by Chris Ritter
“Over 95% of all statistics on the internet are completely fabricated.” -John Wesley, Sermon on the Quadrilateral
The above warning noted, I offer this follow up to my recent post which generated quite a bit of conversation regarding data and Tom Berlin’s famous “sugar packet” illustration. I argued that Berlin’s categories are not equally populated and that “Traditional Incompatiblist” represent something approaching a global, governing majority of United Methodists. I also argued that efforts to form a movement from a perceived US center come almost exclusively from the Progressive Compatiblist Camp, cheered on by Progressive Incompatiblists who only need a local option to advance their cause. The ranks of the Traditionalist Compatiblist category have been severely thinned as people like myself have all but abandoned hope for a structural solution that keeps all the players in the same sort of Connectionalism we have now. (See my post, “The Oliveto Effect“).
This is all quite relevant now because a group comprised mostly of Progressive Compatiblists have gathered to enhance their voice in shaping the future of the UMC. As the Commission on a Way Forward continues to work, this new effort is trying to capture what they see as the broad center. Some of the sharpest minds in the UMC like Tom Berlin, Jim Harnish, and Adam Hamilton are leading this effort. The recent meeting did not yield a plan or even a joint statement. However, I have heard presentations by some of the conveners before. Their view of the present state of the UMC goes something like this:
“United Methodists are moderate, reasonable folks who are able to bridge the cultural divides that bedevil our American Culture. We are warm-hearted people more concerned about making the world a better place than staking out partisan positions.
Lately, the unity of our beloved denomination has been threatened through polarizing language about human sexuality. A few partisans on each side of this conversation are making too much out of something that is not core to our identity as Methodists.
The venom and vitriol in our denomination has reached a critical point and schism is imminent. It is time for cooler heads to step forward and lead. The denomination should be divided into three categories: (1) One that prohibits same sex marriage, (2) One that guarantees the right to same sex marriage, and (3) one middle group that can tolerate local differences on these matters.
We predict that once this solution is enacted, peace will return to the UMC and we can get on with the business of ministry. Please sign up with our peace-loving majority coalition of compatiblists.”
This argument resonates with some in the U.S. because it matches their experience of United Methodism. David Watson offers a thoughtful critique of the perceived UM “quiet center” in a recent post.
But we must also note that American United Methodism is rapidly becoming a minority experience within the larger denomination. Older, white-skinned, affluent, and declining United Methodism is being overtaken by younger, dark-skinned, poor, and multiplying United Methodism from the Global South. Discussion of our ideological sugar packets too often includes only white sugar.
I have every reason to believe that American Centrist leaders like Tom Berlin, Jim Harnish, and Adam Hamilton love, honor, celebrate, and respect United Methodism overseas. This fact makes it particularly perplexing that the Centrist demographic model leaves out the Global Church. They describe a UMC that does not actually exist. Their UMC is certainly not the church that shows up to vote at General Conference. The American Middle is not the statistical average, mean, or mode of the UMC.
There are roughly 7 million United Methodists in the U.S. and 5.6 million abroad. (These numbers are outdated, but are the ones published by GCFA Data Services.) At current rates of U.S. decline and global growth, those numbers will soon flip and American UM’s will be in the minority. Global growth could be celebrated by all were it not for the fact that the vast majority of central conference UM’s hold a view of marriage/sexuality at odds with the Progressive vision. The question currently being asked by Centrists is whether they can segregate out the Global South from decisions affecting the U.S. or if it is already too late. Either way, 2019 is their only shot.
Building New Walls
When you hear about efforts to build a majority coalition of American compatiblists (people who are OK with more than one official view of human sexuality going forth under the banner of United Methodism), know that three essential divisions would need to be made to bring this about. First, of course, there would be an effort to divide off American Traditionalists Incompatiblists. That might actually be the easiest step because some would be happy to end the fighting and have their own compartment. Others will find no reason to leave as long as UM official positions are in keeping with moral vision of New Testament.
The second cut would be to segregate out the Progressive Incompatiblists. Here, the American Middle would have a fight on their hands. Progressives are not going to willingly isolate themselves in an ideological ghetto when their desire is to change the entire church. After all, the reforms Progressive Compatiblists want are nearly identical to the changes championed by the Progressive Incompatiblists… just enough loosening of our rules to keep their cause marching forward. Leaving Progressive Compatiblists in while cutting off Traditionalists would slingshot the American Middle much further to the left. Many Centrists I know wince as they imagine the outcome of this. One surprising thing I have learned over the past few years is how little Progressive Compatiblists actually want to live in anything remotely resembling the Western Jurisdiction. With Traditionalists gone, that might be what they would get.
“How Can We Let Them Go?”
The final division that must be made in order to realize the Centrist vision is to cut off the Global Church from decisions that affect U.S. Centrists. This is trickier still. But when you want to keep large numbers of poor people from voting, there are some time-tested ways of doing so. One is limiting the privilege to those paying into the system (think poll taxes and restricting voting rights to land owners). Another way to keep poor people from voting is by placing them in a “separate but equal” structure (think apartheid and the Central Jurisdiction). The slide below shows that both of these ideas are alive and well in some UM circles.
A plan to segregate out the central conferences into their own structures was passed at General Conference 2008 only to be overwhelmingly rejected in the ratification votes that happened in the annual conferences. This rejection was as a high as 95% in some African conferences. What was sold as something good for the global church was later recognized as an attempt to deny them their hard-won seat at the table.
“Don’t They Have Their Own Discipline?”
It seems that the “othering” of Central Conference United Methodists is a necessary step toward gerrymandering a “Local Option” governing majority in the American UMC. The numbers don’t work any other way. There is a good amount of misinformation out there about the Central Conferences of the Global South, the only segment of the United Methodist Church that is actually growing.
One oft-repeated claim is that central conferences each have their own Book of Discipline. While technically true, this does not mean that central conferences do not fall under the Social Principles or clergy standards passed at General Conference. They do. All the way back in 1969, the Judicial Council ruled that central conferences must live under the same ministry standards as those in effect for the U.S. church. In the 1970’s General Conference clarified that the Social Principles cannot be customized in Central Conference Disciplines. Contrary to popular understanding, they are not helping to shape rules on human sexuality they don’t have to live by.
The U.S. was not too worried about diversity of approach when we mandated the central conferences to accept female clergy in the 1950’s and 1960’s… a time before most overseas felt ready to do so (see Judicial Council Decisions 142, 147, 155). At the time, the global church only had token representation at General Conference, but we told them that uniformity of approach was good for the whole church and the right thing to do… everywhere. We don’t mind having only one set of rules as long as we are the ones with the privilege of making them.
Now that African & Asian delegates actually have a more proportional seat at the table and help us make the rules, some in the U.S. are making the case that we can’t expect UM’s from across the globe to be bound by the same standards. “They can have rules relevant to their culture. We need rules that are relevant to our culture.” But please note: Our stance on human sexuality is as counter-cultural in Africa as it is in the USA, only in different ways. Jesus’ vision of marriage and sexuality (Matthew 19) contradicts both African practices of polygamy and U.S. practices of same sex marriage. Our African brothers and sisters must wonder why we confuse cultural relevance with cultural accommodation.
Embracing the Global South
As the religious left in the U.S. continues collapsing, United Methodists of the Global South seem to understand that United Methodist leadership will soon fall to them. At the Central Conference Worship Service held during General Conference 2016, Rev. Jerry Kulah took up the theme, “Take the Child to Africa” in his sermon about the future of the UMC. He received a standing ovation.
Many American Traditionalists seem to look forward to being part of a majority African denomination. As U.S. leadership in Mainline denominations has secularized, Traditionalists here have long looked to the Global South for help. In 2000, the Anglican archbishops of Rwanda and Singapore jointly ordained two Americans as missionary bishops to the U.S. to promote orthodox teaching and practice. This move caused Frank Griswold, presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, to famously complain, “Bishops are not intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactured on one continent and fired into another as an act of aggression.” Yet, help from the Global South was key in the formation of the Anglican Mission to the Americas which initially received dissident Episcopalians after biblical ministry standards collapsed. Many American UM traditionalists realize that a sea-change is coming through demographics if global segregation plans can be avoided.
African United Methodism is far from perfect. Financial irregularities in conference offices have been documented and continue to be addressed by GCFA. Out of wedlock births are rampant. Clergy education systems cannot keep up with demands. They deal with all the problems that accompany poverty.
And it is also important to note that Africans do not vote in lock step with U.S. political conservatism. In a floor debate on church advocacy for universal Healthcare at GC2016, one African delegate rose to argue emphatically that access to healthcare is a basic human right. The vote total seemed to indicate that Africans widely supported government mandated healthcare in the U.S.
I Found the Quiet Center
For all the talk about the Quiet Center of U.S. United Methodism, my observation is that Africans were the real non-anxious presence at General Conference 2016. One Progressive delegate noted with exasperation: “They just sit there in committee… and then they vote ‘no’… all of them!” During plenary sessions, central conference delegates quietly observed as activists bound themselves on the floor, waved signs, and set up an alternative “Queer Communion” station during the Eucharist. The only sign of parliamentary emotion on the part of African delegates came following defeat of the initial motion by Adam Hamilton to create the Commission on a Way Forward. Central Conference delegates broke out into spontaneous praise and dancing. It was clear they were sent with a mandate from home to vote decidedly on issues of human sexuality. When a second motion narrowly approved the formation of the commission and the tabling of human sexuality petitions, they returned to their previous Stoic posture.
Patience is obviously a virtue with which they are well acquainted.