United Methodist Church Continues Decades-Long Crawl to Pro-Life Direction

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 23, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

United Methodist Church Continues Decades-Long Crawl to Pro-Life Direction

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by John Lomperis
May 23
, 2008

LifeNews.com Note: John Lomperis is a research associate with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a pro-life ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to hold Christian denominations accountable for presenting Biblical teachings. Lomperis has been on the IRD staff since January 2004, with an emphasis on his own United Methodist denomination.

Pro-life members of the 11.5 million-member United Methodist Church are celebrating several steps taken by their denomination’s April 23—May 2 General Conference to move in a more pro-life direction. The General Conference meets once every four years and is United Methodism’s top policymaking body.

Many Christians are shocked when they find out that America’s second-largest Protestant denomination has actually had a “pro-choice” stand on abortion for many years.

But an effectively pro-abortion rights position was adopted by the denomination’s 1972 General Conference. Around this same time, similar statements endorsing legalized abortion were adopted by other “mainline” Protestant denominations—a category that has been roughly defined by having a predominantly white membership, long histories as part of America’s cultural establishment, less of a self-consciously countercultural mindset as that of many evangelical churches, and membership in the National Council of Churches.

Such complicity in the destruction of unborn human life flies in the face of clear biblical principles and the witness of the ecumenical church over the millennia—including the great Protestant reformers and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

It is important to keep in mind that for many decades, the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominations has been dominated by theological liberals who do not represent the generally much more conservative people in the pews.

Furthermore, United Methodism’s institutions—its seminaries, denominational agencies, and Council of Bishops—have demonstrated a rather disproportionately high influence by radicals within the church who cut their ideological teeth on the left-wing, counter-cultural protest movements of the 60s and 70s. Thus, when United Methodist officials speak out on abortion, it has generally NOT been on the side of life, and has been this way for a generation.

However, things are gradually changing within the United Methodist Church.

At the time of the 1972 United Methodist endorsement of legalized abortion in, reform efforts by evangelical members of the denomination were still in a rather embryonic stage.

In 1987, a group of nine United Methodist ministers and liaty established the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS) as an unofficial caucus group to advocate for pro-life concerns. TUMAS, now more commonly known as Lifewatch, continues to actively promote its founding mission of “win[ning] the hearts and minds of United Methodists.”

Pro-life United Methodists scored a key reform victory the next year. The 1988 General Conference modified the denomination’s official statement on abortion by adding a sentence opposing abortion as a “means of birth control” or “as a means of gender selection.”

At the 1992 and 1996 General Conference, the United Methodist abortion statement was amended to add somewhat vague calls for the church “to provide nurturing ministries” to “those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy,” as well as to “those who terminate a pregnancy” and “those those who give birth. While much less significant than the 1988 reform, this was still welcomed by United Methodist pro-lifers as a small step in the right direction.

The 2000 General Conference added a sentence to “oppose the use of” partial-birth abortion and “call for the end of this practice” in most instances. This established a clear break between United Methodism’s teaching on abortion in its official compilation of Social Principles and the absolutist defense of legal abortion embodied by NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and similar political groups favored by much (but not all) of the denomination’s establishment.

In 2004, another sentence was added to the abortion statement: “We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption.” That year’s General Conference also added separate statements recognizing the reality of post-abortion stress and promoting counseling for its victims.

The April 23—May 2, 2008 General Conference amended the abortion statement to indicate a preference for life, with a new sentence to “affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers … that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.” Other amendments that were adopted endorse adult “notification and consent” for abortions performed on underage girls and support the necessity of family counsel before making “a decision concerning abortion.” The General Conference also adopted a separate, lengthy statement decrying the international problem of sex-selective abortions and describing abortion as “violent” and something to oppose when chosen for “trivial reasons.”

Perhaps more significantly, this last General Conference removed much of the “pro-choice” language in the main abortion statement. This included getting rid of problematic language about “conditions that may warrant abortion,” deleting the assertion that supporting legalized abortion was somehow “[i]n continuity with past Christian teaching,” and replacing “pro-choice” language about “unacceptable pregnanc[ies]” with the very pro-life assertion that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.”

Now all that remains in the authoritative statement on abortion in the United Methodist Social Principles that is inconsistent with a pro-life witness is a single sentence (out of sixteen) that “support[s] the legal option of abortion” during “tragic conflicts of life with life.” Some pro-life United Methodists have asserted that that statement is open to a pro-life interpretation, particularly in light of the denomination’s opposition to abortion as a means of birth control, which arguably applies to most abortions in the U.S. But with this one sentence intact, the statement lacks to moral clarity one should expect from a church. This is particularly true in light of liberal delegates having prevented that sentence being amended to make clear that this acceptance of abortion only applies to “conflicts of PHYSICAL life with life,” and the way in which some denominational officials continue to use the sentence as a broad mandate for promoting the perspective of NARAL.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that since 1988, every change made to the United Methodist Social Principles statement on abortion has been life-affirming.

There is also progress in the denomination’s leadership. In 2005, Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida delivered the sermon for the worship service Lifewatch holds each year in Washington, DC in conjunction with the March for Life. In doing so, he perhaps became the first modern United Methodist bishop to publicly speak out against abortion. Since then at least two other bishops have also publicly denounced abortion.

At the 2008 General Conference, the fight to end the denomination’s affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) was led by Marget Sikes, Secretary of United Methodism’s famously liberal-dominated Washington lobby office.

In the biggest disappointment for pro-life United Methodists, the General Conference voted by a margin of just 32 votes (out of 800 cast) for continued affiliation with RCRC, which vehemently opposes any legal restriction or even moral disapproval of abortion.

Several factors made this an uphill battle for pro-lifers. RCRC launched a seemingly unprecedented effort to lobby delegates, including but not limited to phone calls to delegates before the meeting, sending a pro-RCRC lobby team of at least four people to the General Conference, and distributing literature professionally produced for the sole purpose of conveying talking points to delegates. The decision on RCRC was moved on the schedule to a time when an estimated 100+ delegates from the U.S.-based denomination’s growing African regions (who tend to be more pro-life than their American counterparts) were not present to vote. The vote was also influenced by misleading statements made by RCRC and its allies, such as a distributed RCRC flyer claiming the group had never “supported the use of partial-birth abortion.” (when in fact since the mid 1990s RCRC has vigorously lobbied against any attempt to limit this barbaric practice). At one point a liberal bishop took the very unusual step of directly testifying to delegates in favor of RCRC.

But despite so many factors working in RCRC’s favor, the vote on the denomination’s affirmation of it was the closest it has ever been. Much greater opposition to RCRC should be gained as more United Methodists learn of how that group’s uncompromising extremism contradicts not only the pro-life elements of the denomination’s Social Principles statement on abortion (such as its affirming “the sanctity of unborn human life” and opposing partial-birth abortions and abortions chosen for birth control reasons) but also a separate statement affirmed by the last General Conference that perhaps for the first time acknowledges the diversity of opinion of United Methodists on abortion.

As an observer of this General Conference, I witnessed several additional life-affirming measures get defeated by hostile delegates not through honest debate but rather through heavy-handed procedural maneuvers and blatant misrepresentations of the truth. It was also sad to watch some turn deaf ears to a fellow delegate’s incisive plea to consider “in what situation could you see Jesus doing an abortion?”

But despite these disappointments, all the changes this General Conference ultimately made to our denomination’s witness on abortion were pro-life changes. A review of the last 20 years shows that even with the frustratingly slow pace of progress, the momentum in United Methodism is clearly on the pro-life side. At this last General Conference, delegates opposing this trend strikingly demonstrated a belief that pro-life sentiment has grown among fellow United Methodist leaders to the point that they cannot afford to allow honest and fair discussion of RCRC and other key matters related to the church’s witness on the sanctity of human life.

As increasing anti-abortion sentiment in America seeps into the United Methodist Church, as its African regions continue to grow in numbers and influence, and as its pro-life members continue their commitment to stay in their denomination and build on their progress, this pro-life trend will hopefully continue.