While doctrinal fights over sexuality keep grabbing the headlines, anyone who follows United Methodist affairs knows that the real news in this denomination, like so many others, centers on issues of demographics and geography.
While the number of baptisms and conversions sink in America, accompanied by a rapid graying of the surviving people in the pews, the ranks of new Methodists are growing in the lands of the Global South. Since the denomination's General Conferences are global in nature, this means that United Methodists around the world are gaining power, while the Americans slowly fade.
As a rule, journalists covering conflicts inside the United Methodist Church have explained the basic facts of this mechanism. At the 2016 gatherings, most of the weight was carried by Religion News Service, the rare mainstream newsroom that -- in these hard times for journalists -- had a reporter on site.
As things came to a close in Portland, RNS offered a long, interesting news feature that looked at recent events through a global lens, with this headline: "African Methodists worry about the church that brought them Christianity."
I am sure that conservative United Methodists, here in America and abroad, found much to applaud in this piece. However, this was the rare case in which a mainstream newsroom produced a story that had large hole in its content -- on the doctrinal left. While the Africans were allowed to speak, RNS did little to let readers hear the voices of their First World critics.
Does this matter? Yes, it does, because that is where the action is right now. It's highly likely that the next act in this drama will be driven by Americans striving to find a way to put all those global votes into a separate structure, allowing First World progressives to make the changes they want to make in issues of discipline and doctrine.
So what we have here is an admirable chance to hear the African voices -- without hearing the United Methodist voices, perhaps in meetings behind closed doors, who oppose them. Here is a crucial summary, featuring the voice of the Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.
The big idea: "People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.” The implication in this story, as in most of the mainstream news coverage, is that the key doctrinal differences focus on sexuality. But is that really the crucial dividing line here?
“It’s mind-boggling, and it baffles the Christian leader from Africa -- I speak for all of Africa -- it baffles the mind of the Christian leader from Africa, who ascribes to the whole Bible as his or her primary authority for faith and practice, to see and to hear that cultural Christianity can take the place of the Bible. United Methodists in America and other parts of the world are far going away from Scripture and giving in to cultural Christianity,” Kulah said.
Despite this sense of outrage, the African delegations largely maintained a calm, restrained presence amid the vocal demonstrations and arguments over procedure at the conference. But many stood up and sang during the recess in the middle of the most contentious day, as delegates considered whether to defer decisions on LGBT inclusion to a specially created commission. Their singing, asking God for help, brought a joyous moment in the middle of strife.
“I think the Americans have something to learn from us,” said Betty Katiyo, a delegate from the West Zimbabwe Conference. She reflected the belief among many delegates from growing African conferences that their churches retain something of the spirit of Methodism’s founder John Wesley that they can share with the rest of the denomination.
So there is the question: What is the heart of the "spirit" of Wesley? Anyone who knows church history knows that Wesley was both an evangelist and a social activist who tried to call the Church of England back to the basics of piety and the faith. He was, in a true since of this abused term, an "evangelical."
So while the headlines focus on sex, it would be good to ask another question about the tensions between United Methodists: "How many converts are the Americans winning to the faith?" Journalists may want to request some updated statistics on ADULT, as well as infant, baptisms in America and then in Africa. How many adult converts are being baptized, these days, in American UMC sanctuaries?
Consider this strong statistical round-up in the RNS feature:
The United Methodist Church in Africa has grown dramatically over the past 10 years -- jumping 329 percent in the Africa Central Conference, 201 percent in Congo and 154 percent in West Africa -- as membership has dipped in the United States and Europe.
Even with an 11 percent decline in membership, the U.S. branch still is the largest, boasting more than 7 million members. But Africa is not far behind with nearly 4.9 million -- including the single largest delegation at the General Conference: 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. And this year, after a change in the way delegates are allocated, Africa has a noticeably larger share of delegates: 260 out of 864 delegates, compared with 252 out of 956 delegates four years ago.
What trends are shaping these statistics? Might there be doctrinal issues in play here other than fights over sex?
So what happens next? The ties that bind the Africans and the Americans are still there, but they are changing.
The key questions concern the shape of any future schism. If a split occurs, will it also (legally) divide United Methodists in the United States or simply separate the global churches from the main UMC power structures, thus giving progressives a better shot at victory on sexuality issues? I thought this passage was interesting, focusing on the balance of power among the church's bishops.
Earlier in the week, delegates had approved a comprehensive plan for Africa that would add five bishops after the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, narrowly voting down a push to immediately add two bishops in Nigeria and in Zimbabwe.
Ah, so the growing churches in Africa would receive additional bishop slots AFTER the proposed and potentially pivotal 2018 special meeting -- a strategic move sought by the bishops -- to discuss changes in church doctrines on sexuality?
What do the Americans want? Here is one of the only passages in this RNS feature that hints at that side of the discussing, featuring the voice of Thomas Kemper, the church's general secretary for Global Ministries.
“I think the word for me is ‘interdependent,’ ” Kemper said. “We continue to depend on each other, but we also have the ability to walk in our own shoes and our own way of being the church and not depending on financial support from one part of the church even to keep the structure.”
And there is the key language. What does it mean to say, "we also have the ability to walk in our own shoes and our own way of being the church." Does that mean that the Americans have one approach to doctrine and the Africans have another, with tweaked separate but sort-of-equal power structures that allow that to happen?
Stay tuned. And journalists: Keep your eyes on the bishops.
FIRST IMAGE: Prayer beads for the UMC General Conference.