Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.
In the 1980s Charles W. Ferguson argued that Methodism is America in microcosm. In a similar fashion, I have argued that American Methodism has always been characterized by regional identities and that it is essentially a regionally-based denomination. Specifically, via a contextualization process, American Methodism adapted the genius of Methodism to its various locations without compromising the heart of Methodism. In the process, it became an American tradition that has greatly influenced American culture even as it has been swayed by American culture.
Today, United Methodist regionalism conflicts with the national identity to which it aspires. Specifically, the growing hegemony of American secularism poses a challenge that highlights regionalism and questions whether the denomination can maintain its national unity. If the UMC decides to emphasize its national identity over its regional character, it must choose between adapting to the secular culture by jettisoning aspects of its tradition or rejecting aspects of secular culture. Both options pose a very real potential of alienating significant sectors of the US population.
Clearly, ideological secularism does not have as firm of a grip on the South from Texas to Virginia, as it does on other parts of the US connection. That is one reason why southern jurisdictions continue to affirm the language of the Discipline on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In fact, many southern evangelicals want the UMC to become a bulwark against the rising tide of secularism. In their vision, the UMC can save society from itself by remaining committed to “biblical” faith. Other regions of the UMC have made peace with secularism and want to become more “relevant” by affirming the cultural values of the majority population in the regions where they exist.
The fight for the heart and soul of the UMC also extends to the Central Conferences. Like the various regions in the US connection, they also reflect the values and culture of their discrete locations. According to a 2013 Pew Report entitled “The Global Divide on Homosexuality: Greater Acceptance in More Secular and Affluent Countries,” Western Europe, North American, and South America largely affirm gay rights. On the other hand, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia strongly reject gay rights and the normalization of homosexual behavior in society. Due to the location of the Central Conferences, the UMC can anticipate that global United Methodism will not follow the lead of the US connection on the issue of gay rights.
In an effort to explain the global divergence, the Pew report makes a significant observation that highlights the encounter between African traditional society and western secular society:
There is a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and opinions about homosexuality. There is far less acceptance of homosexuality in countries where religion is central to people’s lives – measured by whether they consider religion to be very important, whether they believe it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, and whether they pray at least once a day.
If the Pew report is correct, the homosexual debate should be viewed through the larger lens of a rising secularism that diminishes the influence of religion on society. At the deepest level, the confrontation reflects a clash of cultures. A recent AP report illustrates this point. Vice President Biden and the US administration stated that gay rights must take precedence over culture. In the article, Biden declares that “protecting gay rights
is a defining mark of a civilized nation and must trump national cultures and
social traditions.” One should assume that he includes deeply held religious convictions under social traditions. He also implies that African nations and American evangelicals that do not support gay rights are not civilized. He avows that the US will use diplomatic coercion and economic incentives to impose its gay rights agenda on African nations. For Biden, “civilize” means to become like and acquiesce to the values of the secular West. It also means that the West arrogates the authority to unilaterally determine what constitutes inviolate human rights even when there is no global consensus or historical precedent. Not surprisingly, African societies who have lived under the political, economic, militaristic, and theological domination of the West are actively pushing back against this ideological imperialism in an attempt to
regain and/or reaffirm their native cultures.
Regardless of what happens within the American connection, I hope that American UMs will not mimic the vitriolic tone of Biden. Yes, proponents on both sides of this issue have gone the way of rancor and antipathy. At times the soliloquies have reflected disdain. In regards to global United Methodism, I have heard fellow UMs lament, “If it weren’t for the Central Conferences, the UMC would be a gay affirming denomination.” Others have suggested that the Central Conferences should not have equal representation at General Conference because they are not theologically adept. Such sentiment is unfortunate and not helpful in discerning the voice of God or maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In fact, it might be good if American UMs actually stopped being paternalistic long enough to hear the African critique of secularism, individualism, materialism, and permissive values related to human sexuality. After all, a global church should do theology in the context of the global community without disparaging any part of the connection.