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A multi-year effort to turn the United Methodist Church to the right on controversial issues like homosexuality suffered a setback at General Conference meetings being held this week in Fort Worth, Texas.

Early in the 10-day meeting of the top legislative body for Methodists around the world, conservative groups were accused of trying to manipulate the outcome of a key committee election by offering cell phones to delegates from Africa. Critics said it was an attempt to influence votes of delegates typically more conservative than their counterparts in the United States.

If true, the strategy may have backfired. On Monday delegates replaced five members of a Judicial Council dominated in recent years by conservatives. Some observers termed the new majority liberal and likely to move Methodists toward greater inclusion of gays, while others called it “more of a shift to center.”

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

United Methodist News Service said delegates and church officials wondered if “democratic processes” were compromised by word that a renewal group provided free cell phones to more than 150 African delegates to use during the General Conference. They feared conservatives might use the phones to offer suggestions to the delegates on how to vote on specific issues.

Along with the phones, the coalition invited the Africans to a free breakfast in a flyer that also included suggestions about how to vote in Judicial Council elections.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition, an umbrella group of conservatives, denied the phones were intended to bribe or buy votes. Spokespersons said they were merely showing hospitality so that African delegates attending the meeting would have the same access to communication as everyone else.

Some African delegates told United Methodist News service they found the phones helpful and that no strings were attached in the offer. Others declined the phones because they didn’t want to be lobbied.

Critics of the phone said giving the cell phones exclusively to people of color outside the U.S. raised concerns about racial paternalism. Defenders said it was demeaning to African delegates to assume that a gift of a cell phone would change their vote.

Conservatives had controlled judicial elections for the last eight years. Going into this year’s General Conference, which meets every four years, conservatives had a 6-3 majority on the Judicial Council.

Mark Tooley of Institute on Religion and Democracy said only one the five newly elected members is a conservative, according to the Christian Post.

The big question is whether the moderates and liberals will follow personal convictions, which might be different from the church teaching, or whether they will follow the straightforward intent of the church’s law,” Tooley said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

United Methodist Church, which claims 11.5 million members around the world, has struggled for several years to remain united despite differences over homosexuality. Official church teaching declares homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Conservatives want stricter enforcement of that rule, while pro-gay Methodists want the denomination to declare neutrality or adopt a welcoming-and-affirming stance.

According to news reports, both sides were out in full force in meetings that continue through Friday.

A leader at a pro-gay rally proclaimed “change is coming” and said the denomination is getting closer to welcoming everyone regardless of sexual identity.

“Don’t worry, it will happen, because nothing can stop the force of this generation,” Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, chairperson of the United Methodist Student Movement, told about 200 people at one rally outside the convention center, according to United Methodist News Service.

Religion News Service said Wednesday that UMC delegates were resisting major changes to the church’s policies but taking incremental steps to combat homophobia. A statement passed Wednesday opposed anti-gay discrimination in education and homophobia in the church. On Thursday, delegates will likely take up a proposal to ban transgender clergy

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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