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."
But all 250 available cell phones were quickly picked up by overseas delegates, who reported their appreciation to the church's news service. And the Africans, far more outspoken than politically inhibited American evangelicals, hardly needed any "manipulation." What really enraged the liberals were not the cell phones per se but the growing alliance between American evangelicals and Africans. While liberal regions of the church continue to implode in membership, conservative Methodist churches are growing. And the Africans very possibly could comprise a majority of the denomination within a decade.
"We have feared this for years," reported a spokesman for gay caucus group "Reconciling Ministries Network," complaining that international delegates are in "clear alliance with the most conservative elements" of the U.S. church. "As some of us heard in speeches from the floor from some of these international delegates, they are far more conservative than even the average American conservatives, on a wide range of social issues." To counter the alliance between U.S. evangelicals and overseas United Methodists, church liberals are urging creation of a separate U.S. church conference that would potentially start n 2016.
More behind the scenes than the African-evangelical alliance was the alliance between Jewish groups and Methodist evangelicals. The denomination's lobby office had endorsed divestment from Caterpillar, Inc. because its bulldozers support Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Shortly before the General Conference, the lobby office pulled the proposal. But five regional conferences, supported by the 100 year old Methodist Federation for Social Action, had petitioned for a more comprehensive divestment, similar to what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tried three years ago.
The Jewish Public Affairs Council, B'nai B'rith, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center all sent staff to the General Conference in Fort Worth, as did Fair Witness, a pro-Israel group headed by a Catholic nun. But more importantly, with help from evangelicals, they had earlier enlisted local Jewish leaders to contact key swing delegates across the country about the Jewish community's concerns regarding potential anti-Israel divestment by United Methodism's $15 billion pension fund. Jewish groups were persuasive with liberal delegates, while conservative caucus groups solidified opposition by evangelicals. African delegates also opposed divestment.
"Vociferous critics of Israel attended the General Conference in large numbers," observed Ethan Felson of the Jewish Public Affairs Council. "They called delegates, sent mailings, displayed banners, and distributed flyers. But at the end of the day, our good friends in the Methodist church united with us. We have made many new friends in this journey."
After defeat in committee, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, also a key advocate for same-sex marriage, tried to revive divestment on the convention floor but failed. Divestment's resounding defeat was surprising, given the long-time anti-Israel stance by United Methodist elites. But the cooperation between evangelicals and Jewish groups, with some help from Africans, proved decisive.
Unlike the U.S.-centered Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the international United Methodist Church seems poised for a come-back. And that resurgence owes mostly to African church members. Emboldened by their growing congregations, and hardened by years of strife in their own countries, the African United Methodists are undeterred by American political correctness or threats by U.S. liberals. Almost certainly facing future vilification, the Africans are likely to show their American critics that they are made of tougher stuff than many of their ideological allies in this country.
Mark D. Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy's program for United Methodists.