By Chappell Temple
July 9, 2019
He attributed the phrase to Benjamin Disraeli, but you won’t actually find it in any of his works. But in speaking to the power of numbers to bolster an otherwise weak argument, Mark Twain was probably correct to say that there are three kinds of untruths: “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” And in that sense, some of my colleagues are perhaps not exactly correct in suggesting that 76 percent of United Methodists in the US are against the traditional understanding of human sexuality outlined in our Book of Discipline.
It’s true that three-quarters of the annual conferences across the United States voted for a majority progressive delegation to the upcoming General Conference in 2020, and likewise more than half passed resolutions in opposition to what is no longer the Traditional Plan but is now actually the reaffirmed law of the church. But that doesn’t really tell the full story.
The Texas Conference, for example, like many across the country, pretty much split the house, electing a largely progressive/centrist delegation on the clergy side, and a wholly traditionalist delegation on the lay side. But though eight of the nine clergy chosen were on a progressive/centrist voting list (that’s 88 percent if you are keeping track), because everyone elected must receive at least fifty percent of the ballots plus one, it’s a little like the winner take all Electoral College. For look at the numbers more carefully and you will find that the progressive majority was actually only about 53 percent or so, roughly the same percentages as in neighboring Louisiana as well.
In Florida, the progressive margins were slightly higher at around 57 percent but again, because of the system, the clergy delegation elected was 100 percent progressive, and there were similar results in South Carolina and Georgia. In West Ohio, there was also a stronger preference for progressive clergy candidates, some 64 percent, but even there, the 35 percent traditional pastors were not represented in the 100 percent progressive delegation. And in Indiana, the difference between progressive and traditional clergy was only forty to fifty (or 7 percent) out of the 700 votes that were cast.
On the other hand, I suspect that the progressive clergy in Western Pennsylvania will not really feel represented by the traditional delegation that dominated their elections, just as I know that my progressive friends in Texas felt left out when the traditionalists swept the vote here in prior cycles. Even this time, the same would be true for progressive laity in places like Texas where, as noted above, the entire slate on that side of the house will reflect a traditional majority.
The point is that in a system involving multiple candidates for multiple positions each requiring a majority vote it’s simply not possible to draw conclusions as to the true mind of the whole church when it comes to controversial issues. Likewise, suggesting that the delegates who were elected reflect the viewpoints of United Methodists in the pews is more than a little disingenuous when fully half of those who will vote next May in Minneapolis – clergy who tend to be far more progressive than laity – actually represent only 0.4 percent of those who comprise The United Methodist Church across the globe. And don’t even get me started on what would appear to be a “cavalier” dismissal (to borrow a term from a colleague) of the forty plus percent of the church that lives in Africa.
In the end, it’s pretty clear, at least on the question of human sexuality, that we United Methodists are far more closely divided than the delegate count might imply. What is incumbent upon us a church is to find a way to honor those differences and create new communities of faith that can live side by side, though with enough separation to stop our long internecine warfare. We can stay family if we like, but perhaps we’re better off calling ourselves “cousins in Christ” for the time being, rather than brothers and sisters trying to live together in the same contentious household.
Of course, there’s a 43.7 percent chance I could be entirely wrong about all of this. But if so, I have no doubt but that someone will tell me so. Of that, in fact, I’m 100 percent sure.
The Rev. Dr. Chappell Temple is the lead pastor at Christ United Methodist in Sugar Land, Texas. He is also an adjunct faculty member for Perkins School of Theology.