Global South

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Now, a special meeting of their denomination's General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them -- even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.

Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: "The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity."

Leaders in Africa's booming United Methodist churches -- key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex -- find it "farfetched" to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

It's understandable that many United Methodists are "angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated," said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.

Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the Global South believe they have centuries of church history on their side.

"For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman -- as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents -- not between two persons of the same sex," he said. "No argument. No compromise."

At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide -- a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining -- especially in the more liberal North and West.

The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.

'Conscience' became a key fighting word at Vatican synod on family

Want to start a fight? Just ask this question: How many Protestant denominations are there in the world?

Estimates start as high as 40,000 and most sources put the number above 20,000, citing the United Nations, the World Christian Encyclopedia or some other authority. The key is that various Protestant groups have their own concepts of biblical authority and the role played by the conscience of each believer. Fights often cause splits and new flocks.

Meanwhile, the Church of Rome has the Throne of St. Peter and the Catechism. This is why eyebrows were raised when progressive theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette, amid tense debates about marriage, divorce and gay rights, wrote to The New York Times to argue that Catholicism is "going the way of its parent, Judaism" and dividing into three streams.

"In Judaism there are Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox communities. This arrangement is not yet formalized in Catholicism, but the outlines of a similar broadening are in place," said Maguire. While the Vatican may tweak some procedures, such as streamlining the annulment process, "reform Catholics don't need it. Theirconsciences are their Vatican."

The tricky word "conscience" crept into news about the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome -- focusing on marriage and family life -- when the leader of the giant Archdiocese of Chicago told reporters that he thought many Catholics who under current teachings cannot take Holy Communion should be able to do so, if guided by their consciences.

Evangelicals vs. 'secularists' (2011)

When evangelical leaders look at the United States of America, they do not see a country defined by the familiar Gallup Poll statistic stating that 92 percent of its citizens profess some kind of belief in God. Nor do they see a land that is only 1.6 percent atheist and 2.4 percent agnostic, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. They do not see a land in which another 12.1 percent of the people do not embrace any one religion "in particular," but insist that "spirituality" plays some role in their lives.

In other words, they do not see a remarkably, if somewhat vaguely, religious nation -- especially in comparison with other modern industrialized lands.

No, when elite evangelicals see America today the word that comes to mind is "secular."

In fact, 92 percent of evangelical leaders from the United States who took part in a new Pew Forum survey said they are convinced that secularism is a "major threat" to the health of evangelical Christianity in their land, a threat even greater than materialism, consumerism and the rising tide of sex and violence in popular culture.

In a related question, a majority of U.S. evangelical leaders -- 82 percent -- said they are convinced that their churches are currently losing clout in American life.

In this study, researchers surveyed nearly 2,200 evangelical leaders from around the world who were invited to participate in last year's Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa.

"This rising fear of secularism" among top American evangelicals "really surprised us, especially when you compared their feelings to the more optimistic attitudes among evangelicals in other parts the world," noted John C. Green of the University of Akron, a senior Pew Forum research advisor.

So what is happening? For generations, he explained, evangelicals have "primarily been defined in terms of their conflicts with other religious groups, with other faiths. ... But now, it seems that they are increasingly starting to see themselves in terms of conflicts with those who are either indifferent to religion or who are openly hostile to traditional forms of religion."

Thus, it seemed that when these evangelical leaders used the term "secularism" they were not always referring to people and groups with no religious convictions at all. Instead, they were expressing their concerns about the rising numbers of people in America and around the world that simply do not practice any one form of faith, as traditionally defined.

"They don't seem to know what to call the unorthodox expressions of faith that you see among the so-called 'spiritual, but not religious' people," said Green. Thus, the frustrated evangelical leaders may be "lumping them all together under the term 'secularism.' "

In contrast to this surge of pessimism in North America, evangelicals from other parts of the world were more optimistic about the future. This was especially true among those from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the rest of the so-called "Global South." Other survey results included:

* While only 41 percent of northern leaders believed the state of evangelicalism would improve in the next five years, 71 percent of those in the Global South were convinced things would be "better than now" for their churches. In the Global North, 33 percent of those surveyed thought things would soon get worse.

* While in overwhelming agreement (96 percent) that "Christianity is the one, true faith," these evangelical leaders were somewhat divided on a key authority issue, with 50 percent saying the "Bible should be read literally, word for word" and 48 percent saying "not everything in the Bible should be taken literally."

* Not surprisingly, 90 percent of evangelicals from Muslim-majority nations said Islam poses a major threat to their future work, compared with 41 percent from those living elsewhere. However, survey participants from Muslim lands held more favorable views of Muslims and their faith than did evangelical leaders from other countries.

* The Lausanne Congress participants were convinced that evangelicals in the Global South currently have "too little influence" in the leadership of world Christianity. Researchers found it particularly interesting that leaders in the United States and other parts of the Global North were even more likely to hold this point of view -- 78 percent compared to 62 percent -- than their counterparts in the Global South.

Chopping that Anglican timeline

The resolution from the 1979 Episcopal General Convention in Denver inspired a small wave of headlines, even though it simply restated centuries of doctrine about marriage. "We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality," it said. "Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard."

However, 21 bishops disagreed, publicly stating that gay sexual relationships were "no less a sign to the world of God's love" as traditional marriages. These bishops -- including the Rt. Rev. Edmund Browning, who was chosen as America's presiding bishop six years later -- warned that since "we are answerable before almighty God ... we cannot accept these recommendations or implement them in our dioceses."

It was the start of an ecclesiastical war that has dominated the 70-million-member Anglican Communion for decades.

Then again, this conflict may have started in the 1960s, when Bishop James Pike was censured for his "offensive" and "irresponsible" views questioning the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and other ancient doctrines. And in 1977 a high-profile leader -- Bishop Paul Moore of New York -- created a firestorm when he ordained a priest who identified herself as a lesbian.

It's hard to understand this story without some grasp of this complicated timeline. However, news reports regularly chop off several decades, thus making it appear that these doctrinal clashes began with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay, non-celibate Episcopal bishop.

"This whole conflict is actually about the Bible and how you interpret it," said the Rev. George Conger, a correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper. "The polite warfare has been going on for 30 or 40 years. The open warfare truly began in 1997, when the archbishops from Africa and the rest of the Global South met in Jerusalem and decided to let their voices be heard."

In addition to events in the late 1970s, other crucial dates on this timeline include:

* 1989 -- Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark ordains the first homosexual priest who is openly living in a same-sex relationship.

* 1994 -- Spong drafts his Koinonia Statement affirming the ordination of gays and lesbians living in faithful, monogamous relationships -- with the support of 90 bishops. He also publishes his 12 theses for a liberal Reformation, rejecting belief in the transcendent, personal God of the Bible.

* 1996 -- An ecclesiastical court dismisses heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter, after another controversial ordination. The court says Episcopalians have "no clear doctrine" clearly forbidding the ordination of persons who are sexually active outside of marriage.

* 1998 -- In a stunning defeat for the left, bishops at the global Lambeth Conference in Canterbury declare that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture" and call for a ban on same-sex-union rites and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

* 2000 -- Archbishops from Rwanda and Southeast Asia consecrate two American conservatives as missionary bishops, escalating global efforts to form an alternative structure for Anglican traditionalists in North America.

Since the consecration of Robinson, the Episcopal Church has made several attempts to appease the large, overwhelmingly conservative Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and other regions overseas. Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has attempted to calm nerves, while starting the process of creating a doctrinal covenant that he hopes will provide unity on issues of faith and practice.

However, early this week the U.S. House of Bishops voted -- by a 99-45 margin -- to allow dioceses to proceed with the selection of gays and lesbians for "any ordained ministry." This effectively overturned a resolution passed at the 2006 General Convention that urged dioceses to refrain from consecrating bishops whose "manner of life" would offend other churches in the Anglican Communion.

"The key question is whether this is a national story or a global story," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the conservative Diocese of South Carolina. "The way most people tell this story, America initiates things and then the rest of the world responds. Then America responds and you repeat this process over and over.

"You see, America is at the center of everything. It's the American church and its concerns that count the most. Meanwhile, Anglicans around the world are trying to tell a different story."

Calls for Anglican candor

The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East is rich in symbolism, but not in the clout that comes from great numbers and wealth.

This branch of the Anglican Communion stretches from Algeria to Iran, a part of the world in which there are few Anglicans, but millions of Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, the archbishop of this tiny Anglican flock dared to bring a blunt message to the powerful Episcopal Church this past week -- please be candid as well as careful.

American bishops may believe that God wants them to modernize ancient doctrines about sex, marriage, salvation and the authority of scripture, said Archbishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt. But it's getting harder for other Anglicans to explain news about same-sex unions and gay bishops to their ecumenical and interfaith neighbors at home.

"You may believe you have discovered a very different truth from that of the majority in the Anglican Communion," said Anis, speaking to the men and women of the U.S. House of Bishops gathered in New Orleans. "It is not just about sexuality, but about your views of Christ, the Gospel and the authority of the Bible.

"Please forgive me when I relay that some say you are a different church, others even think that you are a different religion."

This meeting of the U.S. bishops was even more tense than usual because the world's Anglican primates, in a Feb. 19 communiqu