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.