United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
Supporters of full rights for gays and lesbians in The United Methodist Church march in protest of church policies on the floor of the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. The UMC's history of exclusion will come up again in 2012.
The year 2012 will likely be significant in the life of The United Methodist Church. The General Conference will make major changes for the future of worldwide United Methodism that could make the denominational motto of "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" even more hypocritical than ever. This prospect looks especially acute when it comes to the denomination's relationships with its members considered minorities because of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
As a layman with experience as a General Conference delegate and in conference and jurisdictional leadership, I submit that the many proposals for change coming before the 2012 session are likely to exacerbate this long-standing deficiency. To understand my argument, it's necessary to look at our Methodist heritage.
From the beginning, John Wesley apparently didn't intend to start a new Christian denomination, given that he never left the Church of England despite his concern for social justice. Wesley's loyalty to England's state church during the American Revolution period resulted in colonial Methodists becoming a base for an independent church. Thus the first official establishment of a Methodist Church came in America shortly after the close of the revolution, not from its founding in English society.
Despite their new common citizenship, American Methodists who spoke English found no common cause with their German-speaking neighbors, a situation that resulted in the growth of two Wesleyan denominations, the Evangelical Association and the United Brethren. Thus the new country had, in effect, three churches with Wesleyan roots that spoke two languages and had no communion with one another.
Given the Wesleyan position on social justice, the issue of slavery quickly became as major an issue of contention among American Methodists as it was in American society. The abolition of slavery, particularly involving a Southern bishop who owned slaves, caused a split in the denomination in 1844. From then until 1939, the denomination existed in two segments, mostly tolerant except for the slavery issue.
However, American Methodism's attitudes and actions regarding African Americans have been fraught with resistance since the church's beginning. Most predominantly white Methodist churches allowed blacks to attend worship only in segregated areas such as balconies, and often did not permit them to receive Holy Communion with whites – a practice that caused a freedman, Richard Allen, and other black Methodists to leave the church in 1787. Their movement eventually led to the establishment of two historically black churches, the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal, Zion.
Even the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the Civil War did not improve the inclusion of blacks in the church. The racial discrimination brought on by slavery went on. The situation was made worse by the great merger of 1939, in which three predominantly white Methodist branches – Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal, South and Methodist Protestant – were able to unite only because of the creation of a racially segregated region that overlaid the geographical plan for annual conferences. Known as the Central Jurisdiction, this plan put all black Methodist churches into one area kept separated from white conferences. With the exception of adding black bishops to Methodist leadership, little good came from this plan. In 1956, the General Conference eliminated the Central Jurisdiction and merged the black churches and their bishops back into the geographic structure.
After the Evangelical United Brethren Church, descendent of its German-speaking forebears, merged with the Methodist Church in 1968 to form today's United Methodist Church, the "hot button" of exclusion shifted to a new minority. Federal legislation in the 1960s defining civil rights shifted the historic exclusion from race to sexual orientation as noted in Kevin Phillips’ book, American Theocracy.
The United Methodist Church's practice of exclusion since the first appearance of anti-gay legislation in the 1972 Book of Discipline has intensified with each quadrennium, adding to the public opinion about the lack of credibility of organized religion in the United States. This credibility decline also has undermined the balance of power in the denomination.
As the Northeastern, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions -- generally considered more progressive -- lost membership, they also lost representation in the General Conference and therefore influence in its decision-making process. This decline was further augmented by the movement of progressive United Methodists retiring to America's Sunbelt to the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions. Unfortunately, these “snowbirds” have not only retired from their occupational activities, they have retired from their active involvement in the church's governance.
Added to these social shifts has been unofficial foreign mission activity, particularly in Africa, by the denomination's most exclusionary segments. Playing to African cultural fears about same-gender-oriented persons, this activity has been complicit in the growth of ever more exclusionary Methodism in Africa. By pressing these points, African United Methodists have been harnessed for power by their American cousins over the past three General Conferences. While this may seem like an equal alliance, the reality is that differences in language and procedures at General Conference have left African delegates at the mercy of their American cousins for guidance in how to vote, particularly on issues of social justice. With the North Katanga Conference from the Democratic Republic of Congo now the largest General Conference delegation, this prospect looms large in the balance of church politics.
If past General Conference experience is any guide, this theo-political combination bodes likely to perpetuate The United Methodist Church's shameful history of exclusion, particularly since the study committee on creating a global church failed to produce any substantive actions. Only the diligence of delegates from the rest of the denomination will keep General Conference from taking actions that will make the Wesleyan tradition of advocating for social justice a thing of the past.
M. Philip Susag is a longtime lay leader in the New England Annual Conference, the Northeastern Jurisdiction and General Conference.