By Thomas Lambrecht
Two weeks ago, the African Colleges of Bishops released a statement criticizing the Africa Initiative and the Wesleyan Covenant Association for, in their words, “working to destroy our United Methodist Church.” The statement also accused the Africa Initiative of “working with and supporting the Global Methodist Church, a denomination that has not been recognized by the General Conference.”
As a result of these accusations, the African bishops committed to:
- “Dissociate from any activities of the Africa Initiative and will not allow any activities of the Africa Initiative in our areas”
- “Not allow or entertain any activities of the Wesleyan Covenant Association who are wrongly influencing God’s people in our areas”
- “Not tolerate anyone giving false information about The United Methodist Church in our areas”
Since that September 8 statement, the narrative has sprung up that African United Methodists will not be joining the Global Methodist Church. It is important to clarify what is going on in Africa and what the implications are for the future of Africa in Methodism.
Who signed the bishops’ statement?
The statement is misleading, in that it lists the bishops who were present at the meeting, not those who supported the statement. We have been told by informed sources that at least two of the bishops present opposed the statement and do not agree with it. Seven active bishops were present out of the 13 total active African bishops. Some of those not present also do not agree with it. So this is a statement of some of the African bishops, but not all.
Is the WCA and Africa Initiative “working to destroy our United Methodist Church?”
The bishops supporting the statement apparently believe that any kind of separation would “destroy” the UM Church. The possibility of separation was endorsed by the 2019 General Conference by its enacting the Par. 2553 disaffiliation process. So there is official sanction for discussing disaffiliation. There is no question that the large-scale disaffiliations that are currently going on will usher in change to the UM Church. But even the loss of 20-30 percent of its members would hardly “destroy” the denomination. The bishops are guilty of hyperbole here.
The WCA, Good News, The Confessing Movement, and UMAction, have consistently had only one goal in mind for our working together with the Africa Initiative. That goal is to empower the voice and ministry of African United Methodists. The Africa Initiative reaffirms that goal in their statement of purpose:
- “To foster partnership, network, and fellowship among leaders of the annual and provisional conferences of Africa
- “To facilitate training in cross-cultural evangelism and missions, discipleship, leadership development, prayer revivals, and resource mobilization for annual and provisional conferences of Africa
- “To raise the voice of the African Church within global Methodism, by supporting the practice of biblical orthodoxy, training delegates to General Conference, and speaking out against unbiblical theological persuasions, teachings, and practices that have the propensity to misrepresent and undermine Wesleyan doctrines.”
This is not destroying the church, but building up the church.
Can the bishops effectively prohibit Africa Initiative activities in Africa?
Those bishops who have been opposing the work of the Africa Initiative in the past have already tried to stop its work in their areas. Some pastors and lay leaders have been forbidden to attend meetings or share information. The laity, in particular, have not abided by such prohibitions, believing that bishops cannot prevent people from meeting with whom they want to meet. Some clergy have needed to be more cautious due to the possibility of losing their jobs and livelihood. But the Africa Initiative has found ways to share information that do not open leaders up to the possibility of discipline from their bishops.
The attempt to assert complete control over the life of the church is a very real temptation for some bishops, especially in areas where laity defer to ecclesiastical authority. It is natural that persons who benefit from the status quo would want to preserve it. But African United Methodists will not easily allow their bishops to force them to act contrary to the people’s beliefs and interests. When several of the African bishops attempted to coerce their delegates to vote for the One Church Plan at the 2019 General Conference, the delegates voted their conscience and overwhelmingly supported the Traditional Plan.
The sharing of information and the coordinating of activities will continue in Africa.
The African members of the WCA Global Council have issued the following response:
“As leaders of the WCA in Africa, the statement by our esteemed bishops left us flabbergasted. This militant and combative position by some of these bishops does not proffer the unity and love for which they call. If anything, it opens a massive rift between them and the flock that they are supposed to look after. To openly attack your own flock diminishes the essence of being ‘good shepherds’ that the bishops are supposed to exemplify. In Africa it is generally considered disrespectful to answer back to elders, but we feel pushed into a corner, and unfortunately there is no longer any space behind us.
“The values and mission of the Wesleyan Covenant Association resonate well with what Africans believe and how we live. That makes the partnership of Africans, the WCA, and the rest of the Reform and Renewal Coalition a natural and obvious one. Further, it is most disappointing for us to realize that the Reconciling Ministries Network, which promotes same-gender marriage and the ordination of active gay and lesbian clergy, enjoys free reign in Africa to the extent of building and dedicating churches and our bishops remain very comfortable with it. As leaders of the WCA in Africa we will continue to contend for the undiluted Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The entire response of the Wesleyan Covenant Association to the unfounded charges of some African bishops, including the above words from its African council members, is found here. The entire statement of the Africa Initiative in response to the African bishops is found here.
Rather than issuing statements attempting to stifle and control the actions of renewal-minded African clergy and laity, the African bishops desperately need to get their own house in order. For example, at least one bishop is publicly promoting and supporting the presence of U.S.-based Reconciling Ministries Network in Kenya, which advocates for same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. In addition, the African bishops have thus far refused to call special central conference meetings to elect new bishops and retire existing bishops. Several of them are beyond the mandatory retirement age of 72, yet continue to serve and, by their plan, will continue to serve until at least the end of 2024. Another example of disregarding the Book of Discipline when its provisions are inconvenient. (The Burundi Annual Conference has asked the Judicial Council to rule on whether the African bishops must step down at age 72 and call a special conference to elect their replacements.)
Will the African church remain in The United Methodist Church?
In a report of its May 2022 leadership prayer summit, the Africa Initiative stipulated, “The Africa Initiative shall continue to encourage African churches and conferences to patiently await the 2024 General Conference while advocating for the adoption of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, and while acknowledging unique circumstances in some areas of the Continent that may cause members to act before then.” The strong preference of the African church is to consider the possibility of disaffiliation as annual conferences within the context of an approved Protocol that provides a clear process to follow. At the same time, there are a few countries where traditionalist pastors and lay leaders have been unjustly terminated from the church without the due process afforded by the Discipline. In those areas, it makes no sense to wait to form units of the Global Methodist Church because the individuals involved have already been forcibly “disaffiliated” from the church.
There will be some parts of the UM Church in Africa that will remain in the continuing denomination. After all, there are millions of United Methodists on the continent. As to whether the bulk of the African church will remain in the UM Church following the 2024 General Conference, that is another question. The Africa Initiative prayer and leadership summit stated, “The United Methodist Church in Africa shall not be part of a denomination that changes the current language of the Book of Discipline in order to legalize homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or the ordination of practicing LGBTQIA+ people as pastors. This is the ultimate, decisive, and undisputed position of the UMC in Africa.”
The leaders we have spoken with in Africa have no interest in remaining in a denomination that affirms same-sex relationships in contradiction to Scripture.
Is the WCA or the GMC sharing “false information?”
The official communications of Good News, the WCA, and the GMC have been careful to share information that is accurate and sourced. We have made the details of some of the examples given available upon request. So far, all we have heard are general charges of lying or misinformation, without pointing to any specific statements that we have made that are inaccurate.
No one knows for sure how the continuing United Methodist Church will evolve after separation. It is fair for different people to have different opinions, backed up by solid reasoning. Some centrists declare that the UM Church is not going to change and that traditionalists will be welcome in the UM Church. This is based only on their promises of good faith, promises that we are reluctant to trust, given the consistent violation of other promises made to us down through the years.
At the same time, there are many examples of individual clergy being excluded from United Methodism due to their traditional theological views. A number of licensed local pastors have been summarily fired by their bishop or district committee simply for sharing information about the disaffiliation process with their congregation. The majority of delegates at the 2024 General Conference will probably favor the removal of all provisions limiting same-sex marriage or the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. While probably not requiring pastors or congregations to embrace same-sex weddings or gay pastors, one should not underestimate the power of peer pressure and denominational culture. Nearly all UM seminaries promote the affirmation of same-sex marriage and ordination, meaning that will be the default position held by most UM clergy trained there over the next generation. Absent intentional efforts by progressives and centrists to welcome and support traditionalist views in the denomination, it is unlikely traditionalists will long feel comfortable remaining United Methodist. So far, we have seen little evidence of such intentional efforts at theological inclusion at the denominational level.
Efforts to suppress or punish people for having different opinions by some African bishops does not indicate that traditionalists are welcome in Africa. Good News and our Reform and Renewal partners believe we can trust African people to make their own decisions without being told what to do by their bishop. Our obligation is to make it possible for them to hear our side of the story, which is only fair, since the bishops can share their side of the story unimpeded. By attempting to take coercive and punitive action against their own people, some African bishops are betraying their role as shepherds of the flock. Let us hope they reconsider their position and agree to move forward openly and amicably.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Greater Nhiwatiwa (in purple dress), wife of Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa (left), explains the history and significance of the Chin’ando prayer mountain to bishops attending the Africa College of Bishops retreat held September 5-8 at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Photo by Eveline Chikwanah, UM News.