Africans Disenfranchised at General Confernce

Africans Disenfranchised at General Confernce

The Disconnection of the UM Church

By Thomas Lambrecht

Monday was the beginning of the second week of the postponed 2020 General Conference of the UM Church, meeting in Charlotte, NC. The tone and atmosphere of this conference is very different from previous conferences and demonstrates that we are in a new UM Church.

The first week of the conference was taken up primarily by committee meetings acting on over 1,100 petitions submitted by members and organizations of the church to make changes to church laws and procedures.

Due to the disaffiliation of over one-fourth of U.S. UM congregations, the number of conservative/traditionalist delegates is dramatically reduced. In addition, more than one-fourth of the delegates from Africa, who typically represent a more conservative/traditionalist viewpoint, could not obtain visas to attend the conference. The reduction of traditionalist voices and votes became apparent in committee votes, as well as votes by the plenary session. What would normally be 55/45 percent conservative margins have become 66/34 liberal outcomes.

The dramatic shift in power toward a much more liberal perspective means that the progressive agenda is moving forward at the conference unimpeded. One observer described it as taking the brakes off the liberal train.

Who Is Welcome?

The conference started with a sermon by Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, who asked, “Are you willing to move forward in a spirit of hope and embrace a season of reformation, commit to the revitalization of The United Methodist Church and work for a culture marked by compassion, courage, and companionship?” If not, he said, “Maybe you are in the wrong place.”

Several times in that opening sermon, Bickerton gave the impression that if one did not agree with the new direction to be taken by the UM Church, one was not welcome in the room, contributing to the deliberations and decisions to be made. One got the impression that the new direction of the church is set in stone and anyone who disagrees is to stay out of the way or get run over.

The African delegates already felt unwelcome because their invitation letters to obtain visas came so late, which impacted their ability to obtain visas and led to the absence of around 75 African delegates. The message of Bickerton’s sermon was not welcoming and inclusive, but rather one that drew lines and seemed to exclude those not in agreement with the leaders’ direction.

So far, this is the most tightly scripted General Conference of the nine I have experienced. Most official speakers are reading from a teleprompter. Presiding bishops are often reading from a prepared script, even when calling for votes. One benefit of that script is that fewer errors are being made by presiders in administering parliamentary procedure.

But the tight script contributes to a feeling of inevitability and pre-planned outcomes. Access to the microphone by delegates is tightly controlled, and delegates who mistakenly press the wrong button to gain the ability to speak are told to sit down and press the correct button. Unlike past General Conferences, delegates are not allowed to address the conference with a personal message. Only motions and speeches on the motions are allowed (unless one is on the official agenda).

Regionalization

The main item of business during the first week was the adoption of constitutional amendments moving the UM Church to a regionalized form of church governance. Rather than having the General Conference set the rules and policies for the entire global church, each region (possibly even each jurisdiction) will be able to craft its own rules and policies on a wide variety of matters. Each region will have its own Book of Discipline, its own rules regarding qualifications for clergy ordination, definition of marriage, ability to perform same-sex weddings, and other important issues.

As we have said before, regionalization holds the potential to de-connect our connectional denomination. As each region establishes its own policies and rules, they can grow apart from each other. Since connectionalism is our essential DNA as Methodists, anything that weakens it would be damaging to the fabric of our church.

Initial reaction from observers in Africa has been hostile to the passage of regionalization. While a makeshift version of regionalization through a separate committee of U.S. delegates can sail through on a simple majority vote, the constitutional amendments to implement full-blown regionalization require a two-thirds vote of all global annual conference members. Concerted opposition from the conferences in Africa could sink those amendments.

At the same time, a change in the definition of marriage may push African conferences to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Such a move would then subtract negative votes from the amendment ratification, making ratification more likely. Given the barriers put in the way of African participation at this General Conference and how unwelcome it is making the Africans feel, it would not take much to convince them they would be better off leaving the UM Church.

What’s Ahead

It is a foregone conclusion that the conference will pass proposals later in the week changing the definition of marriage to “two persons” from “one man and one woman.” Most of the other rules inhibiting full participation in leadership by LGBT persons will also be deleted.

The goal of the progressive-centrist coalition is to make the Book of Discipline “neutral” on homosexuality. If the Discipline neither affirms nor opposes homosexuality, each region can make its own decision. Of course, doing so sets aside the clear teaching of Scripture and substitutes human judgment for divine revelation.

Neutrality is the first step, but not the end of the journey. Proponents aim to make affirmation of homosexuality their cause in future General Conferences. The more traditionalists leave the UM Church, the easier it will be to implement that kind of affirmation. Of course, the progressive-centrist coalition has a majority now and could do so, but they don’t want to alienate Africa too badly until after the regionalization plan is ratified. Once that happens, it will be a full-court press to affirm the practice of homosexuality.

The Good News team is working long days here at the General Conference to support our African partners and to witness to the truth. We continue to promote new disaffiliation pathways for churches that cannot in good conscience remain United Methodist in the aftermath of the seismic changes the denomination will experience at this General Conference.

So far, centrists and progressives have not been open to supporting continued disaffiliation pathways. The pain of previous disaffiliations and the resentment they feel toward what they believe were misrepresentations about United Methodism have led them to adopt a vindictive refusal to provide any disaffiliation relief. (Of course, their very actions at this General Conference prove that what we said about the direction of the UM Church was correct.)

Thank you for your prayers and support during this time of upheaval in our denomination. We will be back later in the week with additional reporting on the decisions of the General Conference and their implications for the future.

Africans Disenfranchised at General Confernce

The Disconnection of the UM Church​​​​​​​

The Disconnection of the UM Church​​​​​​​

A General Conference Progress Report

By Thomas Lambrecht

April 30, 2024

Monday was the beginning of the second week of the postponed 2020 General Conference of the UM Church, meeting in Charlotte, NC. The tone and atmosphere of this conference is very different from previous conferences and demonstrates that we are in a new era in the UM Church.

The first week of the conference was taken up primarily by committee meetings acting on over 1,100 petitions submitted by members and organizations of the church to make changes to church laws and procedures.

Due to the disaffiliation of over one-fourth of U.S. UM congregations, the number of conservative/traditionalist delegates is dramatically reduced. In addition, more than one-fourth of the delegates from Africa, who typically represent a more conservative/traditionalist viewpoint, could not obtain visas to attend the conference. The reduction of traditionalist voices and votes became apparent in committee votes, as well as votes by the plenary session. What, in the past, would normally be 55/45 percent conservative majority margins have become 66/34 liberal outcomes.

The dramatic shift in power toward a much more liberal perspective means that the progressive agenda is moving forward at the conference unimpeded. One observer described it as taking the brakes off the liberal train.

Who Is Welcome?

The conference started with a pointed sermon by Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, who asked, “Are you willing to move forward in a spirit of hope and embrace a season of reformation, commit to the revitalization of The United Methodist Church and work for a culture marked by compassion, courage, and companionship?” If not, he said, “Maybe you are in the wrong place.”

Several times in that opening sermon, Bickerton gave the impression that if one did not agree with the new direction to be taken by the UM Church, one was not welcome in the room, contributing to the deliberations and decisions to be made. One got the impression that the new direction of the church is set in stone and anyone who disagrees is to stay out of the way or get run over.

The African delegates already felt unwelcome because their invitation letters to obtain visas came so late, which impacted their ability to obtain visas and led to the absence of around 75 African delegates. The message of Bickerton’s sermon was not welcoming and inclusive, but was rather terse, one that drew lines, and seemed to exclude those not in agreement with the leaders’ direction.

So far, this is the most tightly scripted General Conference of the nine I have experienced. Most official speakers are reading from a teleprompter. Presiding bishops are often reading from a prepared script, even when calling for votes. One benefit of that script is that fewer errors are being made by presiders in administering parliamentary procedure.

But the tight script contributes to a feeling of inevitability and pre-planned outcomes. Access to the microphone by delegates is tightly controlled, and delegates (especially non-U.S.) who mistakenly press the wrong button to gain the ability to speak are unceremoniously told to sit down and press the correct button. Unlike past General Conferences, delegates are not allowed to address the conference with a personal message. Only motions and speeches on the motions are allowed (unless one is on the official agenda).

Regionalization

The main item of business during the first week was the adoption of constitutional amendments moving the UM Church to a regionalized form of church governance. Rather than having the General Conference set the rules and policies for the entire global church, each region (possibly even each jurisdiction) will be able to craft its own rules and policies on a wide variety of matters. Each region will have its own Book of Discipline, its own rules regarding qualifications for clergy ordination, definition of marriage, ability to perform same-sex weddings, and other important issues.

As we have said before, regionalization holds the potential to de-connect our connectional denomination. As each region establishes its own policies and rules, they can grow apart from each other. Since connectionalism is our essential DNA as Methodists, anything that weakens it would be damaging to the fabric of our church.

Initial reaction from many observers in Africa has been hostile to the passage of regionalization. While a makeshift version of regionalization through a separate committee of U.S. delegates can sail through on a simple majority vote, the constitutional amendments to implement full-blown regionalization require a two-thirds vote of all global annual conference members. Concerted opposition from the conferences in Africa could sink those amendments.

At the same time, a change in the definition of marriage may push African conferences to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Such disaffiliation would then subtract negative votes from the amendment ratification, making ratification more likely. Given the barriers put in the way of African participation at this General Conference and how unwelcome it is making the Africans feel, it would not take much to convince them they would be better off leaving the UM Church.

What’s Ahead

It is a foregone conclusion that the conference will pass proposals later in the week changing the definition of marriage to “two persons” from “one man and one woman.” Most of the other rules inhibiting full participation in leadership by LGBT persons will also be deleted.

The goal of the progressive-centrist coalition is to make the Book of Discipline “neutral” on homosexuality. If the Discipline neither affirms nor opposes homosexuality, each region can make its own decision. Of course, doing so sets aside the clear teaching of Scripture and substitutes human judgment for divine revelation.

Neutrality is the first step, but not the end of the journey. Proponents aim to make affirmation of homosexuality their cause in future General Conferences. As more traditionalists leave the UM Church, it will be easier to implement that kind of affirmation. Of course, the progressive-centrist coalition has a majority now and could do so, but they don’t want to alienate Africa too badly until after the regionalization plan is ratified. Once that happens, it will be a full-court press to affirm the practice of homosexuality.

The Good News team is working long days here at the General Conference to support our African partners and to witness to the truth. We continue to promote new disaffiliation pathways for churches that cannot in good conscience remain United Methodist in the aftermath of the seismic changes the denomination will experience at this General Conference.

Not surprisingly, centrists and progressives have not been open to supporting continued disaffiliation pathways. The pain of previous disaffiliations and the resentment they feel toward what they believe were misrepresentations about United Methodism have led them to adopt a vindictive refusal to provide any disaffiliation relief. (Of course, their very actions at this General Conference prove that what we said about the direction of the UM Church was correct.)

Thank you for your prayers and support during this time of upheaval in our denomination. We will be back later in the week with additional reporting on the decisions of the General Conference and their implications for the future.

Thomas Lambrecht is a ​​​​​​​United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. A legislative committee considers actions to be taken by the plenary at the 2024 United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, NC. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/UM News.

Fair for Some, Fair for All

Fair for Some, Fair for All

Fair for Some, Fair for All

By Simon Mafunda

The recent commentary written by Christine Schneider for UM News of March 28 needs to be addressed. It directly responds to a commentary by Rob Renfroe, the president of Good News, who was addressing criticism regarding the planned presence of Good News at the upcoming GC in Charlotte. However, I find Christine’s article to be lacking in its representation of the facts and attempting to compare two provisions in the UMC Book of Discipline that should not be compared.

Firstly, I agree with Rob Renfroe that disaffiliation is still an ongoing issue. Claims made by our American liberal counterparts that disaffiliation is no longer relevant can be interpreted as simply an attempt to silence central conference voices, particularly those from Africa, and strip away our rights. There have been statements suggesting that some American liberals believe the UMC belongs to them, with missions overseas being considered secondary. Mark Holland of Mainstream UMC has said that the UMC should be prepared to lose Africa if necessary to accommodate LGBTQ marriage and ordination. In his August 1 article, Holland stated : “We may lose Africa and the Philippines: This is the hardest truth with which we must wrestle. It hurts to be rejected” (emphasis in original).

It is not surprising then that many Americans view the American UMC as the denomination itself, disregarding the contributions and perspectives of those outside of America, treating them as second-class members without regard for their rights and fairness.

The UM News commentary by Christine Schneider, a reserve General Conference delegate from Switzerland, fails to accurately represent the facts, especially when it comes to Africa. As a fellow member of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, Schneider has heard the plea of Africans to be treated fairly. Indeed, at one point it appeared to me that Shneider seemed agreeable and supportive of a disaffiliation pathway for the central conferences. Apparently, she has changed her mind. As Africans, we are simply demanding fairness and justice. In Africa, ¶2553, which has now expired, was never implemented. The Council of Bishops failed to seek a work-around in light of the postponement of the 2020 General Conference that would enable Par. 2553 to apply outside the U.S. This failure was surprising and disappointing to us because Par. 2553 was never intended to segregate us. In some African conferences, it was even communicated that the provision would only be implemented once it had been fully translated into the official General Conference languages applicable to Africa. Nowhere in the provision does it explicitly state that the “reasons of conscience” are exclusively applicable to America.

While it is true that ¶572 is available for conferences outside of America, its provisions are different from those in ¶2553 that the Americans utilized. Paragraph 572 pertains to annual conferences opting to become autonomous Methodists, affiliated autonomous Methodists, or affiliated United Churches from central conferences. Paragraph 2553 pertains to local church disaffiliation. We have always been aware of this annual conference provision, but as Africa, we are not interested in utilizing it. Paragraph 572 involves a lengthy and arduous process that could take an extensive amount of time and energy to complete. It also involves extensive involvement of the denomination’s entities, including the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the Central Conference, all central conference annual conferences, and the General Conference, making the vote to leave uncertain. Any of these entities could block an annual conference from disaffiliating. The process could take up to four years or more, including multiple votes and ratifications at various levels. Moreover, we have not come across any conferences in Africa expressing a desire to become autonomous. It is unfair to require African annual conferences to create their own Book of Discipline as paragraph 572 does, when what they desire is to align with a different Wesleyan denomination that already has a Book of Discipline.

Furthermore, paragraph 572 does not allow local churches to disaffiliate. There are some annual conferences in Africa that will undoubtedly want to remain United Methodist. Since some annual conferences own the church buildings and parsonages outright, it is not a question of releasing the trust clause. Rather, a new provision needs to enable the annual conference to deed the property to a local church desiring to disaffiliate.

There is also a fundamental difference between the African context and the European context. European bishops and central conferences have been willing to amicably negotiate a process of disaffiliation for annual conferences and local churches that is not in the Book of Discipline. Such amicable negotiations have allowed disaffiliation to take place. In Africa, several bishops have declared their adamant opposition to allowing any disaffiliation to take place. In some areas, pastors inquiring about disaffiliation have been summarily fired without any due process, depriving them of both house and livelihood. Around September 2022, a majority of African bishops meeting at Africa University took a combative stance and banned activities of both Africa Initiative and Wesleyan Covenant Association known for advocating for justice and fairness with regards to these disaffiliation rights. The prospect of amicable negotiations in these situations is unlikely.

European churches may be able to disaffiliate if they desire. So far, the only churches in Africa to do so had to defy their bishop and overcome his opposition, using processes that may not be found in the Book of Discipline. For disaffiliation to be a fair consideration in Africa, a general church enactment is needed that trumps the resistance of autocratic-minded bishops.

As we approach the upcoming GC in Charlotte, it is crucial to take the disaffiliation matters seriously, particularly with the lens of fairness and justice. What is fair for some should be fair for all.

Simon Mafunda lives in Zimbabwe. He is a member of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the WCA Vice President for Africa, and Africa Initiative Coordinator. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Members of the United Methodist Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters gather for Communion at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Consecrating the elements is Bishop Benjamin Boni (center). Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Fondly Remembering Carolyn Elias (1931-2024)

Fondly Remembering Carolyn Elias (1931-2024)

Fondly Remembering Carolyn Elias (1931-2024)

The Good News staff and board of directors were saddened to hear of the passing of our longtime friend and treasured colleague, Carolyn Parrish Elias (1931-2024). The Good News Board of directors presented its eighth annual Edmund W. Robb, Jr. United Methodist Renewal Award to Carolyn Elias at its fall meeting in November 2010. The award, named after long-time Good News board member and renewal leader, Dr. Ed Robb, is given to a United Methodist who has made a significant and lasting contribution to renewal within the United Methodist Church.

“Carolyn was a thoroughly unique woman of deep faith with a zest and flare for life – she was a joy to be with. She loved her husband, Barney, and their entire family, studying the Bible, reforming the Methodist church, and cheering for Razorback football,” said Steve Beard, editor of Good News. “She will be deeply missed by all of us who loved her.”

Elias was a leader in the evangelical Methodist renewal movement in the Central Illinois Conference before she and her husband, Barney, moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1991. She became active in the First United Methodist Church. She worked with the Good News General Conference team in 1988 in St. Louis, 1992 in Louisville, and 1996 in Denver.

In 2000, Carolyn was elected a lay delegate to the General Conference—in fact, she was the first lay person elected in her delegation. “Carolyn’s election as the first lay delegate in the North Little Rock Conference after a decade of serving as a member of the Good News board and being actively involved with the Renew Network was really remarkable! It spoke clearly about her ability to be a firm and gracious witness to her evangelical faith while also working effectively with others who might not necessarily agree with her theological commitments,” said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, Good News President and Publisher emeritus, who made the presentation to Elias at the board meeting banquet. (Elias became an honorary life member of the Good New Board of Drirectors in 2001.)

Carolyn served as Chair of the Conference Episcopacy Committee for Bishop Janet Riggle Huey and also was on the South Central Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy, the group charged with the important quadrennial task of assigning bishops for the entire jurisdiction. She was again elected a General Conference delegate in 2004.

Ever since moving to Hot Springs, Elias has been an important part of the leadership of the Evangelical Fellowship in the conference, which now is referred to as the Arkansas Confessing Movement. She has had the responsibility of arranging the morning breakfast meeting of the fellowship at annual conference.

In addition to her United Methodist involvement, Carolyn was, for 13 years, a leader in Bible Study Fellowship in North Little Rock. She also started a spin-off of BSF, called Explorers Bible Study, with as many as 300 women involved at one time. That Bible study continues.

“In Carolyn, we see a mature, gracious, theologically-grounded, and discerning United Methodist laywoman. She is highly respected by all who have worked with her. She has a warm, kind spirit but Carolyn can also be firm when firmness is needed,” Heidinger said to board members, family, and guests attending the 2010 banquet on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

-Good News Media Service. This is adapted from a story about Carolyn in hrt eJanury/February 2011 issue of Good News. Archive Photo: James v. Heidinger II, Carolyn Elias, and Rob Renfroe in 2010. Photo by Steve Beard. 

Is a New Disaffiliation Pathway Needed?

Is a New Disaffiliation Pathway Needed?

 

Is a New Disaffiliation Pathway Needed?

By Thomas Lambrecht

Recently, several articles have come out saying that there are already disaffiliation pathways for annual conferences and local churches, so new pathways do not need to be enacted by the 2024 General Conference. For example, Christine Schneider, a reserve delegate from Switzerland and member of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters,  surprisingly declares: “In the central conferences, we do have functioning procedures for handling the disaffiliation of annual conferences and local churches. Extending disaffiliation options under something like Paragraph 2553 is therefore simply not needed here.” That is her startling opinion.

 

Of course, Schneider writes from a uniquely European perspective that does not apply in Africa. She gives the example of Estonia, which is leaving the denomination using a process defined by its central conference. She also mentions 14 local churches in France disaffiliating from their Switzerland-France-North Africa Annual Conference. In both cases, these disaffiliation process were negotiated by the entities involved. The admirable goodwill exhibited by church leaders enabled these disaffiliations to be successfully worked out. The same goodwill is not present in all parts of Africa.

 

My colleague, Simon Mafunda, WCA Vice President for Africa, recently reported to me, “In Africa, several bishops have declared their adamant opposition to allowing any disaffiliation to take place. In some areas, pastors inquiring about disaffiliation have been summarily fired without any due process, depriving them of both house and livelihood. Around September 2022, a majority of African bishops meeting at Africa University took a combative stance and banned activities of both Africa Initiative and Wesleyan Covenant Association known for advocating for justice and fairness with regards to these disaffiliation rights. The prospect of amicable negotiations in these situations is unlikely.”

 

The only official process for disaffiliation to occur in the central conferences outside the U.S. is Par. 572, which allows an annual conference to become an autonomous Methodist Church. To do so is a long and arduous process that can take up to four years or more, depending upon when the process begins and when the General Conference is held. It requires the departing annual conference to develop its own statement of faith, constitution, and Book of Discipline. It requires the approval of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the relevant central conference, a two-thirds vote of all the members of the annual conferences in that central conference, and the General Conference. At any point along the way, a negative vote by any one of these entities can derail an annual conference’s disaffiliation. Furthermore, the African annual conferences that could consider disaffiliating are not interested in becoming autonomous Methodist churches. They would want to affiliate with another Methodist denomination, such as the Global Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church, or the Church of the Nazarene. Why should they have to go through all the work of composing their own Discipline when they would rather just adopt the Discipline of the denomination they are aligning with?

 

By contrast, a proposed new Par. 576 would allow annual conferences outside the U.S. to disaffiliate in order to align with another Wesleyan denomination simply by adopting that denomination’s Book of Discipline and receiving the affirmative vote of their central conference. It would be a much more straightforward process with only one level of approvals.

 

The proposed new Par. 576 would apply only to annual conferences outside the U.S. (It is highly unlikely that any annual conferences in the U.S. would want to disaffiliate as an annual conference, given that many traditionalists have left those annual conferences.) So, this disaffiliation pathway would not affect churches in the U.S. at all.

 

What about local churches?

 

At this point, the only process in the Discipline left open for local churches to disaffiliate is Par. 2549, which allows an annual conference to close a local church and dispose of its property. Some annual conferences are using this paragraph to “close” a church that wants to disaffiliate and then sell the property to the exiting congregation. In most cases, the cost is similar to what Par. 2553 required: two years of apportionments and a pension liability payment. Any other process would be outside the scope of what the Discipline allows. And in all cases, this process depends upon the goodwill of conference leaders to allow the local church to disaffiliate under this closure paragraph. They can say “no” or jack up the cost to make it prohibitively expensive to disaffiliate.

 

In a recent blog (under the ominous, misleading, and tabloidish headline: “Good News Issues Threats to Delegates”), the Rev. Mark Holland of Mainstream UMC says, “To be clear, Mainstream UMC believes that churches should be able to leave, but this should be left up to the annual conferences and central (or regional) conferences to handle from this point forward.” It is good to hear Holland endorse the ability of local churches to disaffiliate going forward. However, it is at the point of leaving it to the annual conferences where the process too often breaks down.

 

Many annual conferences handled Par. 2553 disaffiliations with integrity and cooperation, despite the pain involved for all concerned. Unfortunately, about a dozen annual conferences arbitrarily and capriciously imposed additional requirements or abruptly changed their policies on disaffiliation. At least eight annual conferences required payment of a percentage of the church’s property value, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent. With the high property values on the coasts, that could push the cost of disaffiliation for even a small to medium sized church into the millions of dollars. One church in California figured it would need to pay $60,000 per member to disaffiliate! A few annual conferences imposed other additional costs and fees that further raised the price. In many cases, the financial penalty for disaffiliation made it realistically impossible for local churches to disaffiliate. In those cases, churches faced the choice of staying in the annual conference or walking away from buildings and property they had invested in for decades, depriving them of their ministry base and forcing them to start over as a new church plant.

 

A few annual conferences arbitrarily changed their disaffiliation process mid-stream. After allowing a first wave of churches to disaffiliate, both North Georgia and Alabama-West Florida changed the rules to halt any further disaffiliations. Peninsula-Delaware allowed a first wave of disaffiliations, but then imposed a 50 percent of property value fee that priced most churches out of the ability to disaffiliate after that. Both West Virginia and South Carolina initially banned all disaffiliations, with South Carolina grudgingly coming to allow them late in the process using Par. 2549. West Virginia allowed only 24 of its 971 churches to disaffiliate, merely one-tenth the national average.

 

In Africa, the situation is similar, with most bishops opposing any form of local church disaffiliation. As mentioned above, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, pastors whose local churches wanted to disaffiliate were summarily removed as clergy without any charges or due process. This deprived the pastors of their home in some cases and of their livelihood. And the congregation was unable to disaffiliate. The only reason more than 50 local churches disaffiliated in Kenya is that they constituted a majority of the annual conference and were able to vote to allow their own disaffiliation in defiance of the bishop’s opposition (not a healthy dynamic to encourage).

 

In another recent commentary, Holland says, “It is unacceptable for the General Conference to prescribe another uniform process that will hurt the very annual conferences that have already been hit the hardest by disaffiliation.” It is only by providing a “uniform process” that the arbitrary and capricious actions of a few annual conferences can be corrected. To set the record straight, local churches in those annual conferences never truly had an opportunity to disaffiliate. The annual conferences in the U.S. most affected by extending a uniform process would be those who lost very few congregations due to their draconian requirements. They would NOT be the annual conferences “hit the hardest by disaffiliation.” Those hit the hardest have already lost the vast majority of churches that would want to disaffiliate.

 

To close out the option of disaffiliation at this point would be unjust. In annual conferences where bishops and conference leaders oppose disaffiliation, they should not be allowed to thwart the intent of General Conference to provide an equal opportunity for all congregations to discern their future. Such an opportunity is even more important now, given the magnitude of the changes envisioned for the UM Church to be enacted at the Charlotte General Conference.

 

What about fairness?

 

In some U.S. annual conferences, bishops and other conference leaders lobbied their churches to wait and see what happens at the 2024 General Conference. They made the case that nothing had changed in the Book of Discipline, and that we don’t know what the General Conference will do in terms of the proposed changes coming before it. They told local churches they should wait until after the General Conference acts before making a decision about disaffiliation. Yet very few of these annual conferences made provision for any disaffiliation process after the upcoming General Conference. One that did – Mississippi – reneged on that promise by stipulating that any churches not in the discernment process by the end of March would not be considered for disaffiliation. Thus, through their change of policy, they defeated the very purpose of churches waiting until after the General Conference acts. How is this fair?

 

Only a uniform process adopted by the General Conference can ensure that annual conferences do not act to block the ability of local congregations to discern their future in light of how the UM Church changes its standards and teachings at the upcoming General Conference. Failing to adopt such a process locks churches into a denomination changing in directions they may not agree with. Such an outcome will hurt those local churches, who will lose members due to the changes, and it will hurt the UM Church, which will still have within it congregations actively opposing the new directions chosen by the General Conference. Allowing a fair and uniform process of disaffiliation is in the best interest of all concerned.

 

The issue of fairness returns us to where we began this article. UM Churches in the African context need a uniform disaffiliation process. To fail to provide it would mean that churches in the U.S. had rights and privileges that are denied to our brothers and sisters in Africa. It is bad enough that their opportunity to discern their future was put on hold for three years past when U.S. churches could act. To completely cut off the option of disaffiliation through the provisions of the Discipline would reflect unfair and unequal treatment and indicate a disregard for the needs of our global brothers and sisters.

 

For the sake of justice and fairness, a uniform process of disaffiliation for annual conferences and local churches is needed. Current options do not meet the need. Hopefully, the General Conference will see the need and respond positively to it.

 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Delegates and visitors at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. On the screen are Bishop Sharon Rader and Bishop John White. A UMNS Photo by Kathleen Barry.

Radiant Scars

Radiant Scars

Radiant Scars

By Stephen Seamands

The marks of death that God chose never to erase,
The wounds of love’s eternal mark,
When the kingdom comes, with its perfect sons,
He will be known by the scars.
–Michael Card

As its cover story, the March 27, 2000, issue of Newsweek featured “Visions of Jesus: How Jews, Muslims and Buddhists View Him.” Though he is not considered as in Christianity the utterly unique Son of God, the article showed how Jesus is still greatly revered and admired in all the world’s major religions.

Muslims, for example, recognize Jesus as a great prophet. They even believe he was born of a virgin and ascended into heaven – spiritual prerogatives lacking in Mohammed himself, the greatest of all the prophets. In recent centuries, Jews have gained greater admiration for Jesus, viewing him as a reformer within Judaism who sought to liberalize his own religious tradition. His followers mistakenly went on to worship Jesus and establish a new religion, they say – something Jesus himself never intended. At some Jewish seminaries, a course in the New Testament is even required of rabbinical candidates.

Although they find his notion of a single god unnecessarily restrictive, Hindus also view Jesus as a virtuous man. Like Mahatma Ghandi, many are drawn to Jesus because of his compassion for others and his commitment to nonviolence. Some even maintain that when Jesus was a teenager he journeyed to India where he learned Hindu meditation. Later he returned to Palestine and became a Jewish guru.

Buddhists are quick to point out the striking similarities between the stories of Jesus and Buddha. One Zen Buddhist monk maintains Jesus and Buddha are “brothers” who both taught that the highest form of human understanding is universal love. Like Buddha, many regard Jesus as a perfectly enlightened being who sought to help others find enlightenment.

Yet having clearly shown the universal appeal of Jesus by observing him in the mirrors of Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, the article had an unexpected conclusion. Instead of suggesting that the universal admiration of Jesus may serve as a bridge in uniting Christianity with the other major world religions, it focused upon the central element in the Christian view of Jesus which creates a stumbling block for them all: his violent death on the cross. As the article put it,

“Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. ln Islam, the story of Jesus’ death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus can accept only a Jesus who passes into peaceful samadhi, a yogi who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus.’ There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence – and hence there is no reason to believe in him as the divine Son whom the Father resurrects from the dead.”

Attributing crucial significance to Christ’s agonizing, shameful death is thus utterly unique to Christianity. Unlike the other world religions who reject or downplay it, Christians do the very opposite. In their theology, worship, preaching, art, hymnody, and architecture, they celebrate, lift high, even glory in the cross.

From the second century onwards, not only have Christians drawn, painted, and engraved the cross as the central pictorial symbol of their faith, they have also made the sign of the cross on themselves and others. Around 200 AD, Tertullian, the North African theologian, described Christian practice like this: “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at [the] table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [the cross].”

What the irreligious and those of other religions find contradictory, bewildering, and offensive, Christians, in stark contrast, consider essential, indispensable, and precious.

In the Christian scheme of things, even after Christ had been raised from the dead and given a glorious new resurrection body, the scars in his hands and feet and side, emblems of his gruesome death, are still there. God’s power had overcome all other evidence of violence done to him. Suffering and death had been left behind. He was alive as never before. Yet these marks of humiliation were not erased. In fact, his scars became his identifying marks. On that first Easter when his disciples were hiding behind closed doors, he appeared in their midst and “showed them his hands and his side.” Then they were absolutely sure it was Jesus and “rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20).

Tragedy into triumph

Why is it that Christians glory in the cross? While every other religion is repulsed by Christ’s suffering and death, why do Christians rejoice over it? Because they believe the cross is God’s supreme instrument in redeeming fallen creation.

In the Christian scheme, God’s solution to the problem of suffering and evil is not to eliminate it, nor to be insulated from it, but to participate in it; and then having participated in it, to transform it into his instrument for redeeming the world.

Christians believe that God uses the suffering and evil of the cross. Rather than hindering, they are actually weaved into God’s redemptive plan and pattern for the salvation of the world. So God takes the terrible tragedy and turns it into a triumph.

God took the awfulness of that event – the diabolical evil, the flagrant injustice, the excruciating pain – mixed them all together, and through a marvelous divine alchemy transformed them into medicine for the healing of the nations.

Through the suffering of Christ on the cross, God, once and for all, took onto himself the very pain and curse of humanity, declaring his love for all persons in humble sacrifice. Through that blood, because of the “evil of the cross,” the festering wounds of alienation between God and humanity, one person to another, and between humanity and creation are healed. A new order of grace and transformation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is initiated and the world – through the people of God – begins to taste the glory of the heavens.

God overcomes evil not through passive resignation or brute strength, not through coercion or a dazzling display of force, but through the power of suffering love. God uses suffering redemptively to accomplish God’s will and purpose in the world.

That’s why Christ’s scars are still there even when he returns with a glorified body after his triumphant resurrection. And they will always be there. But with one crucial difference: now they are radiant scars. A verse in the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” conveys this so beautifully: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side, those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.” The scars now have become bearers of divine glory! The light of God’s presence radiates from them, transforming everything it encounters. His scars now have become instruments of healing. By his wounds we are healed!

Garbage into gold

Not only have his scars become radiant through the healing power which they can impart to us, our scars, especially those resulting from our emotional wounds, can also become radiant! They too can become instruments in God’s service for the redeeming of ourselves and others.

At a summer camp in Canada where I was speaking, a woman explained during a time of public sharing how God was teaching her this. “Just a few weeks ago,” she began, “My husband and I made a compost pile. We put all sorts of garbage in it – cracked egg shells, darkened banana peels, piles of rotten leaves and grass – you name it. We mixed it all together and then covered it up. And when you go near it now, believe me, your nose knows it’s there! But next spring when we use it in our garden, what’s decaying garbage now will be pure gold. That compost will be so much better than any fertilizer we could buy at the store.”

As she made the application to her own life, I thought of the scores of people I have worked with who could say the same thing: “There has been lots of garbage in my life – rotten things done to me and rotten things I’ve done in response. For years I refused to deal with the garbage, but several years ago when my life began to unravel I was forced to. Thank God for that. As a result, he has worked to bring so much healing and restoration in my life.

“But while all this has been going on, I have often found myself thinking, ‘I can’t wait until this is finally over. I’ll be so glad when I can put all the garbage behind me and never have to think about it again. Maybe I’ll even be able to pretend it never happened.’

“Then as we were making the compost pile the Lord spoke to me: ‘All your life you’ve run from your garbage. Now even though you’re finally dealing with it and receiving healing, you’re still wanting to run from it. But don’t you see? I not only want to heal and free you from the effects of the garbage in your life; I want to use your garbage. Like the garbage in your compost pile, if you’ll let me, I’ll turn it into pure gold. I’ll use it to build character in you and bring healing and freedom to others.’

“So instead of being ashamed of the garbage, I’m learning to give it to him. And I’m discovering the Lord is the great Recycler! He doesn’t waste anything. He can turn our garbage into gold – pure gold, if we’ll just offer it to him.”

What she had discovered is the message of the cross and the entire New Testament. For example, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul shares candidly about a “thorn in the flesh”(12:7) he had to constantly contend with. Skolops, the Greek word for “thorn,” can mean either a stake which actually pegged a person to the ground or a splinter which was constantly irritating.  According to H. Minn, it conveyed “the notion of something sharp and painful which sticks deep in the flesh and, in the will of God, defies extraction. The effect of its presence was to cripple Paul’s enjoyment of life, and to frustrate his full efficiency by draining his energies.’’

Scholars have conjectured about the exact nature of Paul’s “thorn.’’ Was it a particular person who relentlessly opposed Paul, persecution in general, a besetting sin or temptation, a speech impediment, a physical infirmity such as epilepsy, or an eye disorder? All have been suggested. The fact that Paul doesn’t specify, however, has made this passage an even greater blessing to Christians. They have been able to apply what he says to various kinds of “thorns” in their lives, including those resulting from emotional wounds.

It is significant that Paul refers to his thorn as “a messenger of Satan to torment me” (12:8). He recognized it was evil in nature, something which was intended to thwart God’s purposes for him. So at first, he vigorously and persistently prayed for its removal: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me”(12:8). His specific mention of praying three times reminds us of how Christ himself prayed three times in Gethsemane, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39).

In relation to thorns caused by emotional hurts, it would therefore seem right for us, like Paul, initially to intently pray for healing in terms of their total removal. No doubt that is God’s ultimate will. No doubt there will come a day when “he will wipe every tear from [our] eyes … mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). By praying for complete healing we are exercising our faith that it will be so. And – praise God – there are times when God can and does heal by complete removal and deliverance. For some, what will be true for all believers in the future age miraculously breaks into the present.

But that’s not how Paul’s prayer was answered. His thorn was not taken away. Instead he heard the Lord say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). God’s response to Paul’s thorn was not to remove it, but to give Paul grace to victoriously endure, and then to use Paul’s resulting weakness as an opportunity to demonstrate divine power. Just as Christ himself was “crucified in weakness” (2 Cor. 13:4) and his weakness in death became a demonstration of the power of God (1 Cor. 1:22-25), Paul’s thorn-created weakness had similar results. In fact he claimed that power is made perfect in weakness. No doubt, God could have demonstrated his power  by removing it. But by not removing it, God chose to do something even better – to perfect his power through weakness.

As a result, Paul’s attitude toward his thorn was transformed. Instead of its non-removal fueling anger or self-pity, the weakness caused by the thorn’s presence gave him something to boast about. “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” he exclaims, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (12:9). Contrary to what we would think, Paul’s thorn-produced weakness doesn’t create frustration and dissatisfaction in him. Instead it leads to contentment. “Therefore I am content with weaknesses,” he declares, for he realizes that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

Made radiant in weakness

Is it possible for us to come to the place where we view our emotional scars the way Paul came to view his thorn? Eventually I believe we can, but not at the beginning of the healing process. At that point our most crucial task is to embrace the pain, confront the truth, and come to terms with the havoc our hurts have wreaked in our lives. As we honestly and carefully survey the damage, how can we not view them as evil messengers of Satan sent to destroy us – and therefore as enemies to be fought against and overcome? Taking the first steps toward healing requires looking upon them that way.

But there comes a point in the healing process where we are called to face our wounds in a different way, viewing them this time not as enemies, but as friends. Like Paul, while recognizing their evil intent, we actually come to glory in them because of what they produce in us (weakness) and consequently what they release through us (God’s power).

A young woman who had been physically and emotionally abused by her parents shared with me a poem she had written in which she reflected on her scars in the light of his. Here is part of her poem called “The Stripes I Wear”:

The scars I wear –
I wish weren’t there …
but with injury
such markings are made.

The scars that Christ bears –
Just marks that he cares …
not worn with pride
or hidden in shame.

Love grafted in hands –
stripes part of a plan …
imprints of beauty;
just marks

My scars I can’t hide –
Though oft I have tried …
imprints of beauty;
just marks in disguise.

As we stand before him gazing at his scars, allowing their radiance to penetrate ours, as we offer our scars to him, the time will come when we will find ourselves saying about our scars what we say about his: “imprints of beauty, just marks in disguise.”

Stephen A. Seamands is emeritus professor of Christian doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of numerous books such as Wounds That Heal, Ministry in the Image of God, and The Unseen Real. This essay originally appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of Good News. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1571-1610). Public domain.