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Peter Storey with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Photo Credit: Duke Divinity School)

Peter Storey with Nelson Mandela (Photo Credit: Duke Divinity School)

by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)

During last week’s Florida United Methodist Annual Conference, the unofficial Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) featured Peter Storey as speaker for its simultaneous events. Storey is the former president of the autonomous Methodist Church of Southern Africa, past president of the South African Council of Churches, and served as the Methodist Bishop of the Johannesburg/Soweto area for 13 years. He garnered fame for courageously fighting against apartheid, authored several books, and taught courses at United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School, where he is professor emeritus. A champion for liberal nonviolence and Social Gospel activism, Storey found a receptive audience with the MFSA and its fellow liberal church activists.

During the MFSA banquet, Professor Storey lectured on “God and Caesar.” “Clearly social action and United Methodism are inseparable,” he concluded, “Truly you can’t talk about being a Methodist without being engaged in social action.”

Storey seemed especially worried about America, claiming that he had great sensitivity to social matters since he endured under “an oppressive totalitarian regime in my own country.” “Those atrocities that occurred on 9/11 did something to the nerve of the church in this country,” he surmised. He mused, “The church did its pastoral duty to a shocked nation. The church held the nation’s hand, but the politicians made up the nation’s mind.” Nevertheless, he excoriated  “a particularly shallow President of the United States” for framing the “theological narrative… It was simple (as you could well suspect): they’re evil and we’re good.” “Sometime after that, questions became treasonous. It somehow became unpatriotic to question this narrative in any way,” Story explained.

The retired bishop thought much dysfunction in the American United Methodist Church springs from a reluctance to choose the right side in national partisan struggles. The UMC “has been trying to straddle a widening political gulf and trying to have a foot on both sides of that gap, and it’s becoming extremely uncomfortable to hold that position.” The members and clergy of the ailing denomination have failed to condemn “capitalism with no limitations on it whatsoever,” “a philosophy of serial war,” and an “attitude of ecological contempt, which is dangerous to planet earth.” The speaker advised, “There is a need to re-evangelize Methodism to its prophetic witness.”

Storey concluded his crusade against any hint of otherworldliness. “I want to say the church is only the church when it’s engaging the world. All the rest is just preparation,” he revealed, to the potential chagrin of any contemplatives. “What would happen if our people decided to wrestle with the massive inequities that divide our world into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots?” he asked, “What would happen if the church finally confessed that its longest standing disobedience to Jesus is its flirtation with war and the just war theory?” He also thought the issue of sanctuary flags needs “to be wrestled with.” “It is Caesar’s banner; it doesn’t belong in God’s house,” the activist leader urged. “Caesar will always push the boundaries of power. If they can, they will….We need to stop wrapping the church in red, white, and blue.” He also shared, “People are very concerned about removing God from the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m more concerned about whether the Pledge of Allegiance has removed God from many of our hearts.”

Finally, at the end of his evening presentation, Professor Storey hinted support for changes on United Methodist sexuality teaching, which currently disapproves of homosexual and other non-marital sex. Storey, on the other hand, complained, “All means all. It doesn’t mean some…It doesn’t mean if you look like me or love like me.” No doubt the radicals in the MFSA-friendly audience took this to mean agreement with their own very expansive attitude regarding sexual morality.  South African Methodism, especially the strand touted by its white leaders, is often more liberal than Christianity, including Methodism, in the rest of Africa.