Even though many perceptions of last year's elections of delegates to the 2020 General Conference by "American United Methodists" indicate a significant shift to the left regarding sexual morality, one Methodist leader claims that interpretation is far from accurate.
John Lomperis, director of United Methodist Action for The Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD), looked over the past year's rhetoric to find the truth of the matter.
"'American United Methodists' as a whole are not nearly as liberal as some are claiming," Lomperis contends in his recent column for Juicy Ecumenism. "The widely noted liberal backlash seen in the 2019 U.S. delegate elections was actually rather limited – to a relatively narrow range of clergy."
LGBTQ activists at the top given too much weight?
Despite consistent reporting that American United Methodists are overwhelmingly shifting toward a rejection of biblical sexuality that condemns homosexual behavior in favor of LGBTQ sexuality, Lomperis insists this is simply not true.
"It looks like lay delegates to the next General Conference have not shifted overall to become any more liberal than lay delegates to the last General Conference, and we laypeople make up most of the church," the Methodist leader argues.
He outlines four distinct issues within the denomination that are "misleadingly conflated" at times:
- "The views of all American United Methodists on particular controversies;
- "The views of the tiny minority of us elected as delegates;
- "How well the views of the latter represent the views of the former; and
- "If there has been any shift in the views of American United Methodists."
In the face of earlier reports, he contends biblical sexuality is supported by most in the denomination.
"While some liberal leaders have misrepresented some survey data, the most recent scientific survey of which I am aware (in 2015) found that slight majorities of both pastors and the most active laypeople in American United Methodism still supporting our denomination's continued ban on same-sex union ceremonies," Lomperis points out, while noting some liberal theology is spreading in the church.
"I freely admit that the majority American General Conference delegates to the last General Conference leaned in a theologically liberal direction, and that there is a lower percentage of traditionalist-leaning American delegates this time, but delegate elections are NOT the most reliable measures of how grassroots United Methodists feel about any single controversy."
The minority don't speak for the majority
The IRD program director went on to explain how clergy are overrepresented when accounts for elections are given; and that since its members are more liberal than laity, Methodists, in general, appear more to the left than they actually are.
"So, among laity, who are over 99% of the U.S. church, there were actually about as many annual conferences in which traditionalists gained ground in elections as those in which traditionalists lost ground!" the Methodist scholar exclaims.
"But annual conferences are not equal, so I calculated the percentage of all U.S. lay delegates to General Conference in 2019 vs. 2020/2021 believed to be traditionalist-leaning, and I found that with the 2019 elections, U.S. lay delegates overall have shifted to having (very slightly) more traditionalists."
According to Lomperis, the liberal shift actually represents just a miniscule percentage of Methodists.
"So, in the big picture, the widely noted liberal gains in U.S. General Conference delegate elections, overall, was a development seen among less than 1% of American United Methodists: clergy," he adds. "We can be even more specific in observing that this liberal shift was primarily among the majority portion of one subgroup of clergy – those in the order of elders."
In addition, he contends the pastors who are more biblically grounded are often left out of the equation.
"The other main category of clergy is licensed local pastors, but the current UMC Discipline systemically denies a large portion of these the right to vote for General Conference delegates," Lomperis stresses.
"In more than one conference, knowledgeable sources have told me that they would have expected different results in clergy delegate elections if ALL licensed local pastors – who are often more theologically traditionalist – had been allowed to vote. Clergy elections appear to have been further driven to the left by highly effective caucus campaigns to recruit liberal retired elders to come back to conference and vote – even if they had stayed away for years."
Uncompromised liberal theology activism at the top is another factor that keeps the pro-LGBTQ agenda at the forefront of the denomination's issues.
"So, the last year certainly seems to have seen many American United Methodists who were already liberal-leaning become more rigid or militant in their liberalism – especially among the elder subgroup of clergy," the traditionalist-minded Methodist clarifies, explaining that includes a rise of single-issue voting in delegate elections.
"But I have not seen direct evidence that in the last year there has been a major shift, in terms of a significant portion of American United Methodists as a whole 'flipping' their views from traditionalist to liberal on the dividing questions about marriage and sexual morality."