The late Richard Neuhaus once recalled that in the 1970s it was widely expected among religious cognoscenti that United Methodism would be the first of America’s historically liberal Mainline Protestant denominations to abandon traditional Christian sexual ethics. After all, it was the largest and most Americanized of mainline churches, and it wasn’t protected by strong traditions of liturgy or ecclesiology. Its experiential theology often seemed muddled.

When Neuhaus shared that recollection in 2005, the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ had already surrendered. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were on their way. Besides the American Baptist Church (liberal northern counterpart to Southern Baptists), only United Methodism among the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism has officially retained Christian teaching that sex is exclusively for husband and wife.

That teaching was stunningly reaffirmed this week at United Methodism’s governing General Conference, specially called to adjudicate the church’s teachings about sex. Stunning at least to the U.S. bishops and other American church elites who’ve long assumed that United Methodism would remain attached to the liberal Protestant project that captured mainline denominations early in the last century. It also stunned secular observers, many of whom assumed that all “mainstream” churches (i.e. not evangelical or fundamentalist) had long ago aligned with American secular culture on sex.

History of the Debate

United Methodists have openly debated sex since 1972, when the General Conference, responding to ambiguous language on sexuality proposed by a church agency, added to the church’s Social Principles that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also stipulated that “sex between a man and a woman is to be clearly affirmed only in the marriage bond.”

Over the decades subsequent General Conferences, which typically convene every four years, added that practicing homosexuals—along with other persons sexually active outside natural marriage—could not be ordained. And they banned clergy and churches from celebrating same-sex rites. Funding by church agencies to advocate for homosexual causes was also banned.

United Methodism, after a century as a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, is slowly emerging into a new identity that is global and orthodox.

These policies across years were sustained by evangelical delegates based on theological conviction and by institutionalist delegates for pragmatic and cultural reasons. Liberal activists—cheered by seminaries, church agencies, and many bishops—reasonably assumed that eventually they would prevail. After all, United Methodism was a progressive denomination, and wasn’t sexual liberation the inevitable next step?

Debate Today

And they would’ve been right, but for the rise of United Methodism in Africa, which exploded over the last 25 years to 5.3 million members, or about 43 percent of global United Methodist membership. U.S. membership has shrunk since the 1960s from 11 million to 6.8 million and loses nearly 100,000 annually. Meanwhile the African churches are gaining more than 100,000 annually. African United Methodists, who are uniformly conservative theologically, will outnumber U.S. church members in a decade or less. Churches in the Philippines and Eastern Europe, though much smaller than Africa, are also mostly conservative.

American delegates were 58 percent of the recent General Conference, which meant that liberalizing the church’s marriage teaching required unobtainable votes from conservative overseas delegates. A “Simple Plan” to remove the church’s sexual prohibitions failed by 60 percent to 40 percent. The “One Church Plan” heavily pushed by U.S. bishops, allowing local churches to choose their own policies on sexuality, failed by 55 percent to 45 percent. A “Traditional Plan” backed by U.S. evangelicals and overseas delegates to enhance enforcement of the church’s sexual standards passed by 53 percent to 47 percent.

We are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to our sexual ethics.

This General Conference debate over sexuality was even more intense than most. A self-identified “centrist” who presented the One Church Plan to delegates likened the Traditional Plan to a “virus” being injected into the church. Others compared it to segregation. Since the main talking point for the One Church Plan was that it would tolerate different viewpoints within the church, traditionalists wondered why liberals and “centrists” who so abhor their beliefs would want to share the church with them. How long would their traditional beliefs be tolerated by United Methodists who view support for historical Christian sexual standards as morally equivalent to white supremacy?

Proponents for the One Church Plan, veering from their ostensible purpose of church unity, in their arguments doubled down on LGBTQ advocacy, further alarming overseas delegates. Liberian seminary president Jerry Kulah electrified a General Conference evangelical breakfast by declaring of his fellow African United Methodists: “We are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to our sexual ethics.”

Liberal Response

Liberals inside and outside United Methodism have responded to the General Conference with outrage. A prominent “centrist” large church pastor who backed the One Church Plan is summoning allies in April to plot next steps. In response, one prominent pro-LGBTQ activist in academia complained about the “arrogance” of this “white cis-hetero man” calling “folks together to his church to talk about how to move forward,” when it should be the victim groups who now lead.

Some liberals are now speaking openly of quitting United Methodism and creating a new progressive church. The General Conference approved legislation allowing congregations to leave the denomination with their property if disagreeing with denominational teaching on sexuality. This legislation may have to be clarified at the 2020 General Conference.

Creating a new liberal Methodist church would take time. And some church liberals remain in denial about the political and demographic realities that bar their future success within United Methodism. But their defeat at the February 23–26 General Conference was decisive and momentous. United Methodism, after a century as a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, is slowly emerging into a new identity that is global and orthodox. Richard Neuhaus, if still with us, likely wouldn’t be surprised. But many others are.