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At a breakfast gathering in St. Louis on the first morning of a special meeting of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in February, Jerry Kulah set the table for the events of the next few days.
The UMC delegate had traveled all the way from Liberia to participate in the international meeting that would decide whether Methodists insist their clergy uphold Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality or allow churches to decide for themselves.
Kulah put it simply: African Methodists are “grounded in God’s Word and the gracious and clear teachings of our church. … We would warmly welcome you as our traveling companions, but if you choose another road, we Africans cannot go with you.”
This wasn’t an idle threat. While the 12-million-member denomination has lost nearly 100,000 members annually in America, it has gained more than 100,000 each year in Africa. (The UMC has nearly 7 million members in the United States and 5.6 million members in Africa, Asia, and Europe.)
Africans constituted a third of the 864 delegates gathered for the UMC’s General Conference.
In the end, 53 percent of the UMC delegates voted to uphold the church’s formal teaching on sexuality, and it strengthened penalties for church leaders that perform same-sex marriages or ordain actively gay clergy.
But the process was contentious.
During the debate, UMC Pastor Tom Berlin likened the traditional plan to “putting a virus into the American church that will make it very sick.” He asked delegates who favored upholding traditional teaching to abstain from voting, and he noted how Africans had stopped the spread of Ebola by washing their hands: “I’m asking you to wash your hands of this traditional plan today, because it will bring that illness into our house.”
If it was alarming for conservatives to hear Biblical fidelity labeled “a virus,” delegate Chris Ritter from Illinois was also aghast to hear such language directed in part toward African pastors who had risked their lives to minister the gospel to fellow Liberians during the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
When another American pastor encouraged all the delegates in favor of letting churches decide their own doctrine to stand, Ritter said he had “never been so proud” to stay seated with his African friends.
Ritter wrote on his People Need Jesus blog: “First World temper tantrums about the sexual expression of financially kept clergy ran into the patient ferment of God-fearing servants who know what it means to suffer for Christ.”
Though the meeting was contentious, the General Conference passed a measure to allow churches to leave the UMC with their church buildings and property intact. That decision stands in stark contrast with the policies of bodies like the Episcopal Church USA that have waged years of litigation against local congregations trying to retain their property after leaving their denomination over issues of Biblical fidelity.
The policy details may have to be reviewed by the UMC’s judicial council—or perhaps at the next global conference in 2020—but Mark Tooley, a member of the UMC and the head of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said he hadn’t heard any fellow conservatives express a desire to take property away from congregations that decide to leave.
For now, it’s unclear how many might go. In the days after the conference, Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UMC congregation in the United States, suggested those dissatisfied with the vote might pursue other avenues for trying to stay in the UMC. He called starting a new denomination a last resort.
Some church leaders may continue violating church teaching and force the UMC to discipline them. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is pastor of Foundry UMC, a high-profile Washington, D.C., congregation that has hired gay clergy and performed same-sex weddings. She told The New York Times: “We’re not going anywhere. If someone wants to come for me, for us, then bring it.”
A protracted fight could lead weary conservative churches to leave, but Tooley says he’s hopeful they’ll stay and work to strengthen the denomination: “If the church becomes more orthodox … then we have the possibility to grow again.”