New Methodist High Court Shifts Left

Five members were newly elected to the United Methodist Church's highest court, but some say the new group may tilt the denomination's Judicial Council to the left on highly debated issues such as homosexual ordination.

Of the five who were elected, only one is a conservative and would support the United Methodist Church's current stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and the ban against noncelibate gay pastors, according to Mark Tooley, director of the UMAction program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative organization.

"Some of these new council members are openly opposed to the church's teachings on homosexuality," he said in a statement Tuesday.

The 2008 General Conference, the denomination's highest governing body, elected five new members on Monday to the nine-member council. They were nominated by the Council of Bishops, comprised of the top clergy leaders of the denomination. The new Judicial Council members begin an eight-year term at the closing of the General Conference, a 10-day quadrennial meeting which concludes May 2.

Previously, the council had a 6-3 conservative majority but according to Tooley, only two members in the new council are conservative.

"The big question is whether the moderates and liberals will follow personal convictions, which might be different from the church teaching, or whether they will follow the straightforward intent of the church's law," Tooley said, according to Fort Worth's Star-Telegram newspaper.

Although some recognize the new council is a shift to the left from its previous makeup, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, author of Confronting the Controversies, believes it's "more of a shift to center," as reported by the local newspaper.

"Progressives and centrist United Methodists worked hard to advocate for a slate of candidates they believed would bring greater balance to the council," Hamilton said. "Interestingly, a couple of the candidates appeared on the recommendation lists of conservatives, progressive and centrists."

According to church law, the council is to be comprised of both clergy and laity but also be inclusive in terms of gender, ethnicity and geographical representation.

However, no members of the council's new makeup are from Africa, where 30 percent of United Methodism lives, Tooley pointed out. Churches overseas are also typically theologically conservative.

While United Methodist membership in the United States has continually declined, congregations overseas, particularly in Africa, have grown explosively. Currently, 8 million United Methodists are in the United States and 3.5 million are overseas. But current patterns suggest that within decades, the typical United Methodist will be from Africa.

"Once again, the Africans have been excluded from the leadership councils of our church even though they are the only significantly growing part of United Methodism," said Tooley. "We declare with confidence that the days of exclusion for the Africans will soon come to a close."

This year, the General Conference has welcomed 285 overseas delegates among its nearly 1,000 delegates.