, but whose membership is almost entirely American, and whose governing General Convention is not directly accountable to overseas Anglicans.
The African United Methodists are strongly evangelical. While U.S. church elites are confused by their declining influence and give their attention to fading political causes of the left, the Africans are quietly assuming wide influence over what was once almost an entirely American institution. Thirty percent of the delegates at the General Conference will come from Africa, the Philippines or Europe. In coalition with another 30 percent of delegates who are U.S. evangelicals, mostly from the South, there is likely for the first time in modern Methodist history a conservative governing majority. Just 4 years ago, U.S. evangelicals and overseas delegates comprised less than 50 percent.
As at every United Methodist General Conference since 1972, homosexuality will be debated in Fort Worth. But votes for the liberal side peaked in 1996, when 15 bishops publicly denounced the church's orthodox stance on marriage and sexual ethics. Africans then only comprised 7 percent of the delegates, but they became especially outspoken on the issue. At the 2000 and 2004 General Conferences, the conservative margins of victory on almost all of the key sexuality votes became larger. In 2004, the United Methodist Church became the first and only of the liberal Mainline Protestant denominations to publicly endorse "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman." It passed with 70 percent of the vote.
American liberals still control most of the church bureaucracy, based in Washington, D.C., New York, or Nashville. But they realize time is running out. Many are basing their hopes on a proposal, supported by the bishops, which would partially divide the U.S. church into its own separate General Conference, making its own rules without interference from irksome, Bible-quoting Congolese or Nigerians. This proposal for a form of global segregation, requiring two thirds support from delegates because it involves changing the church's constitution, is unlikely to pass.
Almost certainly United Methodists easily will ratify their orthodox teachings on marriage and sex. But what else will the new emerging conservative majority accomplish? Church agencies, including the denomination's Washington lobby office, belong to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which was founded in 1973 rally churches behind Roe v. Wade. Conservatives have long fought to extract United Methodism from the abortion rights group. With support from Africans, their efforts may finally succeed.
Will U.S. evangelicals and Africans be able to change other aspects of the denomination's public policy witness? The church's lobby office, the largest Religious Left lobby in Washington, D.C., had been advocating that the church's pensions agency divest from Caterpillar, Inc., for selling equipment to Israel. Just today, the lobby office withdrew its proposal, after a "dialogue" with Caterpillar. The plan had been poorly received at a gathering for leading delegates earlier this year, and the lobby office likely smelled defeat. More extreme proposals for divestment from other sources will likely fail at the General Conference.
Almost certainly, some liberal political resolutions will still get rubber stamped in Fort Worth, based mostly on habit. Conservatives in the church, accustomed to being a minority, have usually focused on key theological and sexuality issues, letting the ostensibly less important political issues, so cherished by church liberals, sail through. The 2004 General Conference failed specifically to denounce the Iraq War, despite repeated urging by their bishops. It remains an open question whether this General Conference will address Iraq. But the General Conferences of 2000 and 2004 added specific "Just War" language to their Social Principles, to the dismay of many church liberals.
The evangelical resurgence in United Methodism will not be as sudden or dramatic as the conservative victories in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. But the tide that is now carrying the denomination clearly flows from a conservative direction. The ramifications of a once liberal Mainline denomination returning to theological orthodoxy are potentially momentous.
Mark D. Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy's program for United Methodists.