United Methodists would have changed church rules calling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” this year had it not been for delegates from overseas, a conservative activist claims.

Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, said liberals fought hard at last week’s quadrennial General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, because they knew it was their last chance to move the denomination toward greater acceptance of same-sex unions.

“We won on the key sexuality votes, and for Methodist evangelicals this was very much a hump for us to get over, in that 2008 was really the last year for the liberal side of the church to prevail,” Tooley said Friday on The Albert Mohler Radio Program.

Methodists rejected a measure to remove the “incompatible” phrase from the church’s 2004 Book of Discipline and replace it with a mandate to “refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices as the Spirit leads us to new insight” by a vote of 517 to 416.

Tooley attributed the margin of victory to African and other overseas delegates, who comprised about 30 percent of total delegates. That is up from 20 percent at the last General Conference four years ago and, with full recognition this year of the 700,000-member United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, representation from outside the United States is expected to increase four years from now.
“When we convene again in 2012, probably 40 percent of the delegates will be from outside the U.S.–mostly Africans–and of course they are overwhelmingly conservative,” Tooley said. “At that point it’s almost impossible for the liberal side of the church to prevail on sexuality or on other issues.”

The 101-vote margin against changing the church’s stand on homosexuality was closer than similar votes in 2000 and 2004, leading some to believe that gay-rights activists could win in 2012. But Tooley said he is optimistic that “renewal” groups like the IRD will turn the 11.5-million-member denomination around.

“We are trying to emerge from a hundred years of domination by 20th century liberal Protestantism, and that’s taking quite a while,” he said. “But if you look at where the people come from that vote with the liberal side, they’re from declining churches of the West Coast and the upper Northeast, and if you look at who is voting for the orthodox position on marriage, it’s from the growing churches of the South and of overseas Methodism, so I’m fairly hopeful that it’s they who represent the future of our church.”

In a statement on the IRD Web site, Tooley said, “Africans and other international United Methodists in coalition with Evangelicals in the U.S. are working for a new denomination faithful to historic Christian teaching, and culturally transformative instead of culturally accommodating.”

In addition to retaining church teaching against homosexuality, delegates also rejected an attempt to change the constitution to recognize same-sex civil unions. They did agree, however, to open educational opportunities to all people regardless of sexual orientation and strengthen the denomination’s advocacy against sexism by “opposing all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.” Delegates also committed the church’s General Board of Church and Society to develop resources and materials for local churches to fight homophobia.

Conservatives suffered a setback early in last week’s meetings, when delegates replaced five members of the denomination’s Judicial Council dominated in recent years by conservatives with centrists.

“I think we just took back the denomination,” one observer was quoted as remarking during a break in the proceedings.

Delegates and church leaders also accused conservative groups of trying to manipulate the outcome of the key committee election by offering cell phones to delegates from Africa in an attempt to influence votes of delegates typically more conservative than their U.S. counterparts.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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