New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

Church leaders are now discussing whether new votes should be called, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who serves on the commission on the general conference, said in a phone interview.

“The findings that have come out have caused a serious impact on issues of trust and integrity about the whole process,” he said.

Who are the key players in the Times report?

It isn’t really surprising that they are Americans and an African who now lives in the United States and served as a translator during the conference.

In many ways, this translator is the key to the story — the source of a crucial second-hand quotation — and, interestingly enough, he is an African who backed the One Church Plan favored by the American establishment. What a coincidence?

The Times found additional irregularities. For example, two delegates from South Congo, a church district in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are listed on the official attendance records. But they never traveled to the United States for the conference because of visa issues, according to a phone interview with one of the delegates and a message sent by the other to Rev. Kalaba Chali, an official translator for the conference, who did not support the decision to strengthen the ban on gay clergy. In addition, three people voted as delegates for South Congo but their names are absent from conference attendance logs and delegate election records.

One unauthorized delegate was Philippe Kasap Kachez, whose father is Bishop Kasap Owan, a prominent opponent of gay clergy. Three Methodists from the Congo region identified Mr. Kasap Kachez to The Times as a voter seated on the floor. Mr. Chali spoke with him in St. Louis and asked why he was present.

“He said he did not go to a Methodist church in Congo; instead he lives in Brussels,” Mr. Chali said in a phone interview. “He said, ‘I came here because my dad asked me to come vote against the lesbians.’ ”

That final quote? It’s stated as a direct quote from a Traditionalist Plan voter — but the second-hand quote actually comes from Chali, a Times source who supported the One Church Plan.

Where are the second-hand quotes from liberal United Methodists, provided — word for word — by United Methodist conservatives? Don’t hold your breath.

In another United Methodist News report, readers learn:

By 438-384, the voters adopted the Traditional Plan, which reinforces the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and adds enforcement measures.

Graves said the number of possible ineligible voters was too slim to affect the final outcome on the Traditional Plan or the defeat of the rival One Church Plan, which would have left questions of ordination and marriage closer to the local level.

However, voters later decided by a two-vote margin, 402-400, to substitute a minority report for Petition 90066, disaffiliation legislation that would allow churches, within limitations, to leave the denomination while keeping church property.

General Conference organizers are consulting with Leonard Young, the professional parliamentarian who served during General Conference, about what impact any ineligible voters would have on this legislative action.

Because voting is by secret ballot, Graves said, General Conference organizers do not know if the possible ineligible voters supported a particular outcome.

So, what is the bottom line here? Where does the story go next?

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Before this special general conference, during the conference itself and afterwards, I argued that the only votes that mattered were the ones that would allow for divorce proceedings to begin, with liberal and conservative United Methodists being able to exit with their properties and a negotiated split of the UMC’s various holdings. In other words, when will the UMC establishment be willing to negotiate with the emerging global majority?

That raises another issue that the Times report never mentions. The global coalition will have another 20 votes in the next general conference (in 2020) due to falling membership totals in American pews and the consistent rise in church membership in Africa and Asia. And at some point, the international delegates are going to get their visa issues worked out and, thus, be able to cast all of their votes.

Will American church officials help, or hinder, that visa process?

As I wrote in my recent Universal syndicate column on that subject:

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 6.8 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.

In St. Louis, most U.S. representatives backed the One Church Plan, while American evangelicals and United Methodists from overseas – especially Africa and Asia – united to pass the Traditional Plan.

America's United Methodist establishment is standing its ground, even as its General Conference numbers decline.

Stay tuned. And keep doing the Methodist math.

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