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The Methodist sexual revolution

A rapidly declining denomination jumps into the worldly abyss


Bishop Tracy Smith Malone speaks at the United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C., on April 25. Associated Press/Photo by Paul Jeffrey/UM News

The Methodist sexual revolution
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United Methodism’s governing General Conference, meeting currently in Charlotte, N.C., is enacting a sexual revolution within what used to be, until very recently, America’s third-largest religious group.

So far, in legislative committees, later to be ratified in plenary, delegates by wide margins are disconnecting sex from marriage or even monogamy. Until now, the United Methodist Church officially taught that “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

But the proposed revision, OK’d by 75 percent in committee, says we “affirm human sexuality as a sacred gift and acknowledge that sexual intimacy contributes to fostering the emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being of individuals and to nurturing healthy sexual relationships that are grounded in love, care and respect.”

That’s it. No mention there of marriage or monogamy. Instead, it celebrates that sexuality is “expressed in wonderfully diverse ways.” And, “We affirm the rights of all people to exercise personal consent in sexual relationships, to make decisions about their own bodies and be supported in those decisions.”

You can contrast the old United Methodist sexual teaching with the new proposal here. The new wording comes from an official recommendation from a denominational commission that crafted updated “Social Principles” for the church.

But that’s not all. A legislative committee at the General Conference has also recommended by a wide margin deleting as a chargeable offense for clergy “immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage,” along with homosexual behavior.

This United Methodist General Conference was widely expected to delete church disapproval of homosexual behavior.  But most people likely were not expecting the church to delete opposition to adultery and extramarital sex. Currently, clergy are expected to be celibate if single and monogamous in male/female marriage. United Methodism did not sanction same-sex unions.

Removing nearly all sexual restrictions comes from a legislative package called “The Simple Plan.” It was first proposed at the United Methodist General Conference in 2019, when it was rejected by 60 percent of delegates. So what’s changed since then?

United Methodism has been debating sexuality since 1972 when it first found the need to specify disapproval of homosexual practice amid rising liberal currents.  The church would have followed other liberal mainline Protestant denominations years ago in liberalizing its sexuality teaching but for the rise of United Methodism in Africa.

“Inclusive,” the favorite progressive church buzzword, means emptying churches. Just look at the numbers.

Delegates from growing churches in Africa over the last 20 years helped American evangelical United Methodists block sexual liberalization, in contrast with the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The United Methodist struggle culminated in 2019 when the bishops called a special General Conference to focus just on sex, hoping traditionalists could be defeated. But American and African traditionalists, with 53 percent of the votes, stunned the bishops and other progressives by not just defeating liberalization but increasing penalties for clergy violating church law.

Traditionalists also providentially ratified a new four-year policy allowing churches to exit the denomination with church property, which the denomination normally controls. Losing ground in the U.S. church under progressive seminaries and bishops, and with no chance to reverse over 50 years of membership decline, over 7,670 conservative congregations voted to exit, 25 percent of the U.S. total.

So at this General Conference, conservative U.S. delegates are mostly gone and progressives rule.  Twenty-five percent of the African delegates couldn’t get visas, leaving empty seats and further expanding progressive power. Delegates have already overturned the legislation of the 2019 General Conference. Now, in the coming week, they’ll roll back decades of United Methodist policies on sexuality and centuries of historic Christian teaching.

Progressives are also successfully rolling back longstanding language on “respect” for the “unborn child” and “promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates.” Understandably, progressives are celebrating. Their long-time adversaries are gone, and the denomination is now theirs.

But the celebrations won’t last for long.  Delegates are ratifying a budget 43 percent lower than originally planned. With one-quarter of U.S. churches gone, and many more church members exiting even if they can no longer take church property, United Methodism’s future in the United States is bleak. The UMC once had 11 million members in the United States, but it’s likely now approaching 4 million. “Inclusive,” the favorite progressive church buzzword, means emptying churches. Just look at the numbers.

Council of Bishops President Thomas Bickerton told the delegates: “It is time to move forward as a denomination with new purpose and energy.” But what energy, and what purpose? The denomination in the United States is fast aging, shrinking, and running out of money. Buzzwords will not save it.

Meanwhile, the over 7,670 churches that have exited, most of which are joining the new Global Methodist Church, now carry the torch of traditional Methodism. Can they help evangelize America? God has powerfully used the Methodists before and maybe will again.


Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.


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