By Vicki Brown-
Some African leaders want to add bishops, create a fund to support theological education in Africa, and maintain the church’s current ordination rules and definition of marriage.
The United Methodist Church Africa Initiative will host a gathering for delegates from the 30 annual and provisional conferences in Africa on May 4-6 at Canby Retreat Center in Portland, Oregon. The denomination’s top legislative assembly begins on May 10.
A group of about 60 leaders, many of whom are delegates to General Conference, gathered in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, in January, partly to plan the May retreat.
“Our gatherings strengthen our connectional and missional ties and facilitate the sustainable growth and development of the United Methodist Church in Africa,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, general coordinator of the Africa Initiative, a movement of clergy and lay leaders formed prior to the 2012 General Conference. The gatherings are unofficial and not related to any of the pre-General Conference orientations in Africa that are funded by the Connectional Table, a church leadership body.
The Africa College of Bishops endorsed the initiative, but Bishop John K. Yambasu said the college had requested more information about how the meetings were funded, the role of the bishops, and other issues. Kulah said the group is raising money through contacts in Africa and around the world to fund the events. He said some attendees paid their own way.
“We especially work with the International Leadership Institute based in Carrollton, Georgia, to provide leadership, missions, and evangelism training for pastors and leaders of the laity in Africa. We sometimes work with Good News, which plays some hospitality roles for us,” Kulah said. He said the group is “at liberty to partner and associate with anyone or group we so choose to associate with; just as you all do in the states.”
“There is a high level of commitment on the part of most of the African delegations to attend the events as an opportunity to prepare together for General Conference and to pray and conference together about the issues that are of special concern to Africa,” Kulah said.
Unanimity on sexuality
Those attending the January meeting were in agreement that the church should not ordain gay clergy or allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages, said Stanislas Kassongo, a delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Rev. Forbes Matonga, one of two General Conference delegates from the Africa Central Conference who attended the January gathering, agreed. Matonga, a Zimbabwe delegate who also plans to attend the Portland retreat, said that changing the denomination’s stand on gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy could put the church at risk in Africa.
“It would have negative repercussions for me and The United Methodist Church if I were seen as voting to support homosexuality,” Matonga said, noting that in much of Africa, homosexuality is illegal.
While many nations, including the United States, have legalized same-gender civil marriage, homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, the unofficial evangelical caucus, attended the January meeting as an observer and is handling logistics for the Oregon meeting.
But Matonga said no one was pushed to support any particular position. “We are not children. We know what we want. If we agree with Good News on this one issue, it does not follow that we will agree on everything,” Matonga said.
A coalition of 13 official and unofficial United Methodist caucuses that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) in the life of the church has its own plans for building relationships with central conference delegates.
“In the days prior to the start of General Conference, central conference delegates will be invited to small dinner parties in other United Methodist’s homes. We know that if people sit and eat and laugh together, even as they disagree, they will begin to know each other. And that’s what this movement is all about,” said Steve Clunn, coordinator of Love Your Neighbor Coalition.
Love Your Neighbor also sent representatives to the official pre-General Conference orientations in the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Côte d’Ivoire. “But we did not go with the intention of speaking to any issues directly. We went to build relationships; to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and concerns that are being faced by our United Methodist sisters and brothers in the central conferences and to speak about the hospitality that is being extended to all delegates who will be coming to Portland,” Clunn said.
Important issues for Africa
The Africa Initiative group wants to increase the number of bishops in Africa — an increase that would be fully paid for by the Africa conferences. The group also supported proposals to increase African representation on general church boards and agencies.
Matonga said Africans are under-represented in the general church. He believes membership should be the baseline for calculating all representation. The church has 7.2 million members in the U.S. and 5.1 million in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Africans are at a further disadvantage at General Conference because many do not have experience writing or presenting petitions, Matonga explained, which means most African delegates are limited to voting for or against proposals.
Lambrecht, though, said he was encouraged by the sophistication and commitment of African leaders. “They are fully engaged with the issues confronting the church and desire to have a voice in how the church moves into the future. I was inspired by the African worship and their expressions of faith in Jesus Christ, as well as their heart for evangelism,” he said.
While Good News is handling logistics for the Portland meeting, Lambrecht said he and other Americans at the Lubumbashi meeting attended only as observers. “All the speakers and moderators were Africans and led by Africans. We contributed to the discussion only when asked,” Lambrecht said.
Kulah said the Portland meeting at a Christian retreat center will provide time for delegates to recover from jet lag. “Additionally, this would be the only opportunity for African delegates to come together to share issues of common concerns prior to General Conference 2016.”
Vicki Brown is news editor for United Methodist News Service.