Both sides of the debate over the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church are waiting for a tipping point and for their time to come.
The Traditionalist Clock
I try to avoid reading anything from the IRD (a caucus group began by Catholics with the intent of destabilizing the UMC and other Protestant churches). The feeling is mutual: I’m told the IRD’s blog has quoted me or referenced me but never linked to me (until, oddly, last month). So I hadn’t read one of their latest pieces until last weekend.
In prediction of what could happen in 2016, the IRD writes (remove the XX):
Thanks to the 2016 General Conference giving them more proportional representation, the Africans and other internationals have nearly half the delegates at the 2020 General Conference, compared to 41 percent in 2016, making any liberalizing of the sexuality teaching thereafter politically and demographically impossible…organized liberal resistance at the General Conference on sex issues effectively ends, similar to the end of “moderate” resistance in the Southern Baptist Convention after repeated conservative legislative wins.
Some Traditionalists are waiting for Africa to have 51% voting power, thanks to the GC2000 shift to a representative allocation of delegates. Much like the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, through gerrymandering and majority rule they believe it would cement church polity to their liking for decades to come.
There’s one problem with this time frame: Africa is not homogenous. As Taylor Walters Denyer writes in her missiology blog:
- Africa is a huge continent. To say “Africans believe that…” or blaming something on “African culture” is even more ridiculous than saying “North Americans believe that…” or “North Americans are anti-gay because that is their culture.”
- South Africa legalized same-gender marriage in 2006. Just saying.
- In 1995, there was a missionary-pushed motion to have the Tanganyika Conference (part of the North Katanga Episcopal Area) vote to join the Confessing Movement. It didn’t succeed. Again, just saying.
- While googling “gay rights Africa” leads one mostly to stories of African gay rights leaders being assassinated, there wouldn’t be headlines like this if there weren’t also grassroots gay-rights movements that these martyrs were helping lead.
- When you examine the places in Africa where homophobia and violence against those perceived to be homosexual or gender queer are most extreme, I suggest you follow the money to see who is funding these campaigns. It will often lead you back to the USA.
While it is impossible to know what Africa and the International community of the United Methodist Church will do with their newfound majority, the scenario of majority-international voting can easily happen in 2020 or 2024 given current demographic trends. The question is: will the African United Methodists vote in lockstep with the Traditionalists or will they vote differently? We’ll know when the time comes.
The Progressive Clock
For Progressives, the time frame is a bit different. Cultural trends in America are increasingly in favor of same-gender marriage as it has become legal for a majority of our citizens in 11 years (with much more work to be done). As we previously examined, the demographics are staggering:
- Today, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Millennials (ages 18 to 33) favor same-sex marriage, compared to 37% of Americans who are part of the Silent Generation (ages 68 and older).
- It is difficult to overstate the effect age has on support for same-sex marriage, which is evident even among groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Half (50%) of Millennial Republicans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a view shared by only 18% of Republicans who are members of the Silent Generation.
As well, as Jacob Lupfer draws out in his writings on the PCUSA, mainline clergy are generally even more progressive than their age group.
There’s one problem with this time frame: The average age of General Conference delegates is 55 years old, so the big jump between Baby Boomers passing the representative torch to the Gen-Xers will be the time when this clock likely gongs, which may be after the Traditionalist clock gongs. An earlier gong from this clock would rely on Baby Boomers accepting to change the church polity for the sake of mission (and perhaps sustainability) before it is too late.
Regardless, there’s a strong and categorically plausible shift in the future that is more predictable than the Traditionalist clock. Younger Methodists are overwhelmingly LGBT-inclusive and even younger Evangelicals don’t make it as much of a banner-wave as previous generations. My friends who self-define as “Orthodox” have often commented that they support whatever the polity is in the United Methodist Church. If the UMC becomes LGBT-inclusive by General Conference action, they would support it. I suspect that sentiment is stronger than Traditionalists might be willing to admit.
Whose time is it?
The clock is ticking in the United Methodist Church and both sides see an inevitability to their scenarios. The question is “which clock will sound the gong first?”
- Will the Africans and international community reach a majority first AND vote with the Traditionalists on everything?
- Will the Progressives’ reach a generational tipping point in America and come to a majority opinion in time to effect either international LGBT inclusion or American LGBT inclusion?
Or will there be a third clock that beats these others?
- Will pragmatic Progressives, Evangelicals, and a non-homogenous international community determine that something has to change to allow the USA, Jurisdictions, or local churches to determine its own polity, just like the rest of the international church? For the sake of missional variety and allowing the UMC to be its best self in each context, such a reality is achievable if the dream is articulated, lifted up, and enflamed in the hearts of pragmatic Methodists across the globe. And indeed, it already is.
Which clock will gong first? We’ll know when the time is right and the Holy Spirit sets our hearts together towards God’s dream for the United Methodist Church.
I would like to point out two things:
1) In your reference to the IRD article you make the impression that this is the only prediction made when actually the article gives FIVE “likely scenarios.” The one you quoted is believed to be the most likely and desirable the author, Mark Tooley.
2) In consideration of the two tipping points you might want to also consider that the recent Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly (part of GBOD) voted against three resolutions that would affirm homosexuality. Which is a reverse of similar votes taken in 2010 and 2006.
Also, why bother referencing IRD if you are not going to cite them properly?
Grace and Peace
Wade, thanks for your comment. To your first point, I didn’t need to spend time on articulating what the article was about (they could click the link and read it themselves), but rather the particular argument I was drawing out. To your second point, I haven’t read anything from YPC or consulted with several of my friends who were there. I have previously examined why the Oklahoma young clergy are statistically more conservative than their culture here, if you’d like to read it: “Oklahoma Young Clergy Survey Results on LGBT and Schism.
Finally, like I said in my introduction, the IRD doesn’t cite me properly and therefore I have no inclination to give the full press treatment. To offer a link to them that people can easily follow (without them getting the traffic from hackingchristianity.net directly) is charitable enough.
I would be interested to know how funding will figure into this–the thing which is different about the UMC and the other denominations cited is that we have a general church which is heavily funded by the diminishing US UMC. As many conferences seek to mobilize one to one relationships to fund ministry in many central conferences, will that rate of funding keep pace with the need? I think I read an article a few weeks back that stated that African bishops and pastors in the Anglican communion had begun to realize the politics of what had happened as churches from the US aligned with them rather than regionally. The article seemed to imply that they wouldn’t play those games anymore. Dr. Ted Campbell, a professor of history at Perkins, also has some interesting perspectives on the relative strength (or not) of the SEJ churches in the UMC–if I’ve understood him correctly, the SEJ is simply lagging behind the cultural forces that keep the Bible Belt buckled, though there are signs that even it is beginning to come apart. What happens if major social pressures of the SBNR’s and those who choose to walk away from their parent’s religion begin to decimate SEJ numbers in such a way quicker and sooner than we think. What happens at a General Conference where 60-70% of the delegates are from outside the US but funding resources are 70-80% from the US? Another tipping point might be when the funding of vital ministry among our brothers in sisters in countries where finances aren’t as plentiful (not just in Africa and not just in more conservative central conferences) begins to become a sticking point? I think that before we schism or have a “winner” in this Reaper Sweepstakes (to borrow a phrase from Dave Wilcox), we will see the disintegration of the general church into individual conferences, which will want to decide which ministries to directly support with funding, all the while sending less and less funding to a centralized general church. What the outcome of that is, I don’t know–perhaps another move to be like the Anglican communion? With all of the investigations of funding usage in some African conferences, there’s a lot of ministry not being done (some of it is continuing, however). Is anyone tracking how ministry is funded as a player in all of this (as opposed to who is funding which caucuses)?
Also, wanted to know if citing South Africa as an adopter of marriage equality was simply an indicator of non-homogeneity in Africa–they obviously aren’t figured in to our stats because they are British Methodist. I would be curious to see an overlay map which shows the African countries and their laws related to homosexuality in reference to the relative strength of a Western church presence there (and which one).
Notwithstanding the criticisms offered here and on FB of your treatment of the IRD, I think your basic analysis is helpful. 🙂 Your own bias/hope shows through, but that is OK, mine would too.
I take issue in two areas of thought which show up toward the end:
First, somehow the ideas of “pragmatic Methodists” and “hearts enflamed” just don’t go together for me. It’s just hard to imagine. “God has filled up my heart with the love of Jesus… and convinced me that we must pursue… what *works*! ..what people will *accept*! …Hallelujah!” But maybe that’s just me.
And secondly, well it’s really the same topic. You seem have an underlying assumption here that the UMC should change its teachings on sexuality in order to be successful, in order to reach more people, in order to grow (that’s how I read “being our best self in our context”). I think that at the root is a pragmatic assumption based on what our younger generations have come to believe and accept in their secular worldview, but we need to examine this assumption before acting on it. I agree of course that in the Kingdom of God, we should indeed hope to be successful, to reach more people, and to grow. But that rarely means simply embracing the values of the culture around us. Sometimes the culture is right, and sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes change is progress or healing, and sometimes change is regression or perversion. In other words, “the right side of history,” so to speak, isn’t always right.
So, the most important questions are not “where is our culture going” or “what will young people accept,” but “where is the Holy Spirit leading us to go,” and “what is the truth we must proclaim?” Of course we can and do have different opinions on this, and I don’t expect to change your mind. However, I’d be happy if I could change a few minds on the crucial issue that it’s more important to be on the right side of God than the right side of cultural trends, so that we can frame the debate in better terms than pragmatism or progress.
But then, there is one more point which goes along with that. *Even if* we wanted to make our decisions based on where the culture is headed – *even if* God was calling us to agree with people in order to reach them – shouldn’t it give us pause what is happening to every mainline/liberal Protestant denomination which is “ahead” of us on questions of homosexuality? If we want to be pragmatists, we should carefully examine the trends in the ELCA, the PCUSA, the DOC, the UCC, the Episcopal Church, and now the Moravians. Has their change of heart allowed them to reach more young people? Are they growing? Are people who did not know Jesus coming to know Jesus? Is the Kingdom growing? And – let’s be honest, we care about it – will the institutions survive? We should look before we leap.
James, thanks for your comment. I feel the bulk of your concern revolves around a misunderstanding of how I’m using the term “pragmatic Progressives.” The great thing about a blog is that I don’t have to redefine every term I use every time–I just have to link to where I’ve defined it previously. So the “Pragmatic Progressives” text that you quoted is linked to this blog post. Here’s the final section of that post on Hamilton/Slaughter’s A Way Forward:
So my use of pragmatic isn’t reflecting the wishy-washy liberal and institutional preservation concerns that you have, in my reading (feel free to disagree: this is the Internet, after all) though I certainly see institutional preservation as Priority #1 of Slaughter/Hamilton.
On the contrary to being formed by culture, my best convictions are formed out of Scripture and Tradition and augmented by Reason and Experience…there’s very little room for “culture is doing it we should too.” Your reframed important questions are my important questions too, no disagreement there, even if the Biblical truth I seek to proclaim is different than yours.
The alarm might have already rung (to strain the analogy even further). In Portland, the African conferences and the Southeastern Jurisdiction will have 51% of the votes. It would be difficult enough to see how a change in the Social Principles happens much less allowing for gay ordination.