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Duke University, which prides itself on being an elite and cosmopolitan institution of higher learning, has suddenly reminded the world—and probably many of its own astonished students—that it has a religious affiliation with the United Methodist Church.

Duke’s president, Vincent E. Price, joined the presidents of 92 other schools also claiming Methodist ties in voting unanimously on January 4 to endorse a statement that calls on the church to jettison a 1984 provision in its Book of Discipline (its rules for church governance) that bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from its ministry and forbids its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. It was a statement timed to precede—and influence—a special session of the UMC’s General Conference devoted exclusively to the church’s teachings on sex, scheduled for February 23–26 in St. Louis. The statement, from the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church, urges the UMC to honor “the past and current practices of inclusion by amending their policies and practices to affirm full inclusion in the life and ministry of the United Methodist Church of all persons regardless of their race, ethnicity, creed, national origin, gender, gender identity/expression or sexual orientation.”

The 93 Methodist-affiliated institutions, which serve about 260,000 students nationwide, are mostly divinity schools and small- to medium-size colleges. But they also include some large, prestigious East Coast research universities—Duke, Boston University, Emory University in Atlanta, and American University in Washington, D.C.—that present a thoroughly secular face to the public and whose students have for the most part never set foot inside a Methodist church.

None of the presidents of these four behemoths seem to belong to the UMC. Price was raised Catholic, and American University president Sylvia M. Burwell (secretary of health and human services under Obama) was raised Episcopalian. It’s not clear what religion, if any, Boston University president Robert A. Brown and Emory University president Claire E. Sterk profess. At Duke, for example, nearly the only visible signs of Methodist affiliation are the imposing Neogothic campus chapel and the fact that the university’s undergraduate college of arts and sciences is named Trinity. Indeed, Duke’s official literature seems embarrassed by its past connections to the fervent religious movement spearheaded by John and Charles Wesley during the eighteenth century. A campus document explains that Duke, nearly all of whose trustees were once appointed by the church, has “matured” beyond that. While Duke—unlike other Methodist-founded institutions like Vanderbilt and Wesleyan University in Connecticut—has not completely severed its Methodist ties, those ties are now purely “historic and symbolic,” the document says.

On the other hand, the fact that the UMC still officially considers homosexual conduct sinful (“incompatible with Christian teaching,” according to the Book of Discipline) is another surprise. All the other major mainline Protestant denominations—the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ—have amended their canons over the years to permit gay and lesbian ordinations and same-sex weddings fairly freely (typically with a few hedges aimed at mollifying conservative churchgoers and clergy).

Nonetheless, anomalous as the UMC’s traditionalist stance on sexuality may seem when the other mainlines have capitulated to secular culture, it seems to have helped the UMC avoid the demographically catastrophic schisms that have plagued those other mainline churches. The Episcopal Church has seen breakaways of entire congregations and even dioceses over the past few decades, a trend exacerbated by the ordination of its first openly gay bishop in 2003. When the Episcopalians approved same-sex marriage in 2015, a still-unhealed rift opened in the worldwide Anglican Communion, 55 percent of whose 80 million members live in sub-Saharan Africa and hold highly traditionalist views on Christian sexual morality. The Lutherans and Presbyterians have also witnessed major hive-offs of their church’s conservative congregations into separate religious entities as their leaders have embraced increasingly progressive positions. One result has been a drastic and seemingly unstoppable decline in church membership for those mainline denominations. The PCUSA counted only 1.4 million active members in 2017, down from 2.3 million actives in 2005. The ELCA lost nearly a quarter of its membership between 1988 and 2016 (from 5.2 million to 3.5 million). The Episcopal Church’s number of baptized members fell from 2.3 million to 1.7 million between 2007 and 2017.

By contrast, the UMC, while not immune to declining membership, has held fairly steady at 7 million U.S. members (down from about 11 million in 1968), and there have been no major Methodist schisms. The UMC is currently America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. Perhaps Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymns have kept the church reasonably intact, but another key factor may have been its willingness (so far) to allow religious conservatives and religious liberals to abide side by side in uneasy peace under a traditional ethos. The status quo is also maintained thanks to avid Methodist missionary work in Africa and elsewhere during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The UMC now boasts an additional 5 million overseas members, most of whom are theologically conservative like the overseas Anglicans and thus disinclined to support relaxations of traditional Christian ideas about sexuality. Proposals to modify the “incompatible with Christian teaching” language in the Book of Discipline have regularly surfaced at UMC General Conferences since at least the year 2000 but have been decisively rejected, thanks largely to overseas votes.

All of that seems poised for change, however. Even during the early twentieth century, leading Methodist theology-school professors were arguing that traditional Methodist doctrinal orthodoxy, grounded in the ancient Christian creeds and in John Wesley’s affirmation of such tenets as Jesus’s divinity and His atoning death and resurrection, were out of tune with the supernatural-skeptical modern age. The operating principle for many of its ministers became the Social Gospel—faith in earthly human progress as defined by secular liberals—rather than salvation from sin by God’s grace. UMC divinity schools—whose presidents were among the unanimous endorsers of the January 4 statement—generally teach progressivism in all its forms, religious and political, generating a UMC clergy and hierarchy that are typically far more liberal in outlook than many members of UMC congregations. And as the Duke story illustrates, most of the U.S. colleges that Methodists founded during the nineteenth century are indistinguishable in culture from their secular counterparts.

It’s common knowledge, for example, that some progressive UMC ministers have been quietly conducting same-sex marriages in their churches, even though the Book of Discipline technically forbids them, while other clergy have openly professed gay and lesbian sexual orientations, all without official UMC reprisal. Indeed, the reason that the General Conference is meeting this month (it usually meets every four years, the last of which was 2016) is pressure from the church’s liberal contingent to devote a special session to reviewing—one more time—the Book of Discipline’s sexuality provisions.

In 2018 a majority of UMC bishops endorsed what they call the “One Church Plan,” which would remove the “incompatible with Christian teaching” language and allow regional church bodies to adopt their own moral positions on homosexual conduct. The One Church Plan would presumably prevent congregational schisms while the liberals wait for older, more conservative Methodists to die off and African clergy to adopt the more enlightened stance of their Western brethren toward LGBT issues. Whether this dream of preserving UMC unity would actually materialize as church progressives hope—or whether there would simply be an explosion of splitting off by dissidents as has occurred with the other mainline denominations that have gone fully progressive—is an open question. There is already a Wesleyan Covenant Association of self-proclaimed “orthodox” Methodists that might be ready to embrace breakaway conservative churches.

The bishops are not allowed to vote at the upcoming conference, which comprises 864 lay and clerical church members. But the bishops can lobby—and they can call upon all the lobbying allies they can find. Which is why we have the spectacle of Duke University and other institutions that have only the remotest connection to Methodism telling active Methodist churchgoers what they are supposed to believe. 

Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Ilyse Whitney via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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