This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
May 1st, 2008
Last night the delegates to the United Methodist Church’s General Convention voted to reject a proposal from their committee to be more inclusive of gay Christians. Instead they voted to accept a minority recommendation with harsher language.
The Rev. David McEntire, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said he was not happy with either alternative presented to delegates.
“It was a very painful decision. I had hoped we would reject the minority report so we could return to the present language. The minority report is a little harsher,” he said. “In the church in Lakeland, there are gay persons and families of gay persons. This statement is not going to change my actions. I’m still going to be a loving, inviting pastor.”
However, conservatives in the United States were strongly supported by Methodists from Africa and Asia to push through the more prohibitive wording.
Delegates from Africa spoke several times, strongly supporting the position against homosexuality.
One man from Africa said that “we love homosexuals, but we detest what they do.”
The Convention did, however, take one tiny step forward.
They also approved a new resolution opposing homophobia and heterosexism. In a separate resolution, the General Conference asked the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the church’s social advocacy agency, to develop educational resources and materials on the effects of homophobia and heterosexism, the discrimination or prejudice against lesbians or gay men by heterosexual people.
Yet, interestingly, a third of the delegates voted against opposing discrimination and homophobia.
I believe that the vote of the Methodist Convention illustrates a problem that exists and will continue to grow within international religious movements.
I think it likely that had the delegates all been from within the United States, there would have been significant change to the policy. While there may not have been a change in policy on marriages or civil unions, the declarations about immorality and the proud exclusions of gay persons would have disappeared.
But conservative elements within the American church ally with Africans and play upon cultural biases to force their views on their fellow American Methodists. And while they play on African homophobia, they do nothing to address the murder and violence against homosexual persons on the African continent. Rather than condemn brutality, they reject the message of Christ so as to entrench their political alliances and continue their assured success in the politics of their church.
We see this also in the Episcopal / Anglican debate. Conservative Episcopalians looked away when their allies in Nigeria advocated jailing those who even met to discuss discrimination against gay persons. They never objected when Anglican allies in Zimbabwe propped up strongman Robert Mugabe and his campaign of terror against homosexuals.
And it gives us a warning of what is likely to happen within the Methodist Church. Conservative Methodists are just as likely to place victory over the faith of their more liberal brothers as more important than upholding human rights and decency. Sadly, the battles within the churches have become less about the gospel of Christ and more about the gospel of coercive and restrictive power.
But I believe that American Methodists will, within the next decade, become both aware of and disgusted by the treatment of gay men and women in Africa. They will see the violence, hear the dehumanization, see the discrimination, and begin to empathize with their gay brothers and sisters. This will become more pronounced as younger people grow into positions of authority and as traditionalists retire and the churches as a whole become more liberal.
And they will begin to resent that their church’s policies of discrimination and condemnation are being dictated by foreign delegates who are operating from within a culture of bigotry.
However, the current growth of most Christian churches is from Africa and Asia. And with growth comes influence and power.
I think it is nearly inevitable that there will be scism and division in most American mainstream churches, especially those who are part of a larger international body. The minorities within those American churches that seek to hold to tradition and rejection of gay persons will align with African and Asian movements and those who believe in an inclusive theology will find fellowship with European affiliates.
Further, it is likely that there will be consolidation of the divided churches, with the liberal branches melding into a united protestant Christian church. Evidence of such a direction was visible even within this Methodist Convention by the vote for a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The ELCA already has five full communion relationships with The Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.
I believe that within the next decade or so, the face of religion in America will be far different than it has been for the past few centuries. We live in interesting times.
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