Methodists, Global Christianity, and Human Sexuality
Over the course of four days at the end of February, delegates from the United Methodist Church (UMC) met in St. Louis for a special session of the General Conference to debate issues related to same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. These topics had been debated before in the UMC at prior global church meetings, but the denomination had always voted to retain the traditional language of the Book of Disciple on matters of human sexuality. Given the trajectory of other mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans) on these topics, many casual observers, myself included, always expected the UMC to ultimately adopt a more liberal and inclusive stance on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. Even more, at this year’s meeting, many of the American bishops advocated for the One Church Plan, a policy that would have allowed each congregation to determine whether it adopted a progressive or traditional stance on these topics. In a “surprise” move, which was covered by all the major media outlets, delegates of the UMC voted in support of a traditional plan that reaffirmed the long-standing official ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
A Not-So Shocking Turn of Events
When I was in theology school at Emory University, one of the 13 officially-affiliated seminaries of the UMC, the progressive stream within the UMC seemed to be gaining all the momentum. I had multiple professors who were in same-sex relationships and were open about their sexuality. One professor was in a gay marriage, and he and his partner had created a unique legal relationship with a lesbian couple in order to parent biological children. Not only were many faculty open about their sexuality, but students who identified as LGBTQ were open about their identity, and the student body, by and large, supported both the students and faculty. In this environment, I would estimate that more than half of my fellow graduates supported the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. From this vantage point, it was only a matter of time before the entire denomination adopted a similar stance.
However, even ten years ago, there were signs that the UMC might not follow the same trajectory as other mainline Protestants. In 2008, Thaddeus Barnum published his book Never Silent, which documented the split in the Episcopal Church over issues of human sexuality and the authority of scripture. When the denomination adopted a liberal stance on these issues, many conservative clergy and churches left the denomination and formed new Anglican communions. This split, unfortunately, resulted in ugly legal battles over clergy retirement pensions and building ownership. Looking for theological refuge, groups of American clergy chose to affiliate with the leadership of African bishops, most notably from Rwanda and Uganda. These African communions were vibrant, growing, and conservative in their stance on human sexuality.
Around the same time in 2007, Philip Jenkins released an expanded edition of his revolutionary book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which has since been updated in a newer edition. In the opening of this book, Jenkins makes the bold statement, “If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela” (1-2). On the basis of sociological research and demographic trends, Jenkins argued that the heart of Christianity had already shifted to the “Global South”–South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia–and would continue to grow in these areas in the coming century. Throughout the book, Jenkins also explained that this growth would have challenging theological implications for the American Church. Christians in the Global South, in general, have more traditional or orthodox theological convictions. However, in regards to social issues, they tend to have a hybrid of traditionally “liberal” and “conservative” values–liberal in regards to issues of economics and poverty but conservative in regards to issues of family and sexuality.
For at least the last century, American Protestant Christians have taken for granted that their viewpoints are the de facto Christian viewpoints. Even to this day, the largest Christian population in the world resides in the US, and, up until just recently, the majority of the population identified as Protestant. Given America’s wealth, power, and influence in the world, American Protestants enjoyed a privileged position in the world. However, traditional Protestantism wanes in America today while global Christianity grows exponentially, especially Catholic and Pentecostal churches.
As was reported last week, the UMC remained traditional in large part due to the global growth of the denomination. In fact, I spoke to a UMC pastor last week who told me that the progressives pushed for this special general conference because they knew this might be their last chance to get enough votes. As it stands, there are about 7 million Methodists in the US and 5 million in other places around the world. One of those numbers is shrinking while the other is growing. As Philip Jenkins hypothesized more than 10 years ago, the future of Christianity is global and the future looks much more traditional than liberal mainline American Protestantism.
Global Christianity: A Liberal Ideal
I have a distinct memory from Emory that is hard to shake from my mind. I was having lunch with a classmate who was liberal and progressive on same-sex marriage and full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. During our conversation, we talked about the fact that the UMC continued to remain traditional on these topics while other mainline churches voted to embrace more liberal policies. My friend got noticeably frustrated and his language get sharper, and he blurted out, “Well, it’s all because of those Africans at General Conference every year, and they always vote conservative.” I remember I just sat there and looked at him for a minute. Then I said something like, “On nearly every other topic you would value a diversity of global voices. Do you even hear yourself? Those Africans?”
For a long time in Christian missionary work, missionaries not only exported the message of the gospel, but they also exported Western and American culture. New converts got new clothes, new haircuts, and new names. Missionaries built schools and hospitals, which certainly benefited people in poverty, but they also exported Western education and medicine. Then, these schools and hospitals inevitably came with other Western institutions, structures, and hierarchies. Becoming Christian meant becoming industrial, developed, scientific, literate, individualistic, and educated. However, in the last few decades, there has been a notable shift in missionary tactics.
One profoundly moving account of this new paradigm is the work of Catholic missionary Vincent J. Donovan amongst the Masai people of east Africa. In his book, Christianity Rediscovered, he documents his work to preach the gospel to the Masai free from any cultural constraints. This results in entire villages becoming Christian en masse and being baptized en masse, something that concerns Donovan on the basis of his individualistic Western world view. Yet, African culture is inherently communal. Either everyone becomes Christian or no one becomes Christian. In this moment, something new and unpredictable is born–an indigenous form of African Christianity.
Allowing people to accept the basic Christian gospel, interpret it, and express it within the framework of their own culture is, in many ways, a liberal ideal. This approach promotes freedom and diversity. It respects the wide range of human culture as the blessing of God. Yet, as was illustrated last month in the UMC, this presents particular challenges to American Christians. What happens when other people receive your faith but interpret it within a different framework than you do? Who gets to define the core essence of the faith then?
As NPR reported recently, this development almost certainly signals a fracture in the UMC. If this happens, there will be significant turbulence in my community because Methodist churches are fairly abundant throughout West Ohio. Even though I am no longer an “official member” of the denomination, I know many Methodist clergy and laity who will be deeply impacted by church splits. Beyond that, though, this moment in the UMC shows a larger fracture in the heart of Christianity between Christians of the Global North and the Global South, between the missionaries that spread the faith and the believers who received it. It will be a sad day indeed, if Western Christians lose the ability to share fellowship with Christians from around the world on the basis of culture and sexuality.