aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The politics of The United Methodist Church

In the ongoing turmoil of The UMC, lots of claims get thrown back and forth. One made recently by a couple of UM "centrists" (we'll get around to defining that, below) is that "evangelicals" make up only about 20% of The UMC, so they shouldn't be able to prevent us coalescing around a plan for unity which involves some form of accommodation to LGBTQ activism.

The reality of UM politics is a little more complicated than that. Let's start with talking about the UMC as a whole. If you could come up with a reliable scale that assessed political/cultural attitudes, I think you would find that the average score -- the high point of the Bell curve -- for American United Methodists would be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. 68% of UMs would be within one Standard Deviation of that mean. And that mean, that average, would be pretty close to the mean score for the American population as a whole. Methodists have always tracked with the population at large more consistently than almost any other religious body in America. The Southern Baptists would have a mean considerably to the right: they are a more conservative body in their attitudes. Of course, any given SB might be more liberal than any given UM, but on the whole, you could say the SBC would be to the right of the UMC.

That said, the clergy of The UMC -- all of them, ordained or licensed local pastors -- would, as a group, be significantly to the left of the mean for The UMC as a whole. The high point of their Bell curve would show the mass of UM clergy to be more liberal/progressive than the whole membership, which is dominated by laity. Even so, lots of UM clergy are more conservative/evangelical than lots of UM laity; the two groups overlap. But the clergy as a whole are more liberal/progressive than the church as a whole.

And the leadership of The UMC -- Conference staffs, General agency members and staffs, bishops, Board of Ordained Ministry members -- are significantly to the left, on average, from the clergy. As one rises up the ladder of prominence, then, there is a drift toward the liberal/progressive end of the spectrum.

General Conference delegates are elected by Annual Conferences. Clergy and denominational leaders are vastly over-represented in GC compared to their actual numbers in UM membership. This means that GC is, on the whole, a pretty liberal/progressive institution. Much more so than the average UM congregation, at any rate. And yet, a steady majority of GC, usually about 55-60%, depending on exactly what is before them and how it is phrased, has consistently rejected liberalizing our official stances on homosexual practice, same-sex marriage, and gay clergy. That percentage has been remarkably stable over forty years, even though American society, whose values are closely tracked by American UMs, has liberalized a lot in that time. How can that be?

It can be that way because the American wing of The UMC has been shrinking, even as overseas United Methodism -- particularly in Africa -- has been growing rapidly. On the whole, overseas UMs, especially in Africa, are significantly to the right -- the conservative/evangelical end of the spectrum -- in comparison with American UMs. Overseas delegates to GC represent about 40% of the whole, and rise every quadrennium.

To understand UM politics, then, the first thing you have to understand is this 60-40 split. There are 60 American delegates to GC for every 40 overseas (primarily African) delegates. At least 35 of 40 overseas/African delegates vote to uphold our official stances and practices on sexuality. These combine with 20-25 out of 60 American delegates to form that governing majority of 55-60%.

The American delegates can be roughly divided into thirds. There is the radical/progressive wing, who want us to say that homosexuality (and other things) are blessed by God, that same-sex marriages should be openly celebrated in our churches, and that gay clergy are just fine. These are probably a bit less than a third of American delegates -- maybe 15 out of 60. And over on the other side, as I said, there are 20-25 conservative/evangelical/orthodox delegates out of 60. In the middle are the "centrists," but they are centrist only in comparison to the two ends of the American delegation. Tracked against The UMC as a whole, they would be garden variety progressives/institutionalists, who are significantly more liberal than the mean of The UMC as a whole.

And the "centrists" turn out to be just progressives by another name. They want what the radicals want, they just want to get there by more decorous means. They will not discipline the disobedient; rather, they want to reward their disobedience and make it standard practice. So, this group, which is represented by about 20% of GC delegates, claims to speak for the majority of the Church -- actually, just the majority of the American church -- and calls the conservatives/evangelicals/orthodox a minority of only 20%. But of course, so are they. And since all GC delegates skew to the left of all UM members, the conservative GC delegates are actually more representative of American UMs on the whole. But this is the source of all that "mere 20%" talk. It is a way of marginalizing the conservatives within the larger church.

For the last three General Conferences, at least, the progressive strategy has been to find some way to separate the (growing) overseas delegates from the (shrinking) American delegates: to create some way in which the American delegates can change the Discipline without the interference of the Africans (let's be blunt), so that they can move the church to the left. If they didn't have the Africans in their way, they'd be a solid 35-25 majority; as it is, they find themselves consistently in a 45-55 minority. And they resent it.

When they don't think the Africans are listening, they say astoundingly racist things about their overseas brothers and sisters who are standing in the way of their pet project. They say "it's time for the Africans to grow up." They say, "some of those people are only two generations removed from cannibalism." They say, "why should they get so many votes when we pay for everything?" And so on. (These are not made-up quotes -- I've heard these things said, and more.) In public, they offer the Africans various restructuring plans that would separate out the American church, but reward African leaders with more goodies (this is a bribe -- a carrot, if you will). They also hint about the stability of missions money and paying for bishops (this is a threat -- the stick). But so far, the Africans have voted their consciences and this has gone nowhere. And the African percentage of our total membership -- and therefore, GC membership -- goes up every quadrennium.

The progs are desperate; hence, not only the rebellion by the radicals, but also the Hail Mary pass of the Commission on a Way Forward. If they can't finally sell their plan to dominate an American-only body this quadrennium, they probably won't, for the foreseeable future. All the chips are on the table for this last poker game. So you see the bishops and the agencies pushing their favored plans (really just the same old, same old, that's been rejected multiple times). You hear them making scary noises. You see them demonizing and marginalizing traditional voices. Because this is it.

And what if they get what they want? What if, some way, somehow, we approve what they're seeking? Well, the result will be, as it has been for every other religious denomination that's gone down this path, either explosion or implosion. The Episcopal Church exploded. TEC and its breakaway groups have spent well over 60 million dollars suing each other over the last twenty years. They are literally suing themselves into bankruptcy. Other denominations, like the UCC, have simply imploded, deflating faster than a Patriots football. Many congregations have left the UCC, but even among those that stayed, there is little strength. Aging congregations served by a radicalized clergy attract few new members, for once you have stood the Bible on its head (to rationalize sexual liberalization), your theological approach has little power or appeal on other, routine matters. Who wants to join a church that has so little to offer the person seeking eternal answers?

Maybe only 20-25% of GC delegates are American conservatives/evangelicals. But a whole lot more of the American membership are. A significant portion of them will leave if we go the direction the progs want. And of those who stay, their congregations, like all UM congregations on average, will continue to age and shrink, while an increasingly radicalized clergy mouth all kinds of fashionable claptrap unsupported by any rationale from the Bible. And if the progs manage to buy off the Africans -- or enough of them -- with their promises (and threats) regarding financial support? Well, if the American church implodes, it can't help the African church, can it? So the African GC delegates might just as well vote their consciences.

Just to repeat the breakdown of votes, in visual form (this is a mere approximation):

XXX Radicals/progressives
XXXX Centrists/progressives/institutionalists
XXXXX Conservatives/evangelicals/orthodox

XXXXXXX Africans
X Europeans and Filipinos

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