Finally. After all those years. After all those General Conferences. After all those many attempts.
On May 19, on its second Thursday afternoon, General Conference 2016 of The United Methodist Church voted to withdraw its boards and agencies — namely, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) and the United Methodist Women (UMW) — from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
This was not a trivial vote. Given the early and pivotal history of United Methodism’s pro-choice involvement, it was quite significant and game-changing.
In 1973, soon after the United States Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion and knocked down all state abortion laws (in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton), the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) was founded in The United Methodist Building in Washington, DC. RCAR was established, by various religious bodies and groups, “to safeguard the newly-won constitutional right to privacy in decisions about abortion.” (“History,” http://rcrc.org/homepage/about/history/, accessed 06/05/16)
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In 1993, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights was renamed the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, to rebrand itself and apparently to soften its image. The new RCRC busied itself about many things, but its reason for being — absolute abortion protection, advancement, and accessibility — remained the same. Today RCRC advocates in American public life to make all abortions accessible to all pregnant women, at any time in pregnancy, whatever the reason.
Since 1973, United Methodist agencies — GBCS and UMW — have belonged to RCAR/RCRC. Not surprisingly, many General Conferences of The United Methodist Church (held every four years), have debated and disapproved petitions that would have pulled United Methodist agencies out of RCAR/RCRC.
At recent General Conferences, those votes have narrowed. In 2012, the vote was predicted to mandate withdrawal from RCRC, but it was denied by the politics surrounding the church’s struggle with matters related to human sexuality.
Finally, at General Conference 2016, the successful vote occurred. After a floor debate, in which a GBCS staffer was given the microphone a couple of times to provide positive information about RCRC, the vote was taken. The result — 425-268 — was not even close. Just that quickly, The United Methodist Church was out of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Soon after that vote was taken, General Conference quite logically and overwhelmingly voted to delete Resolution 3204. Support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from The Book of Resolution (2012, pp. 341-342). That vote was even more lopsided: 561-197.
Why did General Conference 2016 vote against church agencies’ membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice? For several reasons.
First, the truth about RCRC was out. RCRC’s radical advocacy for abortion could not be hidden over the long term. Magna est veritas, et prevalebit. (“Truth is most powerful, and will ultimately prevail.”)
RCRC’s own website was a rich source of information, and many delegates did their homework by looking into the organization. The book — Holy Abortion? A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (Wipf and Stock, 2003) by Dr. Michael J. Gorman and Ms. Ann Loar Brooks — played an essential role.
Also, there were more than a few General Conference delegates courageously determined to tell the truth about RCRC. In addition, the Reform and Renewal Coalition — the evangelical and orthodox coalition — consistently told the truth about RCRC to all conference delegates.
Second, the increasing number of African delegates helped make the decisive vote possible. As United Methodism grew in Africa, its representation at General Conference also grew. So African United Methodists, who tend to be more evangelical and orthodox in their faith, added to the number of those critical of RCRC.
Third, as American culture seems to be trending pro-life (especially among the young), The United Methodist Church, which has been tagged the most American of churches in the United States, followed the culture’s lead. This contributed to the vote against RCRC.
And fourth, as the churches in the United States are being increasingly distanced from an elite, secular culture, the churches are seeing the need to “desecularize” themselves. In other words, some American churches are attempting to order their own households according to the Gospel — and not according to the whims of elite culture. That might have played a small role in the RCRC vote.
General Conference’s vote, to withdraw United Methodist agencies out of RCRC, tempts some United Methodists to look for a pro-choice (or pro-abortion) grave to dance on. But does that truly evidence “joyful obedience” (Holy Communion’s prayer of confession) to Jesus Christ?
Is that loving and respectful toward those in The United Methodist Church who believe that RCRC’s mission is consistent with Christian ethics? Of course not. That would be excessive celebration. That would be similar to the smugness we often see in political debate, and in athletic contests, throughout the land.
At a time like this, flush with victory, it is good to remain humble. Remember the devotional talk — really a brief, but powerful sermon — at a Renewal and Reform Coalition Breakfast at General Conference by Dr. David Watson, the academic dean at United Theological Seminary. It began: “[F]or God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (II Timothy 1:7, NRSV)
Dr. Watson proposed: “Do not make winning an idol. This cannot be about winning. It has to be about witnessing… When it is about winning, we are setting ourselves [over] against other people.”
Those on the other side of the aisle, said Watson, “matter to God, and God loves them. These are people for whom Christ died, and they matter. We may disagree with them, but they still matter.
“If this becomes [something] about winning and not about witnessing, then we are not even in the game. God has called us to something better than politics; God has called us to be witnesses of the incarnate Word who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead.
“Stand up for the truth, and conduct yourself in gentleness and humility and love. Even when people treat me with contempt, I hope I can meet them with a spirit of love.” (General Conference Focus, Issues and Views from Good News, May 17, 2016)
What Dr. Watson preached, most evangelical and orthodox United Methodists will attempt to do. In the midst of many defeats and occasional victories, we will witness. Because The United Methodist Church is out of RCRC does not mean that our work is done. No. That is not true.
The United Methodist Church’s teaching on abortion — Paragraph 161J in The Book of Discipline (2012) — cries out to be reformed by the Gospel of Life. And laity, clergy, and bishops need, again and again, to live this Gospel, to speak this Gospel, to teach this Gospel, to write this Gospel, and to proclaim this Gospel. Our task, as Dr. Watson urged, is to witness — not to win — even if winning feels mighty good every once in a while.
Note: Rev. Stallsworth is the pastor of Whiteville (NC) United Methodist Church, the president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, and the editor of its quarterly newsletter Lifewatch. This article is an extended version of “General Conference 2016: Steps Toward Life,” which appears in the June 1, 2016 issue of Lifewatch.