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IRD President Answers His Episcopal Critics. Reflects on Mainline Decline

IRD President Answers His Episcopal Critics. Reflects on Mainline Decline

Virtueonline Interviews Mark Tooley

By David W. Virtue
November 26, 2010

Mark Tooley is the president of the Washington DC based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). IRD describes its mission as Christians working to reaffirm the church's biblical and historical teachings, strengthen and reform its role in public life, protect religious freedom, and renew democracy at home and abroad and to lead the fight rallying Christians to champion biblical, historic Christianity and its role in democratic society, and to defeat revisionist challenges.

His primary area of concern is to direct the United Methodist committee (UMAction) ministry for traditional United Methodists working to reclaim America's third largest religious body for historic Christian beliefs. Mark is the editor of UMAction Briefing and the author of "Taking Back The United Methodist Church." His articles about the political witness of America's churches have appeared in "The Wall Street Journal", "The American Spectator", "The Weekly Standard", "Human Events", "The Washington Times", "Touchstone", "The Chicago Tribune", "The New York Post", and elsewhere. He is also a frequent commentator on radio and television. He currently attends Washington Street United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

He recently became the target of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, an ultra-liberal Episcopal Church diocese that has accused IRD of punishing the Episcopal Church by supporting the seizure of church property and other assets.

VOL spoke with Mr. Tooley about this and other issues facing mainline Protestant denominations that are in general decline.

VOL: The Episcopal Diocese of New York recently passed a resolution at its diocesan convention saying IRD posed a threat to religious freedom. They want TEC's General Convention to authorize creation of a joint task force to mitigate such threats, which, they say, also affects Presbyterian, and United Methodist denominations. What is your response to that?

TOOLEY: It seems very over the top and paranoid and fulfills a lot stereotypes about the liberal fringes of the Episcopal Church being somewhat divorced from reality and looking for hobgoblins to blame for their denomination's deep rooted schisms.

VOL: The Episcopal diocese also wants to ascertain the cost to the three denominations to date of litigation to prevent the alienation of church property and other assets. What is your response to that?

TOOLEY: It might interest a lot of people to learn how much the Episcopal Church has spent on litigation against local churches and dioceses.

VOL: The diocese maintains that for nearly 30 years, IRD has publicly stated its goal of "reforming" the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches along "orthodox" lines, even though it is not accountable to any of those churches? How would you respond to those charges?

TOOLEY: All of these denominations have a host of caucus groups, conservative and liberal, contending for various causes. IRD is just one of many. We are no more or less accountable to the official denominations than any of the other caucus groups. In what sense should an independent group be "accountable" to a denomination whose officials it critiques? The underlying assumption of this supposed concern is that official denominational structures should be immune from criticism.

VOL: Each denomination has produced films, documentaries, and exposés about IRD's damaging activities, but each continues to treat the problem as internal discontent rather than as a coordinated assault on religious freedom. Would you agree?

TOOLEY: The idea that there is a coordinated assault on religious freedom in the mainline denominations is ridiculous, of course. Nobody questions the civil right of Katherine Jefferts Schori or other bishops to say and do ridiculous things. The question that IRD and other renewal groups have raised is whether church officials are morally accountable to historic Christian doctrines and to the membership of their churches. IRD was founded in 1981 primarily to critique the public witness of Mainline churches, especially their disregard for international human rights and religious liberty in favor of friendly accommodation with, initially, communist regimes, and now increasingly with Islamist movements. IRD is somewhat unique because we continue to care about the social witness of Mainline churches, when almost everybody else across the political spectrum is now indifferent, since Mainline church officials have only a fraction of the influence they had several decades ago. If and when mainline denominations halt their 45-year membership decline, we hope and pray that a more thoughtful social witness will accompany their revival.

VOL: You responded saying the Diocese of New York is one of the most liberal and fastest declining areas of the liberal controlled and fast declining Episcopal Church. Blaming the 29-year old IRD for Mainline Protestantism's 45-year membership spiral is convenient but nonsensical. Do you still stand by that statement?


VOL: United Methodist Annual Conferences (regional bodies roughly approximate to dioceses) in New York and the Desert Southwest passed similar anti-IRD resolutions in 2007/2008. They never made it out of committee at the United Methodist General Conference. How do you respond to this?

TOOLEY: Some liberal church elites are unable to explain their almost continuous five-decade membership decline of mainline denominations except by faulting abstract demographic forces or blaming the critics of mainline church policies who merely point out the obvious. Like the New York Episcopal Diocese, the New York and Desert Southwest (Arizona) annual conferences of United Methodism are very liberal and fast declining. Their appeals for the 2008 General Conference to condemn IRD were rejected.

VOL: You are very involved with the gradual renewal of the United Methodist Church, are you seeing any light at the end of the tunnel in the UMC?

TOOLEY: Almost unique among the Mainline denominations, United Methodism has the opportunity for genuine renewal and return to orthodoxy. This is mostly thanks to the church's robust and growing international membership. Over 3 million United Methodists live outside the U.S., mostly in Africa. The African churches are growing and probably African United Methodists will become a numeric majority in the denomination in 15 years or so, maybe sooner. At the last 2008 General Conference, international delegates were 30 percent. At the next one in 2012, they will likely be 40 percent. This makes it almost impossible to legislatively liberalize the church's teachings on sexual ethics, because the African delegates are almost entirely theologically conservative. A gambit by the U.S. bishops to constitutionally separate the U.S. church from the Africans with a separate U.S. only conference was overwhelmingly rejected last year in votes by local annual conferences around the world. Africans voted almost unanimously against it.

The church bureaucracy is a lagging indicator of this membership shift and is still dominated by U.S. liberals. But this will change in with time. Meanwhile, U.S. church renewal groups have remained strong and work collaboratively with each other. And the evangelical sub-culture in the U.S. church has persevered despite decades of liberalism. Southeastern United Methodist is basically holding its own in terms of membership, while the much more liberal West, Northeast and upper Mid-West continue to spiral. The church's whole Western Jurisdiction, including all the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states, has lost about half its membership and now comprises about 3 percent of the denominational total. This is also the region that is ironically the loudest about being "inclusive."

VOL: I believe the United Methodist Church does support the inclusion of homosexuals in the congregation, and homosexuals can take part in sacraments and programs. However, the UMC does state that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," so the church does not allow homosexuals to become ordained ministers. Is that correct?

TOOLEY: There's no official policy about homosexual practice and church membership. In recent years there's been a controversy resulting from a Virginia's pastor's refusal to grant immediate church membership to an actively unrepentant homosexual man in his congregation. The church's top court, the Judicial Council, ruled that local pastors may determine who's ready for membership. An effort to overturn the court with a constitutional amendment mandating automatic church membership failed. The church affirms sex only between husband and wife. Clergy (and hopefully laity.) are expected to be monogamous in marriage and celibate if single. Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals may not be ordained. Clergy and churches are prohibited from celebrating same-sex unions.

VOL: The UMC will not conduct homosexual marriages and will not allow them to be held in their churches. To date the UMC seems to be holding back on openly non-celibate homosexuals being or becoming pastors? Is that true and can IRD take some satisfaction that its efforts have been successful in being where the UMC now is?

TOOLEY: IRD has played a role with other renewal groups in United Methodism in affirming orthodox Christian teaching in our denomination.

VOL: Do you think the UMC can hold the line on the full homosexual agenda being implemented in their denomination? The Episcopal Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ have all rolled over to the zeitgeist? Are you hopeful the UMC can hold out and fight back or is the full pansexual agenda rolling over the UMC inevitable?

TOOLEY: No, uniquely because of United Methodism's large international membership, it is almost legislatively impossible to liberalize the church's teachings on sexual ethics, because 40 percent of the delegates to the next General Conference will likely come from outside the U.S. This would require 90 percent of U.S. delegates to support liberalizing the church teaching, which is very unlikely.

VOL: You said a United Methodist Church special commission has recently faulted the denomination's own failed leadership for nearly 3 million lost members and is urging, in the words of one religion writer, 'Better pastors. Healthier churches. Less bureaucracy.' Would you elaborate?

TOOLEY: A special "Call to Action" committee appointed by the bishops has constructively identified much of our church as dysfunctional and is calling for reforms centered on more accountability by official church structures. Proposals along these lines will be considered by the 2012 General Conference. It's unclear whether these proposed institutional reforms, such as eliminating guaranteed appointments to all clergy no matter their competence, will ultimately be significant. But at least even the church elites are now faulting the church's U.S. decline on the church itself, and not abstract forces outside the church.

VOL: Randall Balmer, an Episcopal Priest who teaches at Columbia University insists that IRD supports and promotes alleged U.S. government torture practices, even though you have publically condemned torture. Why is he promoting a conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact?

TOOLEY: I've challenged Randall Balmer to provide the supposed emails from IRD to him expressing support for for "torture." He could not produce these emails, ostensibly due to a computer issue. IRD does not support torture and supports universal human rights. IRD has criticized some liberal church elites who have been quick to define all of the enhanced interrogation of terrorists during the Bush Administration as "torture."

VOL: You wrote a pretty scathing review of the Paul Moore biography written by his daughter Honor Moore that appeared in the Weekly Standard.
(It can be viewed here: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/016/439xrwit.asp

You said Moore was a closeted bi-sexual who married twice, had numerous women lovers and a male lover. He damaged his family while shedding crocodile tears over various prevailing social justice issues. Do you find this sort of hypocrisy common, that is, the separation of public and private morality among religious leaders you talk too?

TOOLEY: My review of the biography, by Moore's daughter, was actually fairly favorable. She seemed to be pretty candid in discussing her father's various issues and the anguished it caused her family and the church. For 100 years, Social Gospel liberalism has emphasized political justice while minimizing theology and personal ethics. The results have been sad and obvious.

VOL: You recently appeared alongside Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at a recent panel discussion on immigration reform. How did that go?

TOOLEY: We did not appear in the same panel but were both quoted in a Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) newsletter about immigration. I attended a CFR panel on immigration that included her, and it was quite astounding that she and other panelists could not identify any morally justified reason for border controls except to keep out only the most egregious criminals. Like most Mainline church elites, she and other bishops seem to support almost complete open borders.

VOL: Do you think the creation of a joint task force of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches to study the question arguing that all three denominations have been "targeted for reform" by IRD for more than 20 years will go anywhere?

TOOLEY: It would be fun. But no, it won't go anywhere. Even most liberals will see it as a little crazy.

VOL: All these denominations have spent millions in legal efforts to prevent conservative dissidents from taking church property with them when they declare a formal break with the denomination. Do you see this relenting at all? Some Presbyterian churches seem to have the ability cut deals with their church leaders, but not Episcopal parishes. Which way is the wind blowing on litigation in the US?

TOOLEY: Almost all the litigation and spending seems confined to the Episcopal Church. It's all very sad and seems avoidable. There are no winners except lawyers.

VOL: Do you think IRD is making an impact and are you in this battle for the long haul?

TOOLEY: IRD was founded in 1981 primarily to critique the uncritical attitude towards Communism and the old Soviet Union by then still influential mainline church officials. Thanks to the fall of Soviet communism, that battle was won. Now we focus on many churches' similar inability to criticize theocratic Islam and its persecution of Christians and others, though there are recent glimmers that even liberal Mainline elites are starting to speak out for martyred Christians in Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere. We hope this awakening will continue.

VOL: Thank you Mr. Tooley.


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