African Bishops Challenge Their Colleagues

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Parishioners sing during Sunday worship at Charles Davies United Methodist Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Walter Fenton-

Six months before United Methodists from all around the globe gather in Portland for the 2016 General Conference, the bishops in Africa released a statement calling on all UM bishops to fulfill “their shepherding responsibility (1 Peter 5:2-4)” regarding the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. The November 3 statement – also addressing church unity and terrorism – was released during the Council of Bishops’ fall retreat in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

“Over the past four decades, … we have watched with shock and dismay the rapid drift of our denomination … to a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” the African bishops stated in regard to the ongoing debate over marriage and sexuality within the United Methodist Church.

“We are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible … and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. Yet they continue to attempt to persuade members of the Church to incorporate these practices as an accepted code of conduct within global United Methodism.”

In their plea for unity, the African bishops stated that there are “far more important issues that unite us than issues of sexual orientation” such as being in solidarity with those who “suffer as a result of unjust political systems, wars, famine, poverty, natural disasters, diseases, illiteracy, etc.”

At the same time, the bishops called for an “unreserved commitment to the Holy Bible as the primary authority for faith and practice in the church” and reaffirmed that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy.”

“The Christian marriage covenant is holy, sacred, and consecrated by God and is expressed in shared fidelity between one man and one woman for life,” wrote the bishops. “In this vein, we denounce all forms of sexual exploitation, including fornication, adultery, sexual commercialization, slavery, abuse, polygamy, etc.”

International terrorism

The 1,300-word statement also called attention to the atrocities and destruction committed by terrorists in Africa and throughout the world. It specifically named Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and ISIS as terrorist groups responsible for the murder, abduction, and displacement of thousands of people throughout Africa and the Middle East.

“In recent months, the world has watched with shock and dismay the massive human rights abuses against innocent, helpless and defenseless families, especially women and children, and the horrible refugee crisis that has engulfed and overwhelmed parts of Europe and Africa, with no permanent solution in sight,” wrote the African bishops. “This crisis is no doubt the result of the ongoing bloody and brutal civil war in Syria, the ISIS insurgency across parts of Europe, as well as the Boko Haram and Al-Shabab insurgencies in parts of Africa.

“Young men and women are being manipulated to carry out suicide bombings in order to destroy innocent lives and property. The Al-Shabab also continues to unleash untold havoc against innocent civilians in Somalia, Kenya, and other parts of Africa,” the statement reports. “As a consequence of these crises, thousands of families have been ripped away from their homes and made homeless. Thousands of others have died from starvation, disease, lack of shelter, and crossfire bombing and shooting between warring factions.”

The African bishops called upon the “United Nations and our political leaders in Africa to do all that lies within their power to restore peace and tranquility. We will continue to pray to Almighty God for his divine intervention while we pursue some practical ways to pursue the path of peace and unity….”

The College of African Bishops said they crafted their statement in September while meeting at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The statement was ultimately adopted and signed by 14 African bishops (all 13 active and one retired) in order to draw United Methodist attention to the “stark realities of needless suffering and pain in our world as a result of current Global terrorism, unjust political systems and the manipulation of weaker nations by world powers; and to work together as a church to usher in God’s reign of peace, justice and freedom to all.”

United Methodists across the connection will surely join the bishops in deploring the violence and suffering caused by terrorists. But their statement and recommendations to their episcopal colleagues regarding marriage and sexuality will undoubtedly stir controversy in a church quickly nearing membership parity between Africa and the U.S.

Membership growth in Africa has climbed rapidly. According to the most recent data from the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration, African membership climbed at the remarkable rate of 11.1 percent annually from 2008 to 2013, leaving it with 5.2 million members compared with 7.2 million in the U.S. If Africa’s membership trends continue, it will have 7.1 million members by the end of 2016, which would essentially equal that of the U.S.

United Methodists who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage, both in Africa and America, are increasingly at odds with some centrists and progressives in the church. Some centrists are willing to support what is called a “local option.” It would give clergy, local churches and annual conferences the right to decide whether clergy could perform same sex marriages and ordain openly gay ministers. Progressives go further, demanding a complete repudiation of the church’s teachings on these matters.

The African bishops’ remarks were clearly directed at some of their U.S. colleagues who have either approved of or countenanced clergy who have presided at same sex-weddings.

Shortly after the UM Church’s 2012 General Conference some U.S. annual conferences and the entire Western Jurisdiction called for the open defiance of the denomination’s teachings on marriage and sexuality issues. In a number of high profile cases, UM clergy, and in one instance a retired bishop, performed same sex weddings with little or no consequence for defying the will of the church. The mounting number of cases and the lack of accountability have heightened the decades long debate over the matter.

Earlier this year the Connectional Table (CT), the UM Church’s top administrative body, approved a plan calling for the denomination to liberalize its teachings on same sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The CT’s plan, “A Third Way,” calls for codifying in the Book of Discipline that marriage is between “two people,” and it would allow annual conferences to determine whether to ordain openly gay clergy.

Thirteen bishops are members of the Connectional Table, but there are none from Africa.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.

Comments

  1. Phil Hannum says:

    Regarding the African Bishop’s statement calling on “all UM bishops to fulfill “their shepherding responsibility (1 Peter 5:2-4)” regarding the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality.

    The reconcilers are issuing some ironic and contradictory signals to a world which understands the UMC to be a “Connectional Church”, Consider:

    Jesus, Paul and Wesley speak write of a Universal Church, yet notions regarding two-from-one do not find support in the Bible – one Body.

    America’s courts frequently used the terms “Separate but Equal” and “Jim Crow” Laws while seeking to remove a dual system, yet the persons seeking a dual system, now, ironically seek a division which segregates African and other non-American Bishops.

    We all know that Moses wrote as God instructed and Jesus validated Moses (“for Moses wrote of me”), yet we see their convoluted constructions designed to get around those things Moses wrote.

    The African Bishops know all 66 Books, know what Moses wrote, what Jesus said and are welcome to sit anywhere they choose to sit inside the bus; including the front seats.

  2. Tony Stevenson says:

    I truly do not understand how any one person could approve of same-sex marriage when God’s word explicitly says otherwise. Are we to believe that it is OK for UMC Pastors to re-write His word to fit an agenda that is not ordained by God? Who will be judged for this blatantly disregard for God’s word? It is time that His people be brought back into His fold and His Word!

  3. I wish journalists would not use the word ‘progressives’ this way. Its biased in that it implies such a position is on the side of progress.

    • “progressive”–“progressives” are those who walk in lock-step with political trend(s) in this country–many of which identify with the united Methodist church.

  4. Dennis Redstone says:

    Just one simple statement….You can’t vote on the truth.

  5. Lawrence Kreh says:

    Thirteen bishops are members of the Connectional Table, but there are none from Africa..Yet the UMC has historically championed the cause of racial justice and opposed colonialism.. Why no theological and geographical diversity on church boards and agencies?

    Indeed, I believe the issue of homosexuality is merely the “mouse that roared” overlying three more fundamental issues
    (1) the drift from Christocentric theology
    (2) Open defiance of church law and labeling those who hold to traditional sexual ethics as driven by hatred and homophobia,
    (3) The arrogance of church boards and agencies and exclusion of theological and geographical diversity.
    I pray for these issues to be corrected, but it will be very difficult indeed…

  6. I am eternally grateful for the African bishops standing for the word of God and the word of God only as God has instructed that we take nothing away from His word and add nothing to His word. We are watching and if the church embraces homosexuality we will remove our membership and our tithes and pray for the Methodist church.

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