Divisions in Africa
By Thomas Lambrecht
Recent meetings have clarified a developing divide in Africa between some bishops and other leaders who want to remain in The United Methodist Church and other leaders who are seeing the need to disaffiliate. The question will be: which group is more in sync with the grass roots clergy and laity of the church in Africa. The answer is that it probably varies from one annual conference to another.
Africa Colleges of Bishops
For a number of years, the bishops from the three central conferences of Africa have been meeting as a single college of bishops, even though the Discipline provides for each central conference to have its own college. In recent years, the combined colleges have issued statements that may or may not reflect the viewpoint of all the bishops of Africa.
Following its meeting ending September 7, the African bishops issued a statement regarding where they stand on disaffiliation and regionalization. The main takeaways from the statement are:
- “Notwithstanding the differences in our UMC regarding the issue of human sexuality especially with our stance of traditional and biblical view of marriage, we categorically state that we do not plan to leave The United Methodist Church and will continue to be shepherds of God’s flock in this worldwide denomination.” The statement goes on to pledge that they will “continue to do ministry in our context as traditionalist[s] in Africa.”
- “We support the ongoing discussion for regionalism, which would ensure that Africans would be accommodated in the way and manners in which we want to worship the Lord.” Regionalization is the proposal coming to the 2024 General Conference creating a U.S. region, along with the seven other central conferences outside the U.S. It would enable each region to become mostly self-governing in many areas of church polity.
- “We support the decision by the Council of Bishops to request General Conference sessions in 2026 and 2028. This will be necessary for smooth transitioning as our denomination emerges from the disruptions of COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of disaffiliations.” The African bishops seem unaware that the Council of Bishops has asked the Judicial Council to reconsider its requirement that a 2026 General Conference be held.
It is not surprising that some African bishops would declare their intention to remain in the UM Church. After all, it is the UM Church that pays their salaries and benefits, along with providing money for many of the mission projects in their annual conferences.
However, expectations of continuing financial largesse from the general church may be disappointed in the future, due to implementing the proposed 40 percent cut in the denomination’s budget.
Additionally, four of the nine active bishops supporting the “remain” statement are heading into retirement next year. They represent the past of the African church, not necessarily its future.
It is also important to note that three of the 12 active bishops did not support the statement. Bishops Kasap (South Congo), Quire (Liberia), and Yohanna (Nigeria) did not make a commitment to remain in the UM Church. Information coming out of the meeting also indicated that only four or five of the nine remaining bishops actually voted for the statement. The rest were reported to have abstained from the vote and then were listed as approving.
Africa Initiative Statement
Not only was there disunity among the African bishops, but there is also disunity between the majority of African bishops and the Africa Initiative (AI), which is the largest organization of African UM leaders that has worked together for the past ten years to promote traditional, orthodox perspectives on theological issues and to empower African participation in the UM Church. Coincidentally, 40 Africa Initiative leaders also met at the same time as the bishops, but in a different country. Their statement indicates sharp differences with those who would remain in the UM Church.
The one thing both groups agree on is the traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality. The AI statement reads, “Enlightened by the Word of God, we remain steadfast in our convictions that marriage is between one man and one woman, that sexual intimacy is rightfully shared in that context only, and that clergy and all members of the church should either be celibate in singleness or faithful within a heterosexual marriage.” While the majority of bishops purport to also hold a traditional perspective, there is some question whether that is in fact true. Bishop Wandabula presided at the dedication of a Reconciling Ministries church in Nairobi, Kenya. Bishop Mande Muyombo apologized to progressives meeting in Dallas, Texas, for the role African delegates played in passing the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference.
Far from being lip service, Africa Initiative “invite[s] all delegates to join our efforts to raise the voice of the church in Africa against all attempts to liberalize the UM Church’s sexual ethics and ordination standards at the upcoming General Conference.” They intend to organize the delegates for active opposition to the many proposed changes to UM standards.
The AI statement rejects “the proposed regionalization plan, aimed at silencing the voice of the church in Africa. The effect of that plan would be to compartmentalize sin within the UMC and make the African church complicit in allowing the U.S. church to adopt unscriptural teachings and standards.” Some of the bishops see regionalization as a way to preserve African opposition to the practice of homosexuality within a broad church with varying beliefs and standards. In contrast, the AI leaders see regionalization as an unacceptable compromise that associates the African part of the church with teachings and practices in other parts of the world that are contrary to Scripture.
Given the changing situation in the UM Church due to significant disaffiliation of traditionalists in the U.S., the AI leaders are positioning themselves for disaffiliation on that continent, as well. Their statement points to “the current illegal practices within the church, evidenced by the ongoing conduct of same-sex marriages, ordination of LGBTQ persons, and the election and consecration of self-avowed homosexuals as bishops within the UMC [as] reasons why evangelicals/conservatives rightfully seek disaffiliation from the UMC.”
The AI leaders see as their goal “a free, self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating and self-theologizing church, that will take its destiny in its own hands. In one spirit, conviction, and purpose, we will commit to preparing our annual conferences for separation from an increasingly progressive UMC that is regrettably leading the denomination to adopt teachings contrary to Scripture and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith.” They envision each annual conference making “the choice of whether or not to remain independent or affiliate with another Methodist denomination, including the Global Methodist Church.”
Until now, the biggest obstacle to the African church moving toward this goal has been the refusal of its bishops to allow African churches to disaffiliate. The AI statement notes, “We decry the injustice that the existing Paragraph 2553 is not being applied in the Central Conferences, despite the specific language in the paragraph making it effective in 2019. This arbitrary decision by some bishops seeks to prevent African United Methodists from exercising the same right of disaffiliation that our American brothers and sisters have.”
“To correct this injustice, and in view of the above strategic plan, the Africa Initiative has proffered two petitions to the 2020 General Conference [meeting in 2024].” Those petitions are:
- A new Paragraph 2553 that provides “a uniform pathway for local church disaffiliation that applies universally across the church.” This paragraph would enable local churches around the world to all use the same process and meet the same requirements for disaffiliation. It would address the inequities imposed by some annual conferences in the U.S., as well as provide for congregations outside the U.S. to disaffiliate, a pathway that has so far been denied them.
- A new Paragraph 576 that would allow annual conferences outside the U.S. to disaffiliate and align with another Wesleyan denomination. This proposal would streamline and shorten the current disaffiliation process for non-U.S. annual conferences that do not want to become autonomous, but rather join another Wesleyan denomination, including the Global Methodist Church.
There is growing African interest in the possibility of disaffiliation, as the AI statement indicates. Given that U.S. traditionalists will no longer be around in significant numbers to thwart the agenda of U.S. progressives, African leaders are seeing the direction that the UM Church is likely to take. Centrists and progressives alike would endorse the recent statement by Mainstream UMC that, “We are committed to removing the harmful language from the Book of Discipline that targets our LGBTQ siblings.” What they see as “harmful language” is simply upholding the clear, gracious, and comprehensive teaching of Scripture and 2,000 years of church history that sexual intimacy belongs only within the framework of marriage between a man and a woman.
It remains to be seen whether the grass roots of the African church are more in sympathy with the perspective of some of their bishops, who desire to remain United Methodist, or with the AI leaders who see disaffiliation as a matter of principle, disconnecting from a church that is abandoning biblical teaching on marriage and human sexuality. It also remains to be seen whether the General Conference will create equitable pathways allowing the African church to make its own decisions, or whether it would seek to keep Africans trapped in the denomination through economic dependency and heavy-handed rules. Time will tell.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.