Participants march in the 2013 NYC Pride parade, which was...

Participants march in the 2013 NYC Pride parade, which was especially well-attended and exuberant following the U.S. Supreme Court decisions restoring same-sex marriages to California and granting gay couples the federal benefits of marriage. Credit: Charles Eckert

A couple of months ago a letter showed up in my mail at home from a group called UM Action.

I figured it was an appeal from the United Methodist church for flood relief or some such cause. Not so. It turned out to be a passionate four-page newsletter written by Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a conservative political outfit that bills itself as "a watchdog of the religious and evangelical left."

Tooley is worked up about - what else? - a push within the United Methodist church in America and other developed nations to fully embrace gay and lesbian worshipers. He is particularly harsh toward pastors who want to condone and even perform same-sex weddings.

"How sad that these church liberal activists, knowing their agenda would only cause schism and increased membership loss, still push forward," Tooley wrote.

UM Action can save a few dollars by scratching me off its mailing list. As a member of a United Methodist congregation, I think the church is seriously out of sync with both societal evolution and the teachings of Jesus with its insistence that same-sex relationships are "incompatible with church teachings."

I also think the hand-wringing in mainline U.S. churches over gay marriage is preventing those churches from speaking out against dreadful human rights crimes being committed in Africa and elsewhere overseas in the name of religion.

Tooley could not have been cheered by this week’s news that a church appeals committee overturned the banishment of Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania pastor who had been defrocked because he presided at the wedding of his gay son and would not promise to eschew future observances. The committee ordered that Schaefer’s ministerial credentials be reinstated.

But good news though it is, the order doesn’t really indicate a major shift in thinking by the church hierarchy. The committee based Schaefer’s reprieve on a technicality in his sentencing procedure.

More encouraging is the action last week by another Protestant denomination, the Presbyterians. The church’s General Assembly voted to change its definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two people," and to permit clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages in states where it is legal. That has the feel of the ground moving. And none too soon.

Tooley’s missive did raise an essential point. The United Methodist church is a worldwide congregation, and most of its growth is in Africa. African delegates represented 40 percent of the church’s worldwide general conference in 2012. Many of them are deeply conservative.

"They are incredulous," Tooley wrote, that "U.S. church liberals" are pushing for acceptance of gays and lesbians.

That may be so. But a culture clash is no excuse for any church that claims to speak for social justice to put its head in the sand.

While mainline churches in the United States busy themselves with trials for pastors who perform same-sex weddings, gays in countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon have been beaten, imprisoned and even murdered. The president of Gambia vowed in a speech to "fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively."

Activists in Africa contend the persecution is being fanned by some U.S. evangelicals, who travel abroad with their thunderous denunciation of homosexuality.

Leaders of the International House of Prayer in south Kansas City have been singled out for agitating against gays in Uganda, which enacted a law setting harsh prison sentences, up to life terms, for homosexuals and people who help them.

Mainline churches have to speak out against this kind of hatred, and they can’t do so until they themselves fully accept people who are created to love members of their own sex.

Inclusiveness may cause a schism in the global church. But unity without justice or integrity isn’t worth keeping.
Barbara Shelly can be reached via email at

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