Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century: From William McKinley to 9-11 (2012).
United Methodism is one of two denominations among the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism that have not officially liberalized their teachings about marriage and sex. (The other is the American Baptist Church.) Mainline denominations are the historic Protestant churches dating to America’s founding that long were central to sustaining civic life. These churches liberalized theologically early in the last century, creating a divide between them and evangelicals.
Unlike the other mainline denominations and nearly all other U.S. church bodies, United Methodism is a global denomination juridically governed by delegates from around the world. At least 42 percent of its membership and most of its active worshippers are in Africa, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where weekly attenders may outnumber total U.S. church attendance. Africans will soon become a majority within United Methodism, which loses almost 100,000 members annually in the United States while gaining often twice that number in Africa.
United Methodism in the United States has declined from 11 million to less than seven million, while gaining over 5 million in Africa for a total current membership of 12.5 million. There are also small churches in the Philippines and Europe. Because it’s global, United Methodism continues to grow and bucks the downward trend among other mainline denominations, which have been losing members for decades (with losses sometimes 60 percent or more of membership).
Its global nature also virtually ensures United Methodism will not liberalize its marriage and sex teaching. Churches in Africa are overwhelmingly conservative, and those in the Philippines are mostly conservative, as are churches in Eastern Europe. United Methodism defines marriage only as male-female and denies ordination to persons sexually active outside of marriage. Churches and clergy are forbidden from celebrating same-sex unions.
So United Methodism remained traditionalist on sex even as America and mainline churches have become more liberal. Within U.S. United Methodism there are tensions between the old mainline identity and the newer global identity. The church’s Western Jurisdiction, where 2 percent of members live, in 2016 elected an openly lesbian bishop in defiance of church law. Elsewhere local churches have defiantly hosted same-sex unions. Sometimes defiance by clergy is strongly punished; sometimes it results in only minor consequences.
United Methodism has openly debated homosexuality since 1972, and ever since then sex has been the major controversy at every governing quadrennial General Conference. Without delegates from growing churches in Africa, United Methodism would have liberalized, as did the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). These shifts contributed to denominational schisms and accelerated membership losses.
Will United Methodism suffer a schism? The church is convening a special General Conference in early 2019 to focus exclusively on sex. U.S. bishops are proposing a local option plan similar to other mainline churches that would likely prompt conservatives to leave the denomination. Traditionalists are countering with reaffirmation of the church’s current teachings plus facilitated exit for dissidents who cannot live under church law. Africans and U.S. evangelicals will have a majority of delegates.
So United Methodism will likely keep traditionalist policies on sex, like those of other major segments of U.S. Christianity, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, evangelicals, and historic black churches. Will the growing divide on sex between traditional churches and secular America create expanding culture clashes, especially on religious freedom issues? Almost certainly.
However, many Christians see this gulf as an opportunity for clarifying Christian distinctives apart from theologically vague cultural Christianity. Churches will be more set apart and challenged to disciple their own adherents in teachings that are increasingly odd and even offensive to secular culture.
American Christianity, thanks partly to these clashes over sex, is becoming more globalized and less distinctly American. Traditional U.S. Christians, often feeling culturally besieged, look increasingly to global Christianity, especially Africa, for solidarity and encouragement. As a uniquely global denomination, United Methodism has embodied this trend within itself.
Some American Christians hope that African Christian orthodoxy and vitality ultimately help reinvigorate American Christianity. As Africans gain increasing influence in the United Methodist U.S.-based bureaucracy, they may blaze a trail for others. Traditional Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others in the United States hope Africans can help revive their flagging traditions in an increasingly post-denominational American Christianity.
Contrary to some stereotypes, theologically and sexually traditionalist churches are doing better overall than other churches even in socially liberal areas of America and Europe, including cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and London. Often these churches are popular with growing immigrant populations. Distinctions between Western and global Christianity are fading, in ways that strengthen both churches and wider international societal bonds.
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