Posts tagged with: united methodist general conference

Methodism was once the largest denomination in America. The faith grew rapidly from America’s beginning and has traditionally been characterized by aggressive evangelism and revival. It has carried a vibrant social witness, too. Methodist Church pronouncements once garnered front page headlines in The New York Times. Its high water mark undoubtedly came during prohibition, the greatest modern political cause of the denomination. Methodists even built and staffed a lobbying building next to Capitol Hill believing a dry country could remake society.

In Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, Mark Tooley has chronicled Methodism’s denominational political pronouncements from William McKinley, America’s first Methodist president, to 9-11. Tooley has unearthed a staggering amount of official and unofficial Methodist declarations and musings on everything from economics, war, civil rights, the Cold War, abortion, marriage, and politics.

Tooley, who is also the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, offers very little of his own commentary on the issues in Methodism and Politics, instead allowing Methodism’s voice for over a century to speak for itself. Ultimately what emerges is a denomination that begins to recede in significance, perhaps because of the sheer saturation of their witness in the public square. But its leadership often trades in a prophetic voice for a partisan political one, and sadly at times, even a treasonous voice.

Methodists not only led on prohibition, but were out in front on issues like women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. While they did not always carry a unified voice on these issues, even many Southern annual conferences and bishops broke with the popular political position of defending segregation in their home states.

While support for the New Deal and greater federal intervention in the economy was not rubber stamped by all Methodists, an emerging and often biting anti-free market voice would dominate official pronouncements. This continues to this day with declarations calling to support greater government regulations, single payer health care, and a host of measures calling for government wage and price controls. Way back in 1936, one Oklahoma Methodist pastor offered his own advice to some of his brethren:

Why do [these Methodist Reds] not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?

Tooley chronicles the pacifist sentiment that begins to overtake the denomination. This amounted to the equivocating of a denomination that once was harsh in its critique of communism to one where a committee of bishops would pronounce by the 1980s, that “actions which are seen as ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by one group are seen as the core of the Christian message by others.”

Perhaps most shameful was the action of several bishops during the American hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran, from 1979 – 1981. United Methodist Bishop Dale White said of the new Islamic fundamentalist regime, “I know there are individuals in the Iranian power structure who do trust The United Methodist Church.” White offered assessments of the new regime being “democratic.” The General conference sent a message to Ayatollah Khomeni declaring that it hears the “cries of freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” Methodist officials participated in pro-Khomeni student demonstrations in Washington D.C. and met with and offered praise for officials in the new Iranian government. One former hostage recalled:

Some of the people who came over especially the clergy were hypocrites because they came to aid and comfort the hostages but ended up giving aid and comfort to the Iranians and actually making it worse for us.

The election of President Ronald Reagan naturally sent many United Methodist Church officials into a tizzy. “People voted their self interest instead of the Social Principles of the church. It looks like United Methodists with everybody else forsook their Christian idealism at the ballot box,” said Bishop James Armstrong. Some United Methodist Bishops had already declared their denomination much more aligned with the Democratic Party. It was downhill from there for many Methodist leaders, as they coddled the Sandanistas and “Brother Ortega” in Nicaragua and dove head first into the nuclear freeze movement.

In the 1990s one General Board of Global Ministry official bewailed the Republican Congress by saying, “White, male supremacists now wear suits. They talk states rights and anti-taxes. The climate of hate and violence is a challenge to us.” General Board of Church and Society official Robert McLean declared that the GOP Contract with America effectively “cancels” the Sermon on the Mount.

Hyperventilating over partisan politics would continue in The United Methodist Church and continues to this day by American officials. Most recently many have joined forces with the “What Would Jesus Cut Campaign?” But because Methodism is a connectional denomination, the growing African influence is counter balancing what Methodist progressives and political liberals can accomplish. They have already reached the pinnacle of their power, which has been shrinking for decades. And because progressives have made so many predictable pronouncements, they no longer speak with the weighty spiritual authority they once held. It is a lesson for all churches and those that wish to bring their faith into the public square. At the 1934 Illinois Annual Conference one lay delegate offered what can be seen only as prophetic now when he declared, “It is time for churches to stop adopting resolutions and then finding out what they mean afterward.”

Just a few weeks ago, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society heaped praise on President Obama’s HHS mandate with no mention of the measure’s threat to religious liberty, deciding to only view it as a partisan measure to defend for furthering the role of government in health care.

At the conclusion of the book, after reading through 100 years of political pronouncements, Tooley finally offers just a hint of his own assessment,

American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, largely unified, and politically formidable. One hundred years later, it had already endured several decades of steep membership decline and accompanying political marginalization as church officials were no longer presumed to speak for most church members.

Tooley, through the myriad of voices that he has chronicled over such a lengthy period, understands those voices only need to speak for themselves to make his point.

In the 1920s Calvin Coolidge once said of Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist Bishops in early America, that “he did not come [to America] for political motives,” but came to bear “the testimony of truth.” One wishes Methodist denominational officials would not only follow more of Asbury’s doctrine, but his praxis as well.

United Methodist renewal groups are under attack by liberal denominational leaders at General Conference for providing the gift of free cell phones for some international delegates who made the trip to Forth Worth, Texas.

Opponents of the the evangelical renewal groups are afraid that the phones will be utilized to tell certain international delegates how to vote. A letter from the renewal groups supposedly included with the gift invited them to a breakfast, provided other General Conference news, and a list of candidates they should consider for UM Judicial Council positions, which is the highest court in the denomination.

General Conference is the top policy-making body of the United Methodist Church. The conference is now currently taking place in Fort Worth. Delegates from all over the country and the world attend General Conference, which is composed of clergy and laity.

The Confessing Movement
, UM Action (IRD), Good News, and Transforming Congregations provided the phones for delegates. The phones were intended to give international delegates, many of whom are from Africa, the same access to communication as other delegates have at the conference. Church liberals however do not see it that way and are oddly accusing renewal groups of bribery and racism, even though international delegates greatly appreciated the act of hospitality. Erin Hawkins who is the top executive of the church’s commission on Religion and Race was quoted in a United Methodist News Service article on the controversy saying:

My hope is that the white leadership of the church would be mindful of the actions in light of the history of exploitation of people of color in this church. I hope they would not willingly engage in any sort of behavior that would undermine the humanity of people of color whether they are in the United States or other countries. This action of giving cell phones to buy or manipulate people can be interpreted as a return to that sort of racist behavior.

I personally know many of the individuals who make up the Methodist renewal groups and their integrity and commitment to a fair and democratic process is an automatic for me simply based on their character. Years ago I imagine this would have not even been a story, but here’s the rub. Decades and decades of entrenched liberal power, where some church leaders have used the United Methodist Church for their own left wing theological and political activism, is now finding their unchecked power threatened and they are lashing out as a result.

In contrast, African delegates are firmly committed to Biblical and theological integrity, and their delegate numbers are rising, just as the number of United Methodists in this country are shrinking, largely because of the denomination’s unfaithfulness to clear Christian teaching. UM Action has a good story on this issue titled, “African Declaration Released at UM Renewal and Reform Conference.”

Mark Tooley is the Director of UM Action and he offered me this frank assessment of the cell phone controversy today:

The liberal controlled agencies of the church have long deluged international delegates with gifts and favors over the years in a vain attempt to gain their support for a liberal agenda. But the international delegates have not been seduced by the misbegotten riches of the church bureaucracy. Their faith remains strong. Naturally, the church left responded with rage to the distribution of cell phones by evangelicals, who have no need whatsoever to manipulate or even persuade the overseas delegates, whose solidly biblical views are already akin to our own.

Of course, the whole notion that international or African delegates can be bribed or controlled with a hospitable gift that allows them equal access to technology is entirely demeaning in so many ways.

Elizabeth Turner, who is an editorial assistant at Good News told me yesterday:

The problem is that despite the emphasis on “holy conferencing”, there are those who are quick to attribute the worst motives rather than engage in fair inquiry. It’s disappointing, but the people most harmed in all of this isn’t the Coalition [Renewal Groups] – it’s the delegates who are outraged that some people would think they would be naive, or accept some kind of bribe.

If you are so inclined to examine a host of issues at General Conference you can visit IRD’s live blog. IRD also released a press statement concerning the charge of manipulation.

Tooley has described the renewal process as a long and arduous task, and United Methodism as being better equipped for reform over other mainline protestant denominations because of the growing influence of its more evangelical international connection. Unsurprisingly, United Methodist Church liberals do not seem willing to relinquish any power or yield to reforms before exhausting all means and tactics, no matter how bizarre they may be.