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United Methodists in Tampa: Looking for Scapegoats, Living in Fear

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Recently, the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States, concluded its quadrennial legislative general conference in Tampa, Fla. Since the early 1980s, the general conference has repeatedly passed legislation that has chipped away at the foundations of what was once one of the most progressive denominations in North America. In Tampa, this process was reflected in an unprecedented restructuring effort that would dismantle several denominational boards and agencies that have historically safeguarded and promoted racial-gender inclusivity in the church. However, the most publicized manifestation of the dismantling of United Methodist progressivism continues to be the denomination's reaffirmation of its longstanding prohibition that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Like all American mainline churches, the United Methodist Church has suffered through a long and steady membership decline. From a membership high of more than 11 million in the mid-1960s to its current membership of approximately 8 million, Methodism has become one of the most documented cases of mainline Protestantism's changing fortunes in the latter half of the 20th century. Many commentators on American religion have responded thoughtfully and insightfully to the religious demographics of the late 20th century that have impacted the missions of mainline churches. For many conservative United Methodists, however, careful analysis has been replaced by a tendency to believe that fundamental to the church's problem is a lack of faith, caused by an erosion of authentic "Wesleyan" teaching.

For many United Methodist conservatives, membership decline has led to a tendency to rely on scapegoats for explaining the church's problems. Over the last three decades, conservatives have blamed the denomination's bureaucracy, various church leaders, the general malaise of liberal theology, and a leftist political agenda, as explanations for the church's problem. However, the primary scapegoats who have borne the brunt of conservative scorn are gay and lesbian United Methodists.

Since 1984, the UMC has repeatedly condemned homosexuality as incompatible with Christianity (most notably barring gays and lesbians from the ordained ministry). However, debates concerning the United Methodist Church's stance on homosexuality have had little to do with critical engagement with scriptural or theological interpretations on human sexuality.

The crux of resistance to gays and lesbians in the United Methodist ministry often comes down to the argument, "God loves homosexuals, but hates the sin of homosexuality." (In a sort of dystopian take on George Orwell's "Animal Farm," one could read this argument as the church saying, "All people are sinners, except some are more sinful than others.") Yet in reviewing what happened at General Conference, resistance to gay/lesbian inclusion has never been primarily about loving the sinner. It has to do with the conservative reliance on the belief that to allow gays/lesbians equal access to the church is tantamount to cultural and theological relativism. At one point during the General Conference debate on sexual orientation, a resolution was introduced that would have said, in effect, United Methodists agree to disagree on homosexuality. For conservatives, this stance was untenable. As one noted conservative, Maxie Dunnam, explained, this compromise would "leave out good teaching. ... there is no reason at all to state that we disagree, because we disagree about almost everything."

Dunnam's assertion about "good teaching" supports the assumption held by some mainline Protestants that the best way to reach people's hearts, to cultivate one's faith and to grow churches is to act like more historically conservative churches (and this argument has been championed by some mainline church leaders since the 1960s and 1970s). Many who have argued for the removal of the church's prohibitions against gays and lesbians take the position that the church's continued harangues on this issue were making it difficult for it to reach out to young people (a point made recently in Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book, "American Grace").

Yet these pragmatic arguments have been, and will likely continue to be, nonstarters for many conservatives in the United Methodist Church. It seemed to be very clear for the majority of United Methodists at General Conference that one's sexual orientation has nothing to do with science, or sociology, or, daresay, as a faithful choice that one makes as a Christian disciple. Rather, it is dismissed as amoral, sinful and a reflection of an evil secular culture that has grown soft on matters of faith. For gays and lesbian at the end of the General Conference, the message is clear: You're welcome in the United Methodist Church so long as you set aside everything about you that is unique.

United Methodists love to assert that they are a global church, and many cite the growth of United Methodist churches in Africa as consolation for the denomination's membership decline in the U.S. Yet, the "globalized" nature of United Methodism has well served the anti-gay cause. One of the most visible political realities about the United Methodist Church's prohibitions against homosexuality is the way it has been reinforced by an unlikely alliance between U.S. conservatives and a growing number of United Methodist churches in Africa. Due to complicated historical and cultural factors, African churches have always taken an especially hard line against homosexuality, and the combined delegates from the African nations and conservative Americans have created a base that will likely control the United Methodist Church for several years.

When it comes to engaging the challenges faced by mainline churches today, liberals, as well as conservatives, have been equally guilty of often resorting to myopic rhetoric. Yet, in the aftermath of the 2012 General Conference, it seems fair to ask United Methodist conservatives what they ultimately hope to achieve by refusing to open the church to the gifts of gay and lesbian persons. Much of the conservative base in the United Methodist Church comes from the South, one of the remaining parts of the United States still dominated by a "Christendom model" of the church, akin to a mid 20th-century time when American Protestants relished in their cultural dominance. While many southern conservatives attack liberals for their fidelity to church bureaucracies and big budgets that in their mind detract from a focus on evangelism, their vision of the church often sounds like a very old one. For many conservatives, calls for renewing the church have nothing to do with a desire to be global 21st -century church. Rather, they reflect a nostalgic yearning for a vision of Christianity that resembles more the cultural homogeneity of the 1950s than confronting the complex theological and cultural realities that face mainline churches today.

Historically, one of the great gifts to come out of theological liberalism was its emphasis on theological and cultural diversity. Denominations like the United Methodist Church were at one time central to an ecumenical social witness that spoke prophetically to challenge social injustices in the church and society. The door of that legacy may not be shut, but it is closing rapidly.

One way of viewing the outcome of the General Conference is that the conservatives won the day. However, the real victor in Tampa was a spirit of fear that made many United Methodists yearn for the perceived innocence of the past, as opposed to realizing that the Body of Christ needs the wisdom of all our gifts -- regardless of one's sexual orientation.

Unless this fear can be cast out, justice for gays and lesbians in the United Methodist Church may be a long time coming.