Will Regionalization be an Option for Africa? –
By Jerry Kulah
It has become abundantly clear in recent times that the issue of “regionalization” has taken center stage within The United Methodist Church body politic. This is evidenced by the fact that some influential structures within the general church, such as the Connectional Table, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and the Council of Bishops have given their endorsement of the plan. The centrists and progressives within the UM Church have made it their common talking point, claiming that it is the most reasonable path to pursue going into the 2020 General Conference, scheduled for April 23 to May 3, 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
We understand regionalization as the process whereby each of the seven central conferences in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines will function as a regional conference, while the five jurisdictions in the United States will combine to form one regional conference. Following their formation, each region would create its own “book of discipline” that addresses its missional needs. The general church would maintain a general book of discipline to address needs and operations of the general church. Proponents claim that regionalism would promote missional effectiveness. One retired bishop even claims that it would “keep the UMC alive and relevant in a worldwide context,” and would address “the mandate of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28: 16-20: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’”
This assertion could not be further from the truth.
Not only has the regionalization conversation become prevalent within the United States and Europe, it has also found a fertile soil among African bishops, who made the issue of regionalization a priority during their recent annual meeting in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, September 2-8, 2023. Without initiating conversations about the regionalization proposal within their various annual conferences, the African bishops took a vote among themselves to determine whether to accept regionalization as the path to pursue in Africa. But consideration of any regionalization legislation will be the prerogative of General Conference delegates in North Carolina, not the bishops (Book of Discipline, 2016, para 406). Bishops have no vote in this matter.
Apparently, most African bishops are now inclined to remain with the worldwide UM Church even if its biblical interpretation, theology, and polity contradict the clear teachings of Scripture, including its legalization of same-gender marriage, ordination of self-avowed homosexuals, and election and consecration of gays and lesbians as bishops to represent the UM Church worldwide. According to them, “Notwithstanding the differences in our UMC regarding the issue of human sexuality especially with our stance of traditional and biblical view of marriage, we categorically state that we do not plan to leave The United Methodist Church and will continue to be shepherds of God’s flock in this worldwide denomination.” We consider this a contradiction.
Our current African bishops cannot claim that they uphold the sanctity of Scripture regarding human sexuality and yet remain in an ecclesial marriage with those who vehemently oppose this biblical view and theological position, unless there are other factors relative to some personal benefits necessitating their decision. Their decision runs contrary to the biblical stance and spiritual formation of the majority of the members and clergy within the UM Church in Africa whom they claim to shepherd. We doubt many United Methodists in Africa consider regionalization an acceptable option.
The African church is aware of the history of the regionalization plans within the worldwide UM Church. Since 2008 to present, centrists and progressives have featured it in several forms at past General Conferences without success. At the 2008 General Conference, a task force on the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposed 32 constitutional amendments. Twenty-three of those amendments sought to create regional conferences within the denomination, while the remaining nine were devoted to other vital concerns of the denomination. Concluding these changes counterproductive to the connectional polity of the general church, almost all annual conferences in the United States and Africa voted against those proposals in 2009.
African bishops supporting regionalization seem ready to betray the doctrinal integrity of the UM Church in Africa. However, the Africa Initiative stands with a majority of African United Methodists and delegates to make it clear that regionalization is not an option for the UM Church in Africa. We stand ready to vote against these multiple changes to the constitution at the upcoming General Conference. If the General Conference approves them, we will work at the level of the annual conferences to make sure they do not receive the 2/3 majority support needed for ratification.
While we respect the rights of liberals, progressives, and centrists to endorse and promote the regionalization proposal, it is equally our right to reject legislation that does not align with our understanding and practice of biblical Christianity. Here are further reasons why we reject regionalization:
1. Regionalizing the UM Church is biblically and theologically wrong. Regionalization would create national churches, with the probability of different doctrinal standards and practices, under one general UM Church umbrella. In essence, we will be different denominations pretending to be one. Each region would have no say in what other regions of the same church may believe, teach, and practice.
While we will claim to be a one denomination/church, our moral qualifications for church membership and for becoming a clergy or bishop within the same UM Church will differ greatly, as per regional requirements. For example, while it would be illegal to ordain persons involved in same gender marriage or elect and consecrate gays and lesbians in one region, it would be biblically and theologically legal to do it in some other regions of the same church. This is deception; for by doing so, we would pretend to ourselves to be one denomination, yet preach different gospels (Galatians 1:6-9; 6:7).
Our founding father, John Wesley, referred to himself as a homo unius libri: “a man of one book,” the Holy Scriptures. While tradition, experience, and reason aid in our theological reflection, Scripture remains primary. The Gospel is above culture, not below or of culture. Hence, we believe that every cultural practice must align with and not contradict Scripture. The African church wants to maintain the clear and consistent teaching of Methodist doctrinal statements. We want to be a part of a church that maintains a robust accountability to its doctrines.
2. Regionalization contradicts the connectional nature of the UM Church. Regionalization disconnects the general church and does not reflect the United Methodist way of serving Christ. The principle basic to the UM Church is that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. Regionalization divides while connectionalism unites. Regionalization is therefore counterproductive to the worldwide connectional nature of the UM Church. We want to be a part of a church whose statement of faith, doctrinal standards, and ethical teachings apply to all, irrespective of the region of the world in which one finds oneself. The General Conference is the highest decision-making body of the church where all the annual conferences come together each quadrennium to make decisions jointly that will govern the programs, projects and ministries of the church. To attempt to change this unique polity of the denomination for regionalization is counterproductive.
3. Regionalization is a recipe for segregation and marginalization. Regionalization bars other members of the UM Church who do not belong to certain regions from having a say in what fellow United Methodists believe, teach, or practice. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were among the first African Americans licensed to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church. They received their licenses at the St. George’s Church in 1784. Three years later, protesting racial segregation in the worship services, Allen led about forty black members out of St. George’s. Eventually they founded the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, which led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. We are concerned that regionalization might take us along this path.
4. Regionalization enhances financial inequity within the general church. We believe regionalization enhances financial inequity within the general church, in favor of the jurisdictions in the United States. It further impedes our pursuit toward mutual partnership, and the empowerment of financially less privileged annual conferences within the general church. Among the 80 million worldwide Methodists and 12.5 million United Methodists, Africa accounts for the largest membership anywhere on the planet. Until recently, the United States has enjoyed majority membership. With the great decline of Western Christianity, the UM Church in Africa has ascended to the majority position in terms of membership. However, the UM Church in America is still the economic powerhouse of the denomination.
Currently, the UM Church in the United States accounts for 99 percent of budgetary support to the ministries, projects, and programs of the general church, including the payment of salaries and operational funds for episcopal offices in Africa. Regionalization, given the Western liberal and progressive stance on many cardinal biblical issues like human sexuality, would silence the voice of the church in Africa. Proponents could certainly bring economic pressure to bear on African conferences lacking financial self-sustainability. Regionalization is therefore detrimental to the continued growth of a biblically committed and Christ-centered church in Africa.
5. Regionalization undermines African community life. We are a communal people. The concept of the Bantu word, Ubuntu, describes this: “I am because we are.” The concept of Ubuntu describes how Africans live in community with and for each other, share common affinity, working together to achieve the common good. We seek to have equal access to assets of the community to benefit everyone. We come together, through the elders, to discuss our needs and concerns and address them corporately. We live in unity, working collectively and harmoniously for the common good.
Another concept we cherish within our community life is umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu. That is, “a person is a person because of others” (Gordon, D.M. and Krech, S. Indigenous Knowledge and the Environment in Africa and North America. 2012: Ohio University Press, Athens.). Hence, in African culture, the community, rather than individuals, raises a child. We translate these concepts into the way we understand biblical Christianity (Hebrews 10:24-25) and do church. On the contrary, regionalization promotes ethical autonomy, and disconnects the church as individual regions develop different rules and ways of doing church. Under such circumstances, many important areas of church life that the General Conference previously decided would now be the decisions of individual regions. This is unacceptable for the UM Church in Africa.
Inevitably, regionalization is a difficult, if not impossible, path to pursue for the general church. As Mark Holland of “Mainstream UMC” admits, “Regardless of how generous [some] delegates and Bishops in Africa may feel towards regionalization, they face serious social, political, and even legal pressure back home unlike anything we [centrists/progressives] face in the US and Europe.” In addition, we have a strong holy discontent about the creation of several national, partly independent churches under one umbrella denomination. This is incompatible with our connectional polity and lacks any effective way to give the church the unity it needs to be alive and effective.
Proposal for the Way Forward: Amicable Separation. While the path to regionalization, in our opinion, is almost impossible, we wish to proffer a recommendation that could help both the progressive and conservative wings of the church to move forward. We acknowledge that Centrists and Progressives within the UM Church desire regionalization. As traditionalists, we desire the same opportunity to disaffiliate as was afforded to traditionalists in the United States. We deserve justice! In addition, we believe that a more acceptable way forward for both wings of the church would be to pursue the path of amicable separation. In this way, we can bless each other and go our separate ways to fulfill our mission as we know best. We can then endeavor to do some ministries together where we both find it appropriate.
Against this background, we have submitted two petitions for disaffiliation for the next General Conference. The first is a new ¶576. This petition, when passed, gives the rights to annual conferences outside the United States to disaffiliate from the UM Church and join another Wesleyan church.
The second is a revised ¶2553. Even though we voted for passage of the original disaffiliation pathway, we were shocked and surprised when the Council of Bishops informed Central Conferences in Africa that its implementation did not apply to us. If this is not an act of segregation and marginalization of the UM Church in Africa, then I do not know what it is.
Our denial by the Council of Bishops to implement paragraph 2553 in the Africa Central Conferences was another action of marginalization. It is similar to another case in point: While jurisdictions in the U.S. and central conferences in the Philippines, and Europe, by decision of the Judicial Council, elected new bishops in 2022 to replace their bishops due for retirement, the Africa College of Bishops, with the acquiescence of the Council of Bishops, denied its central conferences the right to elect new bishops.
Despite these impediments, the UM Church in Africa continues to forge ahead in raising faithful disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the people of Africa in particular, and the world in general.
Jerry P. Kulah is Vice President of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies, United Methodist University in Monrovia, Liberia. He is also the General Coordinator of the UMC Africa Initiative. Image: Shutterstock.
Giving Thanks (Even Now)
By Shannon Vowell
This is the first Thanksgiving in my adult life when the scripture verse that most accurately describes our collective mood seems to be Matthew 10:34-36.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Enmity dominates. From the profound evils of attempted genocide and ongoing war internationally, to the more plebian peevishness of home-grown politicians, the world is living up to its reputation for worldliness.
If only it were “just” the world!
Methodist schism, that necessary but excruciating process of separation, has put both profound evils and plebian peevishness on display in the Church – and Methodists of all stripes are the walking wounded.
As we stagger toward Thanksgiving, temptations abound: Deny the undeniably grim status quo and put on a good show for the sake of faux festivity. Embrace the cynical pessimism of the zeitgeist (implicitly implying Christ isn’t big enough for these problems). Duke it out with whomever still has energy to fight. Etc.
Such temptations, while understandable, exacerbate the misery that inspires them.
Where to turn for alternatives?
Blessedly, Jesus doesn’t just offer us an accurate description of our sorry situation. He also offers us a bridge to beyond the heaviness of the present moment. The bridge, of course, is himself.
In Matthew 5:11-12, he says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In Luke 21:19, he says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In John 16:33, he says, “In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!”
This aspect of discipleship is not our favorite. It contradicts the prosperity gospel and undermines the American Dream and inverts all our wishful thinking about waking up in Heaven after a pleasant and painless life. But because Jesus so accurately predicts our need for endurance and courage, it’s wise to not just believe him – but to receive what he offers by way of sustenance for the battle.
In John 4:14, Jesus promises refreshment. “… those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
In John 10:11, Jesus promises protection. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
In Matthew 11:28 – 30, Jesus promises rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Claiming those blessings from Jesus doesn’t instantly transform the troubles of our times, but it does transform us – even as we navigate those troubles. He replaces our lack with his lavishness. He lifts our burdens so we can stand tall to praise him. He shines his light into those dark corners, and in that shining he banishes the demons of doubt and despair.
It may be helpful to remember that the first Thanksgiving officially celebrated as a national holiday occurred in the middle of the bloody, bitter Civil War – a conflict which still holds the dubious distinction of costing more American lives than any other. In November of 1863, Lincoln enjoined an exhausted, traumatized, demoralized nation:
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that (God’s mercies) should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
If we had nothing else for which to praise him, God’s mercies would be more than enough.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “For our slight, momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
The approach of Thanksgiving this year need not be “one more thing” to endure. If we rest in our Savior and recall the example of the Great Emancipator, we can be empowered to live into a national holiday as citizens of Heaven – and what glory to our King that kind of witness generates!
Paul’s pragmatic advice on the “how” of this witnessing gives us a step-by-step manual, easier (by far) than the checklist most turkey feasts require.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
May we be fueled by our faith this holiday season, that others might be encouraged by glimpses of Christ in us.
Shannon Vowell, a frequent contributor to Good News, blogs at shannonvowell.com. She is the author of Beginning … Again: Discovering and Delighting in God’s Plan for your Future, available on Amazon. Photo: Shutterstock
The Marks of a Methodist 4: Mission
By Thomas Lambrecht
We have been examining what it means to be a Methodist in honor of John Wesley’s tract, The Character of a Methodist, but following a modern version of those ideas in Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s 1960 book, The Marks of a Methodist. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. In the previous article, we noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Today we consider the fourth mark, Mission. It could be said of Methodism in general what our pastors say of the local church I attend: “Missions is the heartbeat of our church.” Mission has an outward focus, without which the church turns inward and begins to die.
Kennedy quotes Wesley: “God, in Scripture, commands me, according to my power, to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous. Man forbids me to do this in another’s parish; that is, in effect, to do it not at all, seeing I have now no parish of my own, nor probably ever shall. Whom then shall I hear? God or man? … I look upon all the world as my parish.”
Methodists throughout our history have admitted no limit to where we should go to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people.
Kennedy writes, “Sometimes I think the Great Commission was given with the Methodists in mind. For if there has ever been a Church with the word ‘go’ at the center of its life, it is The Methodist Church.”
The need to go sent John Wesley an estimated 250,000 miles by horseback throughout his life and ministry, mostly in the British Isles. That same motivation led Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America, to travel an estimated 270,000 miles by horseback in this country. Asbury was so insistent upon traveling to preach the Gospel and oversee the clergy and churches that historian John Wigger has written, “more people would recognize Asbury on the street than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington,” the famous leaders who lived during the same time.
It was the call to go where the people were that led Methodists to adopt the ministry model of itinerant evangelists and preachers called “circuit riders.” Every six months (and then later, every year) the circuit rider was appointed to a new circuit, or route of towns and churches, on which he rode, preaching and baptizing, performing weddings and funerals. Wherever he went, the circuit rider was establishing new churches. As the frontier in America moved west, the circuit riders moved along with it, always staying on the cutting edge of the country’s growth.
This impetus to go into all the world and preach the Gospel motivated Methodists to be some of the staunchest supporters and participants in the modern missionary movement. Beginning in the early 1800s, thousands of missionaries went to all the continents and countries of the world, establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and planting churches.
Today, one can get a sense of going into mission by taking a short-term mission trip, serving on mission projects in the U.S. and other parts of the world. While short-term mission trips bring help and encouragement to the mission field, they more profoundly impact the missioner with the life-changing awareness that God is at work in all places and all cultures. Taking such a trip opens one up to being used by the Lord in new ways to serve others. For many, this experience is transformative.
The need to go where the people are and where the needs are can mean local church members getting outside the walls of the church to serve. It might mean going to the other side of town or into neighborhoods that are different from one’s own. Taking risks and carrying the ministry of the Gospel out to the people of the community is the essence of mission, exemplified by the Apostle Paul and millions of other Christians ever since.
Mission is born of love – love for God played out in love for others, in response to God’s love for us. That love extends not only to the heart and soul of a person, but to the body, mind, family, and every other part of the person. Kennedy reminds us, “There has never been any willingness to believe that any part of life is beyond the reach of our faith. From the beginning we have had a concern for the physical conditions of life. … The Gospel deals with all of life because it comes to heal the whole [person]. The Bible knows nothing about partial religion, and it has no tendency to divide life into compartments. The goal is a Kingdom in which [each person] will be a citizen under the government of God. So, we may begin where we will and go in any direction, but if Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, we will travel straight toward human need. We will soon be involved in solving human problems and making life better for all.”
Our goal as Methodist Christians is to seek the welfare of all people in the name of Christ. That is why Methodists have been in the forefront of establishing schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, farms, and other social service agencies. That is why Methodists have felt called to advocate for policy changes like the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the ending of child labor in the 20th century.
Where Methodists have often agreed on the “what” of human need, we have sometimes disagreed on the “how” to meet that need. It is important to acknowledge the validity of different strategies to combat social ills like prostitution, drug addiction, human trafficking, world peace, and crime. When the church limits itself to one approach, it runs the risk of being wedded to an ideology, whether liberal or conservative, rather than focusing on the Gospel and practical love of neighbor. The church is at its best when it goes out to meet the needs of people directly. It is less effective and sometimes harms itself when it ventures into the political arena and begins playing by the rules of advocacy and activism.
Even worse is when the church comes to believe that passing resolutions or governmental laws is the sum total of social concern. Kennedy warns, “The world must be changed, but in the hearts of [people]. There is no system that can do it and laws are poor weak things when you are trying to change society. Wars can stop some things from happening, but they cannot build the new life. What a limited thing is force and how inadequate is money! But God has entrusted to us His love and power to conquer our sin and redeem our wills.”
The transformation of the world comes through the transformation of individual lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the power of political rallies or governmental edicts. But much of that individual transformation happens when people see the love of God in Christ displayed in our loving outreach to minister to human needs. That is the essence of mission.
Individual transformation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That requires evangelism to be a central part of missions. Kennedy states, “When the Gospel is a living experience, there is no need to talk about evangelism. For to share that experience both consciously and unconsciously is inescapable.”
Living a life of love and caring for others opens the door to relationship. In the context of that relationship, one can then share “the reason for the hope that [we] have” (I Peter 3:15). And certainly, we can use the relationship to invite people to accompany us to church, where they can experience the Gospel in that setting.
Foremost on our minds should be our striving to live a life that is congruent with our message. A life that does not display the grace of God and his love for all the world will not be a great advertisement for the truth of our message of redemption through Jesus Christ. It has been said that you and I may be the only Bible a non-Christian will ever read (at least until they get interested in finding out more about Jesus). On the other hand, Kennedy cites a story about a meeting of college students where one student asked, “What is Christianity anyway?” The response was, “Why Christianity is Oscar Westover” – the name of a Christian believer known to the group. “I love those quiet Christians who move among their friends like a judgment and a benediction,” observed Kennedy. “They are witnesses and evangelists.” Our lives can embody the message we proclaim and be the walking definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Kennedy writes, “There is no joy to compare with bringing Christ to another. The Church has bestowed on me many honors, but nothing compares with the privilege it gives me to call [people] into its saving fellowship.”
Kennedy concludes, “Any church must be missionary in spirit, or it dies. But this is particularly true for Methodism because its whole spirit and polity are not proper for a finished institution. We must march or lose our life.” I wonder if modern Methodism has domesticated the spirit of early Methodism and created that “finished institution” that Kennedy thought we had not attained. That “finished institution” can become a museum piece to be preserved and admired, rather than a vehicle for mission. That way lies the death of the church. May we recover the missionary spirit of early Christianity and of early Methodism. For this God has raised us up!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. A woman has her eyes examined by a medical attendant while other patients sit waiting in line at Gwandum Clinc in Nigeria. Photo by the Rev. Ande I. Emmanuel, UMNS.
Methodist Heritage: World Methodist Council 1961
Address by Bishop Gerald Kennedy
Tenth World Methodist Conference
August 19, 1961
In the nineteenth century, the English theologian Frederick Dennison Maurice wrote: “I cannot but think that the reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life, as that did upon the justification by the Son.” That expectation, while as yet unfulfilled, was a confident hope that God through his Holy Spirit would again act mightily in the Church. This expectation was based on previous experiences in the first century and again in the eighteenth century.
The Book of Acts is really the Book of the Holy Spirit. The clue to the meaning of Pentecost is in the words: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2). There is a mighty assurance in those early Christians and they acted as if it were only natural to heal and convert. They were filled with a power that made their witness sharp and clear. They lived in the constant awareness of the reality of the Holy Spirit ever present with them for guidance, comfort, and courage.
The end of World War II was a terrible time for the Christians of Germany. The country was ruined, defeated, disgraced, and there was no hope in the future. Germany was divided, with much of Protestantism under the communists. The churches were particularly hard hit, for they had lost their buildings and many of their leaders. Some of the church leaders had to cross back and forth between East and West Zones and suffered harassments from the authorities. Yet listen to this testimony from Bishop Otto Dibelius: “We are living in the Book of Acts, and, oh, it is glorious.” He was speaking of the recovery of the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
Our fathers knew this experience. Indeed, to read John Wesley’s Journal is to be transported back into the atmosphere of Acts. There are the same great expectations, the same inspiring hopes, the same signs. The Evangelical Revival was, among other things, a rediscovery of the truth of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I cannot escape the conviction that the Wesleys were raised up by God for this witness and that the people called Methodists have been chosen to continue it.
Now the scandal of revelation for many is its particularity. Why should God reveal Himself in one man, one tribe, one event, one place? Why does God so seldom if ever use an entire generation, a continent, a general infiltration of a whole period as the means of making Himself known? Why is it that He speaks through minorities and fellowships rather than through majorities and institutions? Perhaps it is because He chooses to use the foolish things with which to confound the wise. But I believe He will use some particular instrument for the new reformation.
It could be Methodism. At least we have the tradition and the theology for it. We may have been raised up for such a time and we have the advantage of having been born out of a revival of the Holy Spirit, nurtured by its doctrine, and commanded by its sense of urgency. Let us examine briefly four aspects of our belief in the witness of the Spirit.
In the first place, we believe in Experience. We may argue as to the particulars of John Wesley’s heart-warming event at Aldersgate Street in 1738, but it seems inescapable that it was a personal turning-point and the spring of the Methodist flood. It was an inward witness that brought personal knowledge of God and assurance of the availability of God’s power. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
This was a part of the worship experience of early Methodism. You may remember how Francis Asbury attended a Methodist meeting in Wednesbury and said: “I soon found this was not the Church – but it was better.” He found there no cold formalism and no lifeless ritual, but the sense of the immediate presence of God. The dour and dark dread which seems to dominate so much modern theology, is not the prevailing atmosphere where the presence of the Spirit is expected and recognized. So Wesley could say of a man who has this experience, “He is therefore happy in God.”
I attended a church service a few years ago in a mood of prejudice, which is not the proper way to enter God’s house. I did not like the sermon subject and I was sure that the whole approach was not for me. But from the first hymn, I was captured and lifted. The pastoral prayer began: “O God, when Thy Son walked the earth, men felt that if they could but touch the hem of His robe, they could be healed. We believe He is here with us this day in this place, and with our arms of faith we may touch Him and be healed. Help us to claim Thy promises.” The sermon was a testimony of how men find Christ the answer to their needs and the goal of their search. I left the church helped and strengthened, which is too seldom the experience of people who sit through our chilled formalities.
One of the main problems for modern Methodists is how to create an attitude of expectancy in our ‘cathedrals’ with our choirs and dignified services. Our preaching can so easily become like the heavy lecture at the 1954 World Council Meeting, after which the late Bishop Berggrav of Oslo murmured, “The word became theology and did not dwell among us.” Methodists should sing their theology, which is a better way to proclaim it than reciting a creed or constructing a dogma. Charles Wesley’s hymns are full of personal experiences, and they abound in personal pronouns. I have noticed that Methodist theologians, particularly in England, often quote a hymn when they are discussing a doctrine. They have the sense of these expressions of Charles and John Wesley’s poetry as descriptions of religious experience. And that is theology!
The sign of the living God is communication and revelation. This means experience, and we are committed to the belief that His Spirit witnesses with our spirit. Preachers without the experience of the Holy Spirit are smoking fires with hardly any flame of light. Laymen who have not been baptized with the Spirit, are merely salesmen for an institution with little joy and hardly any power. We cannot give what we do not have any more than we can go back to where we have not been. We believe in the experience of the Holy Spirit.
In the second place, the Holy Spirit’s witness makes us believe in Results. To connect anything pragmatic with the spiritual, will seem to some a contradiction. I am convinced, however, that quite the opposite is true. The spiritual affairs which produce no ascertainable results are to be considered with suspicion. The practical affairs which have no spiritual implications are to be regarded as of questionable importance. This is true of religion in general, but it is the very center of Christianity’s truth.
I have been impressed with the way Wesley met his critics and how in the midst of controversy he kept his eye on the main issue. He seldom argued generalities, but went straight to the particular point. How often he replied to his opponents by referring to the change in environment the Methodists had wrought. He talked about changed personal lives as the answer to Methodism’s critics. John Wesley seems to have thought that the results produced by conversion were the answers to the opposition.
The modern split is reflected in the conversation between two students attending a theological seminary. Both of them served student churches, and one of them was complaining about the condition of his church. The finances were in bad shape, the organizations were feeble, and the attendance was small. But the other one was not disturbed. ‘What do you expect ?’ he asked. “Results?” Or we see it in the superior attitude some times exhibited by other churchmen toward our “activism.” I have seen these communions with their empty sanctuaries and their lack of life. I prefer a Church committed to the idea that the living Spirit of God will produce observable results from its labors, if it is doing God’s will.
We may disagree about methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. Let us be critical of all methods and never think that a single method is holy. But that we should ever think that our Methodism can be excused from winning people to Christ would be a confession of death. Every minister and layman in our fellowship must be under the constant question: When was the last time you won somebody to Christ?
We are heavily organized and this causes some of the brethren to chafe. Organization as an end in itself is of the devil, but waste and inefficiency are neither pious nor pleasing to our Lord. All we are trying to do is to conserve the benefits of our faith and exert our maximum power. John Wesley said that he would not strike a blow unless it could be followed up and sustained. I think history says clearly that, for the long pull, Wesley’s way was right. Let us not assume that if we believe in the witness of the Spirit, we must be opposed to machinery in the Church. For it too is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. It helps us maintain the fruits which God gives from our labors.
A third aspect of this subject is Discipline. This is more important than we think, for only within the framework of a strict discipline can the free Spirit work constructively. Since the days of St Paul, there have been those who would turn the Christian’s freedom into license.
Precisely because he was dealing with tremendous spiritual power, John Wesley insisted on discipline in his services and in the lives of his followers. The early Church found that same necessity and so shall we. In Wesley’s Journal for 17th August 1750 there is this entry: “I preached at Ludgvan at noon, and at Newlyn in the evening. Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’” All one or the other can only create half-Christians.
I marvel yet at the Methodist tradition of time and rules. We are to consider time the great gift and the heavy responsibility. We have our General Rules and our Discipline. Our ministers carry heavy burdens and take responsibility for their conferences as well as for their churches. They are to serve where they are appointed without spending time candidating for pulpits. They are subject to the modern tensions and strains which are destroying so many of our contemporaries. I do not know a more difficult or demanding job in our modern world than to be a Methodist minister. This situation will not get better, for we are not about to become pietistic fellowships or passive, waiting servants of Christ. Ours is the marching tradition and we are a travelling ministry. We can only do our work by being the most disciplined of men.
Billy Sunday said one time that he had been accused of rubbing the fur the wrong way. “Well,” he replied, “let the cat turn around.” Perhaps God is saying to us that we must turn around – that we are on the wrong path going in the wrong direction. With all the material advantages we enjoy, we are often frustrated and unhappy people. To be an instrument of the Spirit’s power, we must accept spiritual discipline. The path to freedom is both straight and demanding.
Finally, let us see the witness of the spirit in the light of our doctrine of Christian Perfection. This is a difficult matter for us to understand and explain. There is a very close connection between the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Christian Perfection. Both stem from the experience of being found by God in Christ. Both are based on a faith that God is involved in all of man’s life. Both believe that the Spirit of God can capture a man and transform his desires. Both will destroy our carefulness and timidity with an assurance that “all things are possible with God.”
When I was a young preacher, I studied John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection, which may be the only unique doctrine Methodism has preached. I found him spending about as much time explaining what he did not mean as what he did mean. It seemed to me too troublesome, and I spent little time on it in the following years of my ministry. But John Wesley held it and preached it in spite of its difficulty, and I have become convinced that he was right.
A young candidate for Conference membership objected to saying “Yes” to the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” An old bishop asked quietly, “Well son, what are you going on to?” The whole idea of perfection is foreign to us, and we prefer to just do the best we can and not expect unreasonable attainment. But Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5).
It is time that we tried to recapture the mood of a man and a people who would declare their intention of aiming at nothing less than being perfect in love. They were not saying that they expected to become sinless – or perfect in judgment. But they were willing to be content with nothing less than giving themselves completely and unreservedly to the service of Jesus Christ. It was an affirmation of the kind of faith we find in the Book of Acts when the experience of the Holy Spirit was so real.
That New Testament enthusiasm is lacking in our time. The American comedian Mort Sahl said that he wished he could find a cause, because he had a lot of enthusiasm. Our problem is just the reverse, for while we have a cause, we seem curiously lacking in enthusiasm, either in the pulpit or in the pews. If in the midst of this compromising, vacillating, mediocrity ridden world the Methodists should proclaim again that they were committed to being made perfect in love, it might start a new revival. In the midst of all the bad news which reaches us daily, this would be good news indeed.
God gives much or little according to our asking. If all we want is the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, that is all we shall receive. But if we dare to reaffirm our faith in the doctrine of Christian Perfection and pray for the glorious experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, God wih use us mightily again. And who knows whether we have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) was a bishop of the United Methodist Church (Los Angeles). Excerpted from the Proceedings of the Tenth World Methodist Conference in Oslo, Norway, August 17-25, 1961.
Judicial Council (Partly) Faces Reality
By Thomas Lambrecht
In a recent decision, the Judicial Council has partly walked back their earlier resolution that the 2020 General Conference was not cancelled, only postponed. Unfortunately, this walk-back comes too late to remedy the unfair treatment it extended to our African brothers and sisters.
Postponed or Cancelled?
In Decision 1451, issued last December, the Judicial Council declared, “No provision in [t]he Discipline authorizes the cancellation of a regular session of General Conference or the annulment of elections properly conducted by an annual conference. The next meeting scheduled for 2024 is designated as the postponed 2020 General Conference.” This decision was prompted by requests for declaratory decision by Kenya-Ethiopia, Western Pennsylvania, and Alaska Annual Conferences.
This decision repeated the language of postponement adopted by the Commission on the General Conference and in Judicial Council decisions 1409, 1410, and 1429. In stating that the Discipline did not provide for the cancellation of a General Conference, the Judicial Council ignored the fact that the Discipline does not provide for the postponement of a General Conference, either.
In addition, the Council misidentified the years of a quadrennium. The UM quadrennium begins the year after the General Conference session. So, the General Conference met in regular session in 2016, and the ensuing quadrennium was from 2017-2020. The next regular General Conference was to meet in 2020, with the ensuing quadrennium running from 2021-2024. Instead, the Council referred to “the delegates duly elected to the 2020 General Conference for the 2020-2024 Quadrennium.” That is actually a five-year period, not a quadrennium. The Council correctly identified the quadrennium in their Decision 1409, when they ruled, “The General Conference has full legislative authority in matters of quadrennial budgets and apportionment formulas and acted accordingly in 2016 by adopting the 2017-2020 budget.” The same year (2020) cannot be part of two different quadrennia!
By postponing the 2020 General Conference, there was actually no regular General Conference session during the 2017-2020 quadrennium, only the special session of 2019. The requirement that the General Conference meet “once in four years” was already violated by that first postponement. It will in fact be eight years between sessions of the General Conference, which is certainly a violation of the Discipline.
There is no question that the General Conference could not meet as scheduled in 2020, or even in 2021. There was great controversy over the postponement of the General Conference from 2022 until 2024. That did not need to happen and appeared to be driven by concerns other than logistical ones. By that time, centrists and progressives were having second thoughts about the Protocol, and they wanted to keep the more progressive delegation that was elected for the 2020 General Conference. The third postponement killed the Protocol, launched the Global Methodist Church, facilitated wholesale disaffiliations in the U.S., and cleared the way for a progressive agenda for the UM Church.
Unfair to Africa
By calling it a “postponed” session of General Conference, rather than a “cancelled” session, the same delegates elected for 2020 would be able to serve in 2024. It would also mean that there would be no reallocation of delegates, as there would normally have been for the 2024 conference. Delegates were allocated on the basis of 2016 membership numbers, instead of using the 2020 membership numbers. This resulted in an underrepresentation of African members by fifteen percent of their delegation. Where they should have had at least 320 delegates in 2024, they remain at the previous 278. Most of those 42 delegates now represent the U.S., rather than being reallocated to Africa. One could construe this decision as reflecting a U.S.-centric mindset.
An Extra General Conference Session
The Judicial Council compounded its misinterpretation in Decision 1472. In response to a series of questions from the Council of Bishops, the Judicial Council ruled, “The Commission on the General Conference is required to schedule and plan for a regular session of General Conference to be convened after the adjournment of the postponed 2020 General Conference, between January 1, 2025 and December 31, 2027.”
Given that a regular General Conference costs around $10 million, and even a shorter session would cost at least $7 million, the requirement of an extra General Conference was a huge unfunded mandate by the Judicial Council. It is worth noting that four of the nine Council members dissented publicly from this decision.
With those financial considerations in mind, the General Council on Finance and Administration requested the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision to mandate an extra General Conference session.
Now in the just released Decision 1485, the Judicial Council has rescinded its requirement for an extra session of the General Conference. The next “regular session of the General Conference that is to be convened following the upcoming 2024 regular session, would be held four years thereafter, in 2028” (emphasis original).
In making this change, the Council adopted some of the language and logic of the dissenting opinion in Decision 1472.
Delegate Elections Remain Unchanged
Predictably, the Council left intact its ruling that the delegates elected in 2019 to the 2020 General Conference remain the delegates to serve for the 2024 session of the General Conference. However, in this recent decision, they appear to have changed their reasons for doing so.
Decision 1451 states, “Cancelling or skipping the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections to be held would be tantamount to overturning the results of the 2019 elections and disenfranchising the clergy and lay members of an annual conference who voted in good faith. It would also deprive delegates of their right to be seated and serve at the session of General Conference for which they were duly elected. There is no basis in Church law for such course of action.”
Of course, there is no basis in Church law for any of the other actions the Judicial Council took to deal with the pandemic emergency. They chose which emergency actions to sanction, such as allowing the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, and which ones to deny, such as cancelling the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections.
Their rationale in Decision 1451 appears to be, that for the sake of democracy and honoring the elections that took place in 2019, those delegates must be enabled to serve. Again, many of these delegates will not be serving four years later due to death, change of status from lay to clergy, or withdrawal from the denomination (among other reasons). It seems fruitless to preserve the sacredness of the 2019 elections, when many annual conferences needed to hold supplemental elections this year to fill vacancies in the delegation.
Now in Decision 1485, the rationale for maintaining the 2020 delegates appears to have changed. The decision states, “The reason for this determination … is that the names of all those persons who were elected to serve as General Conference delegates in 2020 were duly submitted in a certified report, by their Annual Conference Secretary, to the General Conference Secretary who was then prepared to issue the credentials for said persons. … the names of all of the duly elected delegates had been certified and submitted to the General Conference Secretary” (emphasis original).
In other words, the reason for keeping the 2020 delegates is “paperwork.” The names had already been submitted and certified. Therefore, we must keep those names. Again, most delegations will have experienced a significant turnover of delegates since 2020 and new lists of delegates will need to be submitted by the annual conferences.
There is no reason why new elections could not be held, since supplemental elections were indeed held this year. There is no reason why new delegates could not be certified, since in many cases new delegates are being certified this year. The only reason for keeping the 2020 delegates was because the Judicial Council declared that it must be so.
At Last – Cancellation
Hidden in the rationale for keeping the 2020 delegates, the Judicial Council has finally admitted that the 2020 General Conference was cancelled, not postponed. “… the global pandemic triggered travel bans and international restrictions and thereby necessitated the cancellation of the regular session of the General Conference that was scheduled to convene in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020.” It would have been much simpler had the Judicial Council faced this reality in 2021, when it first issued rulings on the fact that the 2020 General Conference could not be held. Unfortunately, this belated acknowledgement of reality comes too late to rectify the injustice done to the African part of the denomination.
This decision by judicial fiat deprived the African part of the church from its fair representation. It also deprived the whole church of having delegates who reflect the current thinking and desires of annual conferences. A lot has changed in the past four years. Yet the delegates serving at the 2024 General Conference will have been elected under the conditions of 2019 (before the pandemic, before postponement, before disaffiliation) and may not reflect the best current views of the annual conferences.
It is unfortunate that, over the past several years, the Judicial Council has become a legislative body making decisions on behalf of the whole church that only the General Conference can make. At the same time, the Council of Bishops has assumed similar powers to stand in for the General Conference that was not allowed to meet, making such decisions as deciding Par. 2553 did not apply outside the U.S.
This troubling trend establishes precedents that do not bode well for the future of United Methodism. For non-representative bodies to assume powers that are not theirs will diminish the power of the General Conference and of the annual conferences to act in the future. Coupled with the willingness of some bishops and annual conferences to outright ignore or defy the Discipline, these developments spell the potential for chaos in the future governing of the denomination.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Good News graphic.