By Thomas Lambrecht
Methodism on the continent of Africa continues to flourish – countering the decline in North America. At the same time, traditionalist African leaders report that there have been some incidents of punitive action by hostile bishops.
In a recent troubling situation, yet another African bishop is persecuting pastors and leaders because of their connection with traditionalist views and organizations. This continues a pattern noted in 2020 in Central Congo and North Katanga episcopal areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In those earlier cases, leading pastors were removed from their appointment and in some cases unjustly suspended without any complaints being filed or opportunity to defend themselves with a due process.
Now, on February 24, 2022, Bishop José Quipungo of East Angola expelled the Rev. Bartolomeu Dias Sapalo from The United Methodist Church under the charge of “treason.” (There is no such chargeable offense in the UM Book of Discipline.) In addition, Quipungo removed Sapalo from his position as Dean of Quessua Faculty of Theology and as pastor in charge of Nova Galileia United Methodist Church. He was given ten days to remove all his belongings and vacate the official faculty residence and told to “get out of Quessua Mission immediately.”
Bishop Quipungo gave as the reason for this action that Sapalo was “involved with the Separatist Movement (Global Methodist) under the leadership of Mr. Jerry Kullah (sic) and after having previously been advised not [to] be aligned with them (‘GMC’).” (It should be noted that Sapalo is not aligned with the “GMC” because that denomination is not yet in existence.)
Sapalo reported, “The bishop received the document entitled ‘Africa Initiative’s Position Statement on Holding 2022 General Conference.’ On this document, my name is included as an executive member [of the African Initiative]. There is no stipulation in the Discipline against participation in the Africa Initiative. Yet, this was the sufficient reason, in his opinion, to call me and then send me a letter of expulsion. There was, however, no church trial at all.”
Under the Book of Discipline, before a clergy member can be removed, a formal complaint must be filed. An investigation must take place, along with attempts to resolve the complaint through mutual agreement. If no agreement can be reached, the clergy person is entitled to a trial, at which the church must prove its charges and a jury of other clergy can decide to acquit or convict the defendant. The charged clergy person is also entitled to have an advocate to help defend them in this process. At the trial, it is the jury (not the bishop) that decides what the penalty for a guilty verdict would be. The defendant is further entitled to appeal the verdict if there were errors made in the church trial.
In Sapalo’s case, none of these procedures were followed. He was summarily fired from his church positions and removed from membership in The United Methodist Church by the bishop alone.
When asked about the possibility of an appeal, Sapalo said, “There is no recourse in this matter because at the local level the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy is non-functional. There are [also] conflicts of interest in play. For example, the [chair] of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is [the bishop’s] nephew. His administrative assistant is another nephew, and other key positions in the church are occupied by his close relatives. There is simply insufficient accountability at the level of the annual conference.”
Another element playing into Sapalo’s dismissal was the jockeying for position in upcoming elections to be the bishop to replace Quipungo. Such elections were originally scheduled for 2020 at the Africa Central Conference. Due to Covid postponements, they are now scheduled for 2024 (unless Judicial Council rules they may be held earlier). Quipungo had reached the mandatory retirement age of 68 in 2016, but avoided retirement through procedural steps. He is now age 75, yet continuing to serve as bishop.
The 2020 East Angola Annual Conference endorsed candidates for the episcopacy. Sapalo was the top candidate endorsed by the conference, and his wife, Rev. Suzana Luisa Lourenҫo Sapalo, was the second endorsed candidate. According to Sapalo, the third and fourth endorsed candidates (who received half the number of votes Sapalo received) are close relatives (a nephew and a grandson) of Bishop Quipungo and members of his same tribe. Expelling Sapalo would make him ineligible to be elected bishop, opening the way for one of Quipungo’s relatives to be elected.
As Sapalo reports, “It is hard for Americans to understand what the systems of authority are like in Africa. For example, pastors or laypersons who try to contradict a bishop can face serious punishment. He threatens them with expulsion. The situation in Angola East is illustrative of a larger problem. District Superintendents are suspended or kicked out, conference staff persons are suspended, pastors are punitively moved from one church to another and sometimes are not given appointments, and cabinet members are not consulted prior to any decision regarding church business. At least five other clergy members have been expelled in East Angola.”
Furthermore, Sapalo alleges Quipungo lacked transparency in administration. “For the past 22 years of his episcopal ministry, we never heard in any ordinary meetings or at Annual Conference session any report on how he uses the funds received from donations, from UMC Agencies, or even from the Government; he has not been accountable.”
For now, Sapalo is unemployed and, as he puts it, “stranded.” “Unfortunately, I cannot attend any United Methodist congregation right now. I now live at my older brother’s house here in Luand, 400 kilometers [250 miles] from where I was engaged in pastoral ministry. I left my wife behind, but she is also pressured to vacate the house, though she is also a pastor. Right now, I am looking for a job as a taxi driver to support my children with school fees and other basic expenses.”
It is difficult to fathom the hardships of ministry and service to the church in Africa to begin with – difficulties in travel, diseases, lack of the best health care, and lack of adequate income. Add to that the dictatorial style of some bishops and their unjust abuse of power against some who are just trying to be a faithful voice for Wesleyan doctrine. Our brothers and sisters are making sacrifices for the cause of Christ that we cannot comprehend.
One of the key premises of the Global Methodist Church is that there must be accountability at all levels of the church, from the lay members all the way to the bishops. We need a radically different approach to power and authority in the church. Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
I can attest that the leaders of the Global Methodist Church exhibit this kind of leadership humility. The Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline of the GM Church contains a straightforward accountability process for all, including bishops. The fair processes of the church must be followed. Without them, there is an abuse of power. Some of our best leaders have suffered such abuse, both in Africa and in parts of the U.S. It is time for the abuse to end.
The current UM system generally does not allow for bishops to be held accountable. Such accountability is at the whim of other bishops. Increasingly, bishops are unwilling to “interfere” with how other bishops administer their own episcopal area. This lack of accountability and the resulting abuse of power is one of the major reasons for separation in the UM Church.
It is time for United Methodist leaders to renounce their punitive and coercive approach to leadership and allow traditionalists a gracious exit, so that we may all serve the cause of Christ without hindrance in the way we are led to do so.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Reporting for this article also came through Dr. David Watson, dean of United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio. Photo (left) is from Bartolomeu Dias Sapalo and (right) Shutterstock.