Turmoil After  General Conference

Turmoil After General Conference

Turmoil After General Conference

By Thomas Lambrecht

The actions of the 2024 General Conference are reverberating around the church. Right now, they are mostly reverberating around Africa. Some African bishops have yet to return home, but members are hearing reports from delegates and others, and many of the members are not happy.

Ivory Coast

Barely two weeks after the adjournment of the General Conference, the Ivory Coast Annual Conference voted unanimously to depart from the UM Church. Reports on the number of members involved range up to 1.2 million by some sources. The 2016 official number is 677,355 (unchanged from 2012).

The reasons given for the Ivory Coast action included the reversal of the Traditional Plan adopted by the 2019 General Conference and the “promotion of organization based on regionalization which enshrines the adoption of the practice of homosexuality.”

In a press statement received by Good News, Ivory Coast makes the case that “The United Methodist Church, in its new policy of Regionalization, is now based on cultural facts and not on the Word of God, so that Regionalization asks it to adapt the Book of Discipline to the cultural standards in different contexts.” After citing a number of Scripture references related to homosexuality and marriage, the statement goes on to ask, “How can we maintain that marriage between people of the same sex and all its LGBTQIA+ corollaries up to their ordination in the Church, is a matter of culture?”

“Therefore, it is rather the cultural frame of reference opposed to biblical values ​​which poses a problem, and which forms the basis of the position of the Ivory Coast Annual Conference not to rally behind the new policy of Regionalization of The United Methodist Church.”

Having rejected regionalization, the statement turns its attention to the definition of marriage. “Why does The United Methodist Church choose its own terms to define marriage, this divine institution as old as the world, in abandoning what has always been biblically known?”

The statement cites its agreement with biblical teaching and Ivoirian law, which defines marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.”

The statement continues, “The singular definition of marriage as being ‘the union between two people of faith’ is a pernicious deviation from the Word of God, and from the teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ from its beginning until this day. And yet, the Social Principles [containing this definition] are intended to serve as an official summary of the beliefs expressed by the Church on the important questions of the world.” (Note that the Social Principles may not be adapted by conferences outside the U.S. to fit their cultural context.)

“The change in language related to sanctions in the 2016 Book of Discipline seriously violates the Wesleyan principle which rests the Methodist Church on two key pillars: doctrine, on the one hand, and discipline, on the other. Thus, doctrinally, from the point of view of biblical orthodoxy, it is no longer a question, we believe, since The United Methodist Church calls into question the Bible as the Word of God, encourages sin, and no longer teaches the confession of sins and repentance. There is also no longer any question of discipline, since the Church now opens the way to a libertine and abject life. It authorizes sin and advocates the theology of cheap grace (Cf. Romans, chapter 6).”

“As a result of the above, the Ivory Coast Annual Conference has unanimously by the delegates adopted the following resolution:

  1. that The United Methodist Church, resulting from the 2020 General Conference postponed to 2024, held from April 23 to May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina of the USA, is not based on any biblical and disciplinary values;
  2. that The United Methodist Church is now based instead on values of diverse socio-cultural contexts, which consumed its doctrinal and disciplinary integrity in the “Regionalization Plan;”
  3. that The United Methodist Church actually preferred to sacrifice its honorability and integrity to promote worldly practices;
  4. that the new profile of The United Methodist Church, resulting from the General Conference of Charlotte, which stands out from the Holy Scriptures, is not suitable any more for the Ivory Coast Annual Conference.

That, therefore, the Ivory Coast Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, meeting in extraordinary session on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, at the Temple EMUCI—the Jubilee of Cocody, out of conscience before God and before his Word, supreme authority in matters of faith and life, decides to leave the denomination United Methodist Church.”

It is yet to be determined whether the conference will withdraw immediately or will seek to use the Par. 572 disaffiliation process that could take a number of years. It is also uncertain whether the conference will become an independent Methodist church or will align with the Global Methodist Church or another denomination. Ivory Coast was originally part of British Methodism. It became an independent Methodist church in 1984 and then joined The United Methodist Church in 2004.

Rwanda

The Rwanda Provisional Annual Conference, reporting 6,200 members in 2016, met on May 30 to respond to the actions of the General Conference. It voted unanimously to withdraw from the denomination. It is currently constituting itself as an independent Methodist church.

Nigeria

The four annual conferences of Nigeria, reporting 464,000 members in 2016, met in special session together on June 1 to hear reports of the General Conference. During debate, the delegates adopted a resolution declaring:

  • This General Conference removed restrictive language and changed the definition of marriage, which no longer aligns with our traditional Biblical beliefs.
  • The current United Methodist Church has altered the original language of our Discipline to accommodate cultural values divergent from ours;
  • The United Methodist Church now prioritizes the LBGQ+ community over the traditional beliefs held by many United Methodists in Nigeria;
  • The New UMC has changed our doctrinal beliefs.

Accordingly, the combined conferences voted “to leave the United Methodist Church pending the determination of litigations.” The four annual conferences will meet individually later this summer to elect officers and carry out the other business of the annual conference.

The original purpose of the special session was to attempt once again a reconciliation with a breakaway group headed by the Rev. Ande Emmanuel. Emmanuel was the bishop’s secretary but was removed from that position three years ago. He still claims to be the conference secretary, although he was not elected to that position. He served as a General Conference delegate and spoke several times on the floor of the conference in Charlotte. He claims to be the true spokesperson for the Nigeria United Methodist Church, while making the false claim that Bishop John Wesley Yohanna has left the denomination for the Global Methodist Church.

Several attempts at reconciliation have been made, involving bishops from Africa and the U.S. as mediators. Legal cases were filed in Nigerian courts. Complaints were filed against Yohanna and also against Emmanuel. The complaints were resolved through a “just resolution” process. However, it was alleged that Emmanuel has not lived up to the agreed terms of the just resolution.

This recent special conference was disrupted for several hours by armed ruffians who attempted to prevent the meeting from taking place, allegedly having been hired by Emmanuel’s faction. Security was called and several were arrested, so that the meeting could continue.

As reported by Nigerian leaders, in light of Emmanuel’s alleged continued failure to live up to the terms of the just resolution, his spreading falsehoods, his refusal to withdraw legal cases, and his disruption of the meeting, the body voted that “The breakaway members are welcome back into the United Methodist Church by following all the required procedures or may continue their stay outside the bar of the conference.” Regrettably, these reconciliation attempts appear to have failed. Unfortunately, Bishop John Schol, who was scheduled to attend the conference as a mediator, was unable to be there due to problems with his visa to enter Nigeria.

Zambia

The Zambia Annual Conference, with nearly 130,000 members reported in 2016, met this week in their regular session. After hearing reports from the delegates to the General Conference, much debate ensued, but no vote on withdrawal from the UM Church was taken. At that point, two districts and their superintendents announced their withdrawal from the UM Church with all of their churches. Other individual clergy and churches also announced their withdrawal.

Liberia and Zimbabwe

Lay leaders and other laity staged demonstrations outside the respective annual conference headquarters clamoring for the bishops to hold a special session of the annual conference to consider the results of the General Conference. Sentiment is strong for withdrawal in both conferences, but it remains to be seen what decision they will ultimately make and whether their bishops will hold special annual conference sessions as they promised prior to the General Conference.

Other annual conferences in Africa continue to learn about the actions of the General Conference and formulate their responses, which will be forthcoming over the next six months.

The United States

Congregations in many conferences in the U.S. are learning that their annual conference has no plans to allow them to disaffiliate now, despite promises they could do so after the General Conference met. A few conferences are allowing disaffiliations under Par. 2549, the paragraph that allows the conference to close a church and sell its property – in this case to the departing congregation. When it is impractical for a congregation to disaffiliate, some members are voting with their feet. Some are leaving to start a new congregation. Others are leaving to find a home in a more compatible church.

Two court cases were resolved in opposite ways recently. In Alabama, 48 churches sued the Alabama-West Florida Conference because it changed its rules in the middle of 2023 to disallow further disaffiliations. The supreme court of Alabama ruled that it had no jurisdiction to decide the matter because it involved religious beliefs and practices.

However, two of the justices went out of their way to call out the unfairness of the conference’s rule change. Associate Justice Tommy Bryan wrote in his opinion, “There is something extremely unsettling about changing the rules during the course of the game. I question whether this process was fair. However, as noted, we simply do not have the jurisdiction to decide this matter.”

Associate Justice Greg Cook wrote, “I write separately to express my sympathy for the predicament faced by the churches in this case. In particular, I am concerned by the churches’ claim that the Conference unfairly engineered the disaffiliation process to prevent their departure from the UMC.”

“Although I sympathize with the fairness concerns raised by the churches, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (and our existing caselaw) leave this Court with no choice but to deny their request for relief. Instead, the only remedy for the conduct alleged by the churches in this case must come from the members of the Judicial Council, the UMC’s ecclesiastical tribunal (that is, its own judicial system), guided by their faith, consciences, and the principles of Biblical justice,” he added.

It remains to be seen whether this appeal will be heard by the conference, resulting in a change of heart. Of course, if the court cannot intervene in an intra-church dispute, maybe those local churches could just depart, and the conference could do nothing about it. (Just speculating here.)

That is what happened in the Rio Texas Conference. Forty-four churches withdrew from the conference without going through the Par. 2553 disaffiliation process. The conference sued the churches, and the court recently dismissed the suit. In Texas, the trust clause is almost unenforceable.

As United Methodists around the world continue to digest the results of the General Conference, it is definitely causing turmoil and conflict. It will be a while before the dust settles and the final outcomes are known.

Thomas Lambrecht is a ​​​​​​​United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Children dance during Sunday school at Temple Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Man, Côte d’Ivoire, in 2015. Photo: Members of the choir, under the direction of Martin Edi Ori (center) welcome visitors to Macedonia United Methodist Church in Yapo-Kpa, Côte d’Ivoire, in 2018. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

What Would Regionalization Look Like?

What Would Regionalization Look Like?

What Would Regionalization Look Like?

By Thomas Lambrecht

Before pivoting to today’s topic examining the likely evolution of regionalization, it is important to note some significant developments in the aftermath of the 2024 UMC General Conference. Anxious congregations have been inquiring from renewal group leaders how to move forward in disaffiliating from the UM Church in light of the changes made at the General Conference.

Local church disaffiliation at the denominational level was shot down and removed from the Discipline by the General Conference. The argument was that annual conferences can provide their own mechanisms for congregational disaffiliation. The question is: would they? We are beginning to see mixed answers to that question.

A few annual conferences have already announced that they are working on disaffiliation processes that can be used by local congregations – some based on the Par. 2549 closure process. Some of those may come up for a vote at next month’s annual conferences or at least be announced as in process.

On the other hand, at least one annual conference has come out with a resounding “no” to the question of disaffiliation. The Susquehanna Annual Conference leaders have announced, “In the Susquehanna Conference there is no longer a process in which a local church may leave the United Methodist Church with their facilities.”

This is a doubly disappointing answer because Susquehanna was one place where leaders on the ground report that conference leaders promised there would be such a disaffiliation process available after the General Conference meeting. According to renewal leaders, churches were encouraged to “wait and see” the results of GC rather than disaffiliate because things “might not change.” Many of those same churches were told that it would be “likely” that disaffiliation would be renewed as another reason for waiting. This was shared not only by the disaffiliation team sent out by the bishops but also by other district superintendents.

Over the years, renewal leaders have become accustomed to some centrist and progressive leaders honoring their commitments only as long as it was convenient for them to do so. As long ago as 2004, some institutional leaders violated a pledge of confidentiality to share information about closed-door discussions about separation ideas. And it did not take long for the “changed circumstances” of the Covid pandemic to give cover for all the centrist and progressive signatories to the Protocol to renounce their support.

It is particularly disturbing that conference leaders promoted the idea that disaffiliation would be possible after the General Conference and then did not lift a finger to keep that promise. Not one centrist or progressive delegate at the General Conference spoke in favor of any of the various proposed disaffiliation pathways. Now that the ball has returned to the annual conference court, it remains to be seen how many annual conference leaders across the U.S. will honor their word.

History may harshly judge those who exhibit a coercive, authoritarian treatment of their local churches. United Methodist members are not children, nor are they stupid. One way or another, they will not be coerced to violate their consciences. By trying, some UM leaders are only portraying the denomination as devious and heavy-handed – a church few will want to belong to. It is up to other UM leaders to demonstrate that the UM Church believes and practices grace and respect, even toward those who disagree with its new direction. The greatest exhibition of respect is to honor conscience-driven decisions without exacting a heavy penalty. One hopes that common sense and Christian charity will win out.

Whither Regionalization? 

At the 2024 General Conference, all the components of regionalization were adopted by nearly three-fourths votes or greater. Those enactments do not take effect immediately, however. What happens next?

The next step in the process is for the General Conference secretary to prepare the constitutional amendments for ratification votes in every annual conference. In order for regionalization to take effect, a series of constitutional amendments needs to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members in aggregate. The legislation required that the amendments be prepared for ratification within 30 days of the adjournment of the General Conference. But the first ratification votes are unlikely to take place until this fall, with some annual conferences outside the U.S. being the first to vote.

Most U.S. annual conferences will vote on ratification in 2025. The Council of Bishops is responsible for collecting the results from each annual conference, tabulating them, and then announcing whether the amendments were ratified or not. (It is ironic in this era of doubts about election integrity and pushes for greater transparency that some or even most annual conferences decline to announce the results of their individual annual conference vote. One must trust that the votes are being fairly tabulated and accurately transmitted to the Council of Bishops, but there is no public transparency of the results.)

The earliest the ratification results could be announced is probably at the Council of Bishops meeting in the fall of 2025. It is more likely it will be announced at their spring, 2026, meeting, just before the special General Conference is supposed to meet. It all depends upon when bishops decide to hold the ratification vote in their annual conferences. In the last cycle, some non-U.S. bishops postponed ratification for a year beyond when they could have voted, which delays the ability of the Council of Bishops to tabulate the full results and announce the outcome.

A Regional Reality

It is likely that, if the amendments are ratified, they would go into effect at the 2026 General Conference. However, there would not have been time to plan that conference in light of the regional reality. Practically speaking, then, the first General Conference to be significantly affected would be the 2028 General Conference.

At that conference, there would probably be a shorter meeting with fewer days devoted only to issues of global relevance (in the mind of the organizers). The U.S. Regional Conference would then meet following the General Conference to act on matters relevant to the U.S. and adapt any provisions of the Discipline to fit the U.S. “context.” The outcome would be a U.S. Book of Discipline that contains the general Discipline binding the whole denomination as determined by the General Conference, plus all the provisions adopted by the U.S. Regional Conference that would govern the church in the U.S.

The Central Conferences outside the U.S. will have a bigger task in 2028. They would share the same general Discipline adopted by the General Conference, but they would also have the task of coming up with their own rules and policies related to all the parts of the Discipline that are adaptable to regional context. Since they have not had to do this before, it will be an intimidating task. Since the Central Conference meeting is where they also elect bishops, they will need to add days to their meetings at U.S. expense (for Africa and the Philippines) in order to have time to accomplish all they need to do. The U.S. will also need to pay for the printing of all these Central Conference Books of Discipline, so that church leaders have copies to work from.

For most matters, the newly adapted Disciplines for each region will go into effect on January 1, 2029.

Regionalization Lite

What if the ratification of amendments fails? Does that mean regionalization is dead? Not entirely.

First, the 2026 General Conference could try to pass the regionalization amendments again, for ratification in 2027. This would be especially likely if African votes sink regionalization in 2024-2025 but then significant portions of Africa disaffiliate from United Methodism. With those opposition votes gone, regionalization would stand a much better chance at passing on a second attempt. It would be similar to this year’s General Conference where, in the absence of a significant number of traditionalist delegates, the progressive agenda sailed through with supermajority margins. (Of course, it is also possible that some parts of Africa will disaffiliate before even taking a ratification vote. That would make it more likely that ratification would pass on the first attempt.)

Second, the last regionalization petition passed by the plenary session in Charlotte set up a Standing Committee on U.S. Matters to deal with U.S. concerns. This is parallel to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters that deals with issues relevant to areas outside the U.S. However, the Central Conference Committee only has about 35 members, while the U.S. Standing Committee would have all 500-odd U.S. delegates.

The U.S. Standing Committee would meet prior to the 2026 General Conference and also future General Conferences, if ratification fails. They would weigh in on any petitions or resolutions that uniquely affect the U.S. Since U.S. delegates are likely to still have a built-in majority at the General Conference, decisions made by the U.S. Standing Committee will likely be rubber stamped by the General Conference plenary. Judging by recent experience with the Central Conference Standing Committee, the U.S. Committee is likely to be more effective at killing legislation that it does not like, rather than promoting positive legislation for the General Conference to adopt. However, it is a new situation, and it will be interesting to see how these structures are used and evolved.

So, if ratification fails, the U.S. Standing Committee would still meet to care for U.S. interests. They would not be able to adapt the Discipline, however. As was seen at the Charlotte General Conference, it is likely that U.S. delegates will continue to dominate the agenda and votes in the next few General Conferences, making adaptations unnecessary.

One way or another, then, regionalization will go forward. The interim structure of the U.S. Standing Committee provides “regionalization lite.” Once the constitutional amendments are ratified, on the first or second attempt, the U.S. Standing Committee goes away, and full-blown regionalization and adaptation takes its place. It will be instructive to follow the evolution of this new form of “connectionalism” in the years ahead to measure its impact on the church’s ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Delegates from the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Photo by Steve Beard.

Surf City Disaffiliation or Eviction?

Surf City Disaffiliation or Eviction?

 

Surf City Disaffiliation or Eviction? —

The Los Angeles Times recently published a comprehensive 2,000 word piece about the excessively costly disaffiliation process for traditionalist United Methodist congregations in Southern California. It is worth reading to gauge the level of turmoil and pain within the denomination-wide schism.

Every annual conference has set different requirements for a congregation to disaffiliate. The California-Pacific conference is one of three to charge 50 percent of the price of their property – in addition to the normal fees and pension liabilities that are required by other annual conferences around the nation. Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware are two others.

Elsewhere, California-Nevada is charging 20 percent, while South Carolina and West Virginia are charging 10 percent of the price of their property. Mountain Sky is charging a negotiated percentage of property value. Oregon-Idaho is adding some extra costs, but not a percentage of property value. Pacific Northwest and Alaska are not requiring extra costs. Neither is Desert Southwest.

According to the July 1 Times story from reporter Eric Licas, there are 22 Southern California churches attempting to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. The arbitrary financial requirements are proving to be major impediments in the fate of these small congregations.

“This annual conference and a couple others out there are adding onerous provisions for disaffiliation that make it literally impossible,” said the Rev. Glen Haworth, lead pastor of The Fount, a United Methodist congregation in Fountain Valley, California. “My church has 50 members, and they want $3 million dollars,” he told Licas. “And they say that’s fine, that’s fair. I say: fair to who?”

For small congregations like Haworth’s, the annual conference cost requirements seem insurmountable.

The in-depth story in the Times focuses on a neighboring congregation, Surf City Church in Huntington Beach, a community 30 miles south of Los Angeles. That congregation sought to disaffiliate, but was closed by the conference instead.

The superintendent of California Pacific Conference’s South District, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, told the paper that Surf City Church – a United Methodist congregation – had been deemed “unviable” after “10 years of efforts to revitalize and focus the mission and ministry there.” According to Olewine, the conference leadership made the decision to close the church.

“[Surf City Church] is no longer a chartered congregation and due to the failure to participate in the mission congregation process that designation was terminated on December 31, 2022,” Olewine told the reporter. “They have no official standing in the denomination any longer.”

Understandably, laypeople from the Huntington Beach congregation are seeing the very painful story through a different lens.

“People in the pews, they’re the ones who are just unbelievably disappointed that they were part of a church that would say the kind of things and do the kind of things and take the kind of actions the church has taken,” John Leonard, a member of the Surf City Church board of trustees, is quoted as saying in the paper.

Leonard told the reporter that Surf City Church existed as a congregation long before it joined the United Methodist Church and that their sanctuary, preschool, fellowship hall and the rest of its facilities were all paid for by members of the community.

“The conference didn’t pay a cent for any of that,” Leonard said.

According to the newspaper account, Surf City was launched in 1904 as a “tent church” on the shore in Huntington Beach.

The newspaper reports that “members of the local congregation claim they have been harassed by parties representing their parent denomination, according to Leonard and [fellow board member Marge] Mitchell.” That interference includes harassment of the church’s preschool.

According to the reporting, “Earlier this year, [members of the congregation] received an email claiming they were illegally operating their preschool and had to shut it down. That was followed shortly thereafter by a visit to the school by state inspectors who said they were responding to an anonymous tip. However, [the inspectors] found no issues.”

Terri King, another Surf City member, handles the finances for the preschool that serves about 95 students from the community. When she tried to pay the teachers, King discovered that the “accounts holding their wages had been frozen by attorneys for the conference.”

In past years, the congregation has hosted a summer program for kids, but they have cancelled it this year “because we have no guarantee that we will be able to pay the teachers,” King told the paper.

Worship services, Bible studies, and other programs are being hosted at the church with the assistance of guest pastors. “Members still shuffle into their sanctuary’s pews and take inspiration from its stained glass windows,” reports Licas. “Most remain committed to their faith, even if they’re practically regarded as squatters by the conference.”

The members of the Huntington Beach congregation are awaiting a final decision “outlining exactly how ownership will be transferred,” although attorneys for the conference have “unsuccessfully filed motions to allow them to seize it immediately,” reports the paper.

“The issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is the presenting issue currently,” the superintendent, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, wrote in an email to the reporter on June 23. “But there are other challenges we must face that have existed for far too long: systemic racism, persistent sexism, and impacts of colonialism both within the U.S. and globally are just a few. How to be church as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century is up for grabs. We are amid a period of reformation, which is not a bad thing, but it is a challenging thing.”

Concerned laypeople within the congregation believe the denomination is “trying to leverage its survival against what they describe as a ransom on those trying to part ways with it.” They are hoping for a reformation of a different kind with a peaceable resolution.

To read the entire story in the Los Angeles Times, you may click HERE​​​​​​​.  Photo: Lone surfer at Huntington Beach. Photo by Steve Beard. 

 

Engaging an African Bishop

Engaging an African Bishop

Engaging an African Bishop —

By Thomas Lambrecht —

A recent commentary by Bishop Mande Muyombo (North Katanga Area in the Congo Central Conference) sets forth his understanding of where things are and where things are headed for The United Methodist Church in Africa. Given Muyombo’s position of power within the church’s hierarchy, it is appropriate to engage with the vision he puts forward.

Muyombo begins by quoting a 2019 statement by the African college of bishops. “We cannot allow a split in the church to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. We have been second class for too long. We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”

It is an oft-repeated myth that United Methodists, particularly traditionalist UM’s, only care about Africa when their votes are needed at General Conference. Certainly, the church as a whole has been involved in missions in Africa for generations. Many of the missionaries who evangelized Africa and helped build the church there belonged to the traditional wing of Methodism. Even in the last decade, many traditionalist U.S. congregations have supported mission projects in Africa, built dozens of church buildings, sent volunteer teams, provided educational scholarships, and invested in evangelism and health projects.

Filling in the Gaps

What has been missing from the general church was a way to equip and empower African leaders to participate on an equal basis in the governing process of the denomination through its committees, board, agencies, and General Conference. Africans have been persistently underrepresented in the governance structure of the UM Church. Through the efforts of African delegates supported by traditionalists, some of that underrepresentation has been addressed, but not all. In the 2024 General Conference, African delegates will make up around 35 percent of the delegates, while African church members make up over half the denomination’s membership – even before disaffiliations started in the U.S.

Just having Africans at the table is not enough to enable them to participate as an equal voice. African delegates are often left out of the loop when it comes to sharing information. African delegates are often the last to receive the advance edition of the legislation submitted to General Conference, with some delegates only receiving it upon their arrival a few days before the beginning of General Conference. Because many delegates do not have access to the Internet, especially in their native language, they cannot follow the development of ideas and proposals over time.

The traditionalist Renewal and Reform Coalition has been instrumental in providing information to African delegates about developments in the church, as well as specific proposals coming to General Conference. The Coalition has offered training to African delegates about how to maneuver through parliamentary procedure and accomplish their legislative goals. We have offered assistance in writing and submitting legislation, as well as mobilizing support for African initiatives, such as the addition of five new bishops in Africa. Where the general church has left a gap in fully including African delegates in the governing process of the church, the Coalition has stepped in to fill those gaps.

Cynical Manipulation?

Some have viewed the Coalition’s participation as a cynical attempt to manipulate African delegates to support traditionalist legislation. On the contrary, the Coalition’s work has enabled Africans to voice their own concerns and perspective more fully. With support of other delegates, Africans were elected as officers of legislative committees to a greater extent than ever before. With the support of the Coalition, the Judicial Council has a majority of its elected members from outside the U.S.

No one has to convince or manipulate the African delegates to vote for traditionalist positions on issues of concern. Africans in general believe and maintain traditionalist views. Rather, the Coalition’s work has been to help delegates understand the details and implications of legislative proposals, so that they can vote according to their own consciences and perspective.

“Using” African United Methodists?

Muyombo charges that “The leadership of the Wesleyan Covenant Association/Good News and the Global Methodist Church have been attempting to divide our church in Africa. African United Methodists must resist being used as proxies of the Global Methodist Church and other U.S. breakaway groups.”

The division in Africa is real. It is surprising that Muyombo is unaware of the grassroots sentiments.

We categorically reject the accusation that we are somehow “using” African United Methodists or that they are “proxies” to fight our battles for us. American traditionalists have been fighting to uphold United Methodist doctrine and discipline for decades before the African church grew to the place of influence it now holds.

We are simply making available to African United Methodists information that is being intentionally withheld from them by their bishops and other leaders. Many of them know very little about the separation happening in the U.S. church and have no knowledge about any options for disaffiliation that may be available to them.

The Need for Self-Determination

It is interesting that Muyombo addresses African United Methodists with the call, “I invite you to exercise self-determination and speak for yourselves based on your own experience and that of your church community.” He says, “We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”

This is from the same bishop who suspends and even evicts from the church any African leader who tries to share information about what is happening so that Africans can indeed speak for themselves and exercise their self-determination. Muyombo and some other African bishops have forbidden African leaders from equipping their members to make the very decisions that Muyombo says he believes they ought to make.

African delegates to General Conference should be able to hear point-counterpoint presentations about the issues before The United Methodist Church. Bishop Muyombo and his colleagues should empower and freely release the delegates to make up their own minds.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes Africans can and should decide for themselves what future they want to be part of. If African United Methodists want to be part of a church that affirms LGBT practices and changes the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, that is their decision, and we support their right to make it. At the same time, we believe African United Methodists should have the ability to decide not to be part of such a church – a right they are currently being denied.

How can Muyombo speak of “self-determination” when he denies that right to his own people? He quotes with approval the statement by the African college of bishops that, “Even if The United Methodist Church splits, Africa will continue to be a United Methodist Church.” Should that not be a decision for African United Methodists as a whole? This sounds less like “self-determination” and more like “bishop determination.” It makes a mockery of Africans’ ability to “determine who we want to be,” substituting instead “determining who our bishop wants us to be.”

Teaching Founded on Culture and Context?

In connection with the presenting issue of sexuality and marriage, Muyombo quotes the African college of bishops’ statement as saying, “As an African United Methodist Church, we do not support the practice of homosexuality because it is incompatible with most African cultural values and contextual realities.” Not because it is incompatible with the Bible or with 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Rather, it doesn’t fit African culture and context.

Of course, culture and context can change. Does Muyombo envision a time down the road when African culture will change to accept the practice of homosexuality? What about other areas where African culture and context opposes biblical teaching? Should the church side with culture over the Bible?

When one builds the church’s teachings on the shifting sands of culture and context, there is no telling where that will lead. It will certainly not result in a church that consistently maintains faithfulness to historic Christian faith and practice. (Of course, we face this same problem in the U.S., where we have allowed some cultural ways to warp the church’s teaching and practices.)

Neither Good News nor the Renewal and Reform Coalition has sought to “divide” the church or seek its “dissolution” as Muyombo charges. Instead, we have fought for 50 years to uphold traditional Methodist doctrine and teaching, seeking to reform the denomination to preserve accountability to our stated doctrines. Only when it became apparent that widespread rejection of some traditional doctrines and practices would go unchecked did we state the reality that we could no longer live together in one church.

At that point, it seemed most prudent to foster a separation that would allow traditionalist Methodists to maintain historic doctrine and practice, while allowing more progressive Methodists to pursue the revisionist path they had embarked upon. We hoped such separation would happen amicably with mutual respect and grace. Instead, institutional United Methodism in many cases has fought tooth and nail to prevent gracious self-determination by congregations and clergy seeking an expression of Methodism more faithful to their beliefs. Muyombo and some other African bishops are part of that institutional resistance that seeks to preserve personal status and power at the expense of grass roots self-determination.

We call upon all bishops and institutional leaders to allow gracious self-determination by their members, whether in the U.S. or Africa or other parts of the world. Only free and informed decision-making by members will result in a church that is unified in a mission and vision for the future.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.

Better Together: Embodied Community

Better Together: Embodied Community

Photo: Shutterstock

By Thomas Lambrecht

The slogan “We Are Better Together” has been used for everything from a political campaign to the headline for efforts to keep The United Methodist Church from separating. Efforts to promote greater unity in our country deserve support. After all, this is the only country we have, and we need to learn how to live together in this country. On the other hand, my colleagues Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton have shown in their book, Are We Really Better Together?, that we are not really together in our denomination. Attempts to patch over the things that divide us deeply from each other in our denomination cannot mask the reality that we are simply not operating from the same worldview. In that case, we are not “better together” because our togetherness leads to continual conflict over the direction of the church. And this is not the only church that exists. There are other alternatives.

However, today I want to use that slogan “Better Together” to talk about a different kind of togetherness – the embodied community found in the local church. Over the course of the Covid pandemic, local churches have suffered the loss of community. Many churches closed for months and some have recently closed again due to Omicron. Many members have created a new Sunday morning habit of tuning in online to watch church. Many others have created a new Sunday morning habit that disregards church altogether. Estimates are that local churches will lose one-third to two-thirds of their members over the course of this pandemic.

As we begin this new year of 2022 and its attendant New Year’s resolutions, I want to make the case that we should prioritize once again gathering in person as safely as possible with our brothers and sisters in Christ to worship God and grow in holiness. While there are understandable times and circumstances that could cause us to temporarily withdraw from in-person worship, there is simply no substitute for meeting in the flesh with other believers to strengthen and express our faith.

Scripture Commands It

The writer to the Hebrews encourages, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Neglect for the regular meeting together of believers is not a new phenomenon in 2022. It has been happening since the first century!

It is important to understand why meeting together is necessary for the life of faith. The kind of mutual encouragement and stimulation to grow in love and good deeds can generally happen only in person. Watching a worship service online does not give us the opportunity to interact with our fellow believers, offering and receiving encouragement in the faith with them. We can engage with the chat function, but it is just not the same as looking someone in the eye and telling them you are praying for them.

The same section of Hebrews offers other reasons for in-person gathering. Verse 22 invites us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” We can absolutely draw near to God in the privacy of our own home as an individual – and we should on a daily basis. But gathering with other believers strengthens our faith and helps to purify our hearts, so that we can even more effectively draw near to the Lord. Again, there is no substitute for this personal gathering that enables us to draw near. Singing hymns and worship songs with others really lifts me into the presence of the Lord. Experiencing the preacher looking me in the eye when she exhorts me to a life of holiness carries a power that is minimized when we are separated through electronics.

Verse 23 commands us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” If we don’t gather in person, we forgo the opportunity to converse with others about what God is doing in our/their lives. We miss hearing how the Lord answered prayer this week or unexpectedly ministered to a personal need. Meeting together gives us the strength we need to “hold unswervingly to [our] hope.” It is the difference between sitting on the bench with our fellow players in the game, versus watching the game on TV.

The bottom line is that, when we forsake meeting together, we cultivate (at best) a spectator mentality toward church that weakens our faith and deprives us of the ability to live out that faith in everyday life.

Jesus said, “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). I once read an illustration of this truth in the picture of the coals in a fire (whether in a grill or fireplace). When the coals are all together, they burn with a hot and steady fire. When an individual coal is placed out to the side away from the rest, it soon grows cold and loses its fire. That is exactly what happens to our faith when we neglect meeting together – it grows cold.

Gathering for Worship Improves Our Health and Well-being

A recent article in Christianity Today  by Tyler J. Vanderweele and Brendan Case of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University surveys research relating church attendance with personal health and human flourishing. They find that “religious service attendance powerfully enhances health and well-being.”

The article states, “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular-disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.” Specifically, when compared with those who never attend religious services, regular attenders have 33 percent reduced risk of death, 84 percent reduced risk of suicide, 29 percent reduced risk of depression, 50 percent reduced risk of divorce, 68 percent reduced risk of “deaths of despair” for women and 33 percent reduced risk of such deaths for men, 33 percent reduced risk of adolescent illegal drug use, and 12 percent reduced risk of adolescent depression.

The authors found “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity. People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”

It is important to note that these benefits accrue to people not based on what they believe, but on what they practice. As the article puts it, “Our research suggests that religious service attendance specifically, rather than private practices or self-assessed religiosity or spirituality, most powerfully predicts health. Religious identity and private spirituality may, of course, still be very important and meaningful within the context of religious life, but their effects on health and well-being don’t seem to be as strong as those of regular gathering with other believers.” They go on, “Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter. Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances health and well-being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.”

The authors attribute this beneficial effect in part to the embodied community engendered by church worship participation. “Religious communities provide a strong social safety net that other institutions can’t easily replace. … The apostle Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body may also help us understand part of the power of communal religious life. (See I Corinthians 12) … Through their diverse gifts, and the help they provide one another, members of churches are supported in religious faith and spiritual growth, but also in more mundane matters, from care during illness to help finding work after a layoff.”

The authors point beyond the mundane to the spiritual power present in the gathering of believers. “Paul’s use of the body imagery is not merely a metaphor, however, but a claim about the intensity and reality of Christ’s presence in and through the church.” The gathering helps all present to draw near to the Lord and experience his life-giving presence and power. After all, Christ promised “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Consequences for Society

At the macro level, the individual outcomes of decreased health due to decreased worship attendance contribute to massive social consequences. As Brendan Case, one of the authors of the CT article, points out in another article in First Things, “Deaths of despair caused drops in overall life expectancy in the United States for three consecutive years (from 2015 to 2017), the longest period of decline since World War I.” He goes on to state, “The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has … assembl[ed] a body of evidence that suggests that about 40 percent of the increase in suicides from 1996 to 2010 was attributable to declining religious participation.”

The way Case sees it, “Job losses, declining marriage rates, and shrinking religious communities interact in complex ways to bring about deaths of despair. Low (or no) wages reduce men’s ‘marriageability’ and so drive down marriage rates. Lower marriage rates cause church attendance to decline, which in turn has been shown to increase divorce rates. The result is an atomized society in which deep friendships and simple human warmth become luxury goods. One recent study found that loneliness may increase mortality risk over a fixed period of time by 26 percent, perhaps in part because communities afflicted by isolation and atomization are natural breeding grounds for self-destructive behaviors.

“Religious communities are crucial sources of social connection, but perhaps equally important is their role in directly teaching that suicide or abusing drugs and alcohol is wrong. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put it, ‘religions are moral exoskeletons.’ They provide ‘a set of norms, relationships, and institutions’ that protect individuals from their own worst instincts and from giving in to self-destructive temptations.”

Church attendance is a key tool in combatting loneliness, depression, and the isolation that this Covid pandemic has forced upon us. Worship participation not only grows our faith, it helps restore a healthier society, both individually and collectively.

There may be good reasons why an individual or family needs to stop attending worship for a time. The risk is the temporary pause becomes a habit. As the CT article puts it, “the most common experience of Christians who don’t go to church seems to be less a deliberate choice and more a substitution of habits.”

Now at this renewing of the year, we have the chance to renew our commitment to church participation through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” We will be healthier for it – physically, spiritually, and societally!

Better Together: Embodied Community

The Lowly Loveliness of Thanksgiving

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

All of us at Good News wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Our thoughts on gratitude were brought into focus this week through a column by the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren. As one of our favorite writers, we have deep appreciation for her books Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night. She is a columnist for Christianity Today, and writes a weekly newsletter for the New York Times. 

What follows is a brief excerpt from this week’s article in the Times newsletter.

“The practice of gratitude is central to nearly every religious and spiritual tradition. And all of us have much to be grateful for. We get the shocking privilege of living on this planet that is uniquely crafted so that humans can be born, breathe, grow, work, harvest and create. We have bodies that know the pleasures of strawberries, guacamole and buttery popcorn. We hear laughter and breathe in the steam of hot coffee.

“The practice of gratitude teaches us, as the theologian Christine D. Pohl put it,’the giftedness of our total existence.’ This posture of receptiveness — living as the thankful beneficiary of gifts — is the path of joy because it reminds us that we do not have to be the makers and sustainers of our life. Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.

​​​​​​​“To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not — and indeed cannot — hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands. Like the story of the Israelites receiving manna from God in the desert, we receive what we need as sheer mercy, but it cannot be hoarded, clung to or clutched. Instead, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.

“Maybe your Thanksgiving will be dreamy, full of abundant food, family, friends, and laughter. Or maybe you’ll burn the turkey, maybe you are barely getting by, maybe you will feel lonely or hurt by your family and friends. Even still, there are ordinary gifts and overlooked graces that surround us on each day of our lives.

“‘Even in these lowly lovelinesses,’ says the title character Thomas Wingfield in George MacDonald’s novel, ‘there is a something that has its root deeper than your pain; that, all about us, in earth and air, wherever eye or ear can reach, there is a power ever breathing itself forth in signs, now in a daisy, now in a wind waft, a cloud, a sunset, a power that holds constant and sweetest relation with the dark and silent world within us.’

“Thanksgiving Day softly asks us to practice thanks for the lowly lovelinesses that make up each of our lives, to take time to notice the constant and sweetest relation offered by the giver of every good gift.”