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.


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