The most common question with our UMC breakdown is: how did it come to this? In the next three posts, we’ll look at the specifics of how we arrived where we are now. I’ll be drawing on my own firsthand experience, the experiences of close friends and family members, and other written accounts.
“How did we get here?”
Before 1972 the Methodist movement didn’t exactly have a formal statement on same-sex relationships. After all, up until then I’d say most of the world still defaulted to a view that aligned pretty well with timeless Judeo-Christian teaching: sex/marriage are meant for a man and a woman. But the sexual revolution of the 1960s-70s was starting to reach full steam, and no aspect of American life was entirely safe from the counterculture movement. In some ways, some small parts of it were healthy, and our society made limited good progress toward much-needed improvements (like civil rights and women’s equality). In other ways, the “revolution” overshot completely — it succeeded in creating new/worse problems than ever before. It ultimately threw the baby out with the bathwater.
During this same time period, the United Methodist Church was experiencing its own upheaval. It was officially a brand-new denomination, as a merger between several existing groups, and one of its first orders of business was to decide where the church would stand on a whole host of social issues. As a starting point, a Commission was formed from a small handful of leaders, many of them left-leaning, so liberal Methodists saw an opportunity to redefine the parts of our Christian morality that they saw as outdated. As you can imagine, when the Commission reported to General Conference in 1972, it proposed a vague stance on sex that – for the very first time – left the door open for homosexuality to be condoned in the UMC.
Thankfully, the Conference delegates detected this as a political maneuver. They rejected it and instead articulated the longstanding position of the Church as our newly-minted official doctrine: all persons are of sacred worth, but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. As I’ve said before, it’s a balanced approach that maintains the important boundary between who we are (personhood) and what we choose to do with ourselves (sexual practice). The delegates did well to set the Methodist church on firm footing for years to come.
Unfortunately, the 1972 Conference was just the first in a long line of attempts by a small group of progressive leaders to manipulate and coerce the rest of the UMC according to their own desires. In other words, it was the start of an enduring pattern.
That Pesky Problem
For the next few decades, progressive leadership continually tested the basic sexual assumptions of the church. Can open/active gay people be clergy? Is sexual behavior a protected status in the church? Can the denomination use funds given by faithful lay people to promote homosexuality? These challenges came in the form of subtle political schemes as well as acts of open defiance to our shared covenant. Liberal church leaders seemed to be settling into a new guiding ultimatum: “Since we obviously hold the moral highroad on all this, we must disregard the ‘backwards’ beliefs of the majority of Methodists and impose our will at any cost.”
Whole UMC Jurisdictions worked hard to declare our church law invalid, and to elevate LGBT-identified candidates for ministry, and even to eventually consecrate openly gay Bishops. Many clergy made public vows explicitly promising to uphold traditional doctrine, but apparently they kept all of their fingers and toes crossed. Bishops, active and retired, took repeated steps to undermine official church teaching. And most of these folks did it all on the denomination’s dime. Remember, progressive leaders have had no problem benefiting from conservative dollars. They’ve built their livelihood on the backs of faithful Traditionalist United Methodists, only to turn around and work directly against their conscientious beliefs. The alleged “moral highroad” couldn’t be paved in a more underhanded way.
During this same time period, American culture was dramatically influenced by a full-court press of progressive sexual ideology. Some of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential forces in our country – higher education, newsmedia, the entertainment industry, political leaders, and corporate interests – went from quiet to extremely loud voices in a chorus intent on redefining a traditional sense of sex/marriage. As sexual identity became an increasingly trendy topic, and as many Americans had close friends or family identify as LGBT, we’ve all found ourselves wrestling with how we hold these relationships close while maintaining our heartfelt beliefs in God. Then, in 2015, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision extended constitutional protection to same-sex marriage, legalizing it nationwide. These developments convinced progressive UMC leaders that the cultural landscape was changing in their favor.
However, there was a new problem on their horizon: Christianity was eroding in the United States, especially in the UMC. The denomination was shrinking in America, and *surprise* it was shrinking the most and the fastest in the most progressive regions. At the same time, the global church was exploding with growth, and *surprise* it was growing the most and the fastest in the most conservative regions of Africa, Europe, and Asia. These trajectories meant progressives would never consolidate total authority over the denomination. That pesky majority of conservative lay people in the U.S., in partnership with their like-minded brothers and sisters of every color and tribe around the world, was an unsolvable problem for far-left UMC leaders.
This was, and remains, the biggest issue for activist progressives: they simply do not have a substantial enough following.
Behind the Curtain
On the other hand, progressive leaders have done exceedingly well at infiltrating the control rooms of our denomination. The farther you get from the people in the pews – the deeper you get into the power structures of our institution and the higher you rise in our top-down structure – I think the more likely you are to find far-left leaning ideologues. The result is a significant mismatch in belief between millions of United Methodists around the world and the clergy/staff who claim to serve them.
It’s tough to estimate, but I’d wager that some 75% of American lay people are far more Traditional than not. There are plenty of “middleground” folk who shift this way or that on certain individual issues, but that’s my sense of the broader picture of churchgoers. The percentage climbs dramatically when you include those outside the U.S. At the same time, though, the reverse seems true among ministers: 75% of American clergy appear left-of-center, and something like 95% of American Bishops may be significantly left-of-center. In my experience, a serious portion of our General Church staff and a mind-boggling majority of our seminary faculty/staff also seem very theologically liberal.
It means that some of the people we all expect to shepherd our denomination are strikingly unrepresentative of some of our core beliefs. Some of these leaders, granted, have still fulfilled their vows and supported UMC teaching despite their personal misgivings, including plenty of close personal friends of mine. But many others have, for decades, harnessed their positions to try to remake the UMC in their own image – in secret and in public. They’ve amplified the voices of LGBT advocates while downplaying traditional perspectives. They’ve promoted left-leaning leaders while ostracizing conservative pastors and congregations. And, more recently, they’ve begun to openly punish those with whom they disagree. In other words, I think activist progressive leaders are employing every possible tool to try to help their small minority of power-brokers hold sway over the much larger majority.
There’s no clearer example than in the progressive strategies wielded at General Conference (GC). Since GC is the most important political venue in our denomination, progressive leaders have pulled out all the stops since 1972 to try to overpower it. As I shared in previous posts, GC is the only body that can speak for the whole UMC or make core changes in who we are and what we do together. It has consistently denied any change to our view of same-sex marriage. But if we take a brief glance at roughly the last 25 years of General Conferencing, we can see how progressive tactics have evolved to try to impose that change.
I believe we can summarize their strategy in three phases: Disruption, Division, and Demolition. I’ll briefly cover the first phase below, and then the second and third phases in follow-up posts.
Phase One (1996, 2000, 2004)
Starting in 1996, LGBT advocates began to more forcefully focus their efforts on generating noise at General Conference. During each gathering, they blanketed the entrances to the meeting spaces, as well as even the doorsteps of delegates’ hotel rooms, with protesting and propaganda. In Denver, when GC 1996 again upheld a traditional stance on sex/marriage, progressive activists barred the exits, and those who tried to leave were slapped or spat upon. Four years later in Cleveland, hundreds of protesters were arrested after storming the convention hall, with one young woman climbing a high precipice and threatening to throw herself down. Another four years later in Pittsburgh, protesters marched in a parade throughout the gathering space, with one intentionally shattering a chalice from the altar for Holy Communion.
The goal was obvious – if progressive leaders couldn’t win the votes, they would simply harass, interrupt, and delay.
It was shocking and incredibly wasteful. After all, General Conference takes place at a cost of something like $20,000 per minute. These are the only two weeks every four years when delegates can handle the most significant business of the church. Methodists from all over the world traverse difficult journeys, at a wild expense, just to be there for what should be holy conferencing. But progressive behavior was more like the corrupt stuff of Capitol Hill, the worst of secular politics, than how the body of Christ ought to function even in deep disagreement. Disappointingly, when our liberal leaders don’t get their way, they’ve chosen repeatedly to block every way for everyone else.
This time period also saw many of our Bishops, for the first time, join in publicly denouncing UMC doctrine. Many of them were apparently working in coordination with the protesters. That’s especially significant because Bishops are meant to preside over General Conference with neutrality – they aren’t even allowed to vote at GC as an important part of our separation/balance of power. Besides, our Bishops take even deeper vows of commitment to church doctrine, which the GC delegates are meant to be free to determine. Instead, many of our Bishops completely broke faith by injecting themselves directly into the distractions.
And this was just the first phase in what was already becoming a major church conflict. Disruption, especially including delay tactics, remains one of the primary tools for progressive leaders today. But after the 2004 General Conference, an additional approach began to emerge.
Continue reading in the next post on Division.