Room for Fairness in Charlotte

By Rob Renfroe

I believe most United Methodists are good, decent people. That may sound strange coming from one who has passionately argued that orthodox Christians would do well to leave The United Methodist Church. But my problem with the UM Church has not been with its people. My disagreements have been about principles and policies and theology. And good people can differ on those things.

My experience has been that the vast majority of United Methodists strive to be kind, want to embrace everyone with the love of God, believe in being fair, and are doing their best to make the world a better place. I think Garrison Keillor of Lake Woebegone fame got it right when, after having some fun with our quirks, he wrote, Methodists are “the sort of people you can call up when you’re in deep distress. If you’re dying, they will comfort you. If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you. And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad.”

Keillor could have added, Methodists are usually the ones running the local food pantry, leading the town’s Rotary Club, and hosting the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration for their community. United Methodists, whether traditional, centrist, or progressive, tend to be good people doing good things.

That’s what gives me some hope for the upcoming General Conference that convenes in April. The United Methodist Church needs to do a good thing, the right thing, the just thing and provide a way for churches outside the United States to disaffiliate in a way similar to what was afforded to congregations here in the U.S.

I know United Methodists in the United States want to move beyond disaffiliation. They want to be and need to be looking forward. They possess an understandable desire to be done with the hurt and chaos that disaffiliation has created. But you can’t be done with something that hasn’t begun. And the opportunity for churches outside the U.S. to leave the denomination hasn’t begun.

Our bishops ruled, rightly or wrongly, that the legislation passed in 2019 that allowed churches in the United States to leave did not apply to churches in other countries. So, for our brothers and sisters in Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and Russia, the opportunity for disaffiliation has not yet begun.

If the UM Church decides that it’s done with disaffiliation, it will be the church that tells the world that it is proper and fair to possess one set of rules for churches in the U.S. and a different set of rules for churches in other countries, most of which are in Africa.

If the UM Church decides to move forward without providing a fair exit path for international churches, it will disqualify itself from talking to the culture about doing justice. Give churches in this country that are primarily white and wealthy privileges that it does not afford to congregations outside the U.S., most of which are poor and persons of color, and The United Methodist Church will lose the moral high ground to speak to others about colonialism, racism, or justice.

When I met with forty African leaders in Nairobi last September, they were skeptical whether General Conference would give them the same rights and privileges we in the U.S. were given. They believe they are seen as “a problem” by many centrists and progressives in the U.S. They are accustomed to being treated as “less than” by the UM Church. They know the majority of United Methodists live in Africa, but receive only 32 percent (278 out of 862) of the delegates to General Conference.

They are aware that the Standing Committee on Central Conferences (the committee that oversees the work of Conferences outside the U.S.) has more than a third of its members from the U.S. – giving the U.S. an outsized say in how the Central Conferences operate. They still remember Bishop Minerva Carcano’s demeaning statement several years ago that they should “grow up and start thinking for themselves.”

They have not forgotten the Rev. Mark Holland of “Mainstream UMC” stating after General Conference 2019 that a continued partnership with the Africans might not be possible because they don’t appreciate or affirm our American culture. “A two thirds (2/3) majority of the U.S. church voted for cultural contextualization through the One Church Plan,” Holland wrote after the General Conference. “It was telling that eighty percent (80%) of the delegates from outside the U.S. declared, through their support of the Traditional Plan, that they are unwilling to allow the U.S. jurisdictions the same cultural contextualization they enjoy. This lack of reciprocation from delegates outside the U.S. may well lead to the end of our connection as we know it.”

Holland went on to state: “While there is no question that the U.S. church must continue to be in mission and ministry around the world, it is impossible to share a governance structure with a global church which is both fundamentally disconnected from and disapproving of the culture of the United States.”

The African leaders in Nairobi, from more than two dozen countries, are also aware that the real intent beneath the proposal for “regionalization” is to marginalize Africa’s ability to speak into the practices of the church in the U.S. So, it wasn’t surprising at the meeting in Nairobi that when one respected pastor referred to regionalization as “the apartheid plan,” there was no pushback, only heads nodding in agreement.

I understand why our African brothers and sisters are dubious that they will be treated fairly and justly when the General Conference meets in Charlotte this spring. I understand it will be easy for the delegates there to say, “we’re done with disaffiliation, and we need to move on.”

It will be tempting to forgo the difficult, unpleasant work of creating an exit path for those outside the U.S. who might want to leave. But if the delegates in Charlotte refuse to do the right thing for our international brothers and sisters, that would mean United Methodists, at least those representing us, are not really decent people who are committed to doing justice, no matter how many lonely souls they talk to, or how many international mission projects they support, or how many hungry people they bring tuna salad.

I refuse to believe that’s who United Methodists are – a people accepting of discrimination and who refuse to give others the same rights we in this country were given. I feel certain we are better than that. I pray – and in my heart of hearts I do believe – that traditional, centrist, and progressive United Methodists will do the right thing and provide justice for our brothers and sisters in Africa and around the world. In three months we’ll know if I’m right or wrong.


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