Will Regionalization Be An Option for Africa?

By Jerry Kulah

It has become abundantly clear in recent times that the issue of “regionalization” has taken center stage within The United Methodist Church  body politic. This is evidenced by the fact that some influential structures within the general church, such as the Connectional Table, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and the Council of Bishops, have given their endorsement of the plan. The centrists and progressives within the UM Church have made it their common talking point, claiming that it is the most reasonable path to pursue going into the 2020 General Conference, scheduled for April 23 to May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

We understand regionalization as the process whereby each of the seven central conferences in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines will function as a regional conference, while the five jurisdictions in the United States will combine to form one regional conference. Following their formation, each region would create its own “book of discipline” that addresses its missional needs. The general church would maintain a general book of discipline to address needs and operations of the general church. Proponents claim that regionalism would promote missional effectiveness. One retired bishop even claims that it would “keep the UMC alive and relevant in a worldwide context,” and would address “the mandate of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28: 16-20: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’”

This assertion could not be further from the truth.

Not only has the regionalization conversation become prevalent within the United States and Europe, it has also found a fertile soil among African bishops, who made the issue of regionalization a priority during their recent annual meeting in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, September 2-8, 2023. Without initiating conversations about the regionalization proposal within their various annual conferences, the African bishops took a vote among themselves to determine whether to accept regionalization as the path to pursue in Africa. But consideration of any regionalization legislation will be the prerogative of General Conference delegates in North Carolina, not the bishops (Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 406). Bishops have no vote in this matter.

Apparently, most African bishops are now inclined to remain with the worldwide UM Church even if its biblical interpretation, theology, and polity contradict the clear teachings of Scripture, including its legalization of same-gender marriage, ordination of self-avowed homosexuals, and election and consecration of gays and lesbians as bishops to represent the UM Church worldwide. According to them, “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.” We consider this a contradiction.

Our current African bishops cannot claim that they uphold the sanctity of Scripture regarding human sexuality and yet remain in an ecclesial marriage with those who vehemently oppose this biblical view and theological position, unless there are other factors relative to some personal benefits necessitating their decision. Their decision runs contrary to the biblical stance and spiritual formation of the majority of the members and clergy within the UM Church in Africa whom they claim to shepherd. We doubt many United Methodists in Africa consider regionalization an acceptable option.

The African church is aware of the history of the regionalization plans within the worldwide UM Church. Since 2008 to present, centrists and progressives have featured it in several forms at past General Conferences without success. At the 2008 General Conference, a task force on the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposed 32 constitutional amendments. Twenty-three of those amendments sought to create regional conferences within the denomination, while the remaining nine were devoted to other vital concerns of the denomination. Concluding these changes counterproductive to the connectional polity of the general church, almost all annual conferences in the United States and Africa voted against those proposals in 2009.

African bishops supporting regionalization seem ready to betray the doctrinal integrity of the UM Church in Africa. However, the Africa Initiative stands with a majority of African United Methodists and delegates to make it clear that regionalization is not an option for the UM Church in Africa. We stand ready to vote against these multiple changes to the constitution at the upcoming General Conference. If the General Conference approves them, we will work at the level of the annual conferences to make sure they do not receive the 2/3 majority support needed for ratification.

While we respect the rights of liberals, progressives, and centrists to endorse and promote the regionalization proposal, it is equally our right to reject legislation that does not align with our understanding and practice of biblical Christianity. Here are further reasons why we reject regionalization:

1. Regionalizing the UM Church is biblically and theologically wrong. Regionalization would create national churches, with the probability of different doctrinal standards and practices, under one general UM Church umbrella. In essence, we will be different denominations pretending to be one. Each region would have no say in what other regions of the same church may believe, teach, and practice.

While we will claim to be one denomination/church, our moral qualifications for church membership and for becoming a clergy or bishop within the same UM Church will differ greatly, as per regional requirements. For example, while it would be illegal to ordain persons involved in same gender marriage or elect and consecrate gays and lesbians in one region, it would be biblically and theologically legal to do it in some other regions of the same church. This is deception; for by doing so, we would pretend to ourselves to be one denomination, yet preach different gospels (Galatians 1:6-9; 6:7).

Our founding father, John Wesley, referred to himself as a homo unius libri: “a man of one book,” the Holy Scriptures. While tradition, experience, and reason aid in our theological reflection, Scripture remains primary. The Gospel is above culture, not below or of culture. Hence, we believe that every cultural practice must align with and not contradict Scripture. The African church wants to maintain the clear and consistent teaching of Methodist doctrinal statements. We want to be a part of a church that maintains a robust accountability to its doctrines.

2. Regionalization contradicts the connectional nature of the UM Church. Regionalization disconnects the general church and does not reflect the United Methodist way of serving Christ. The principle basic to the UM Church is that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. Regionalization divides while connectionalism unites. Regionalization is therefore counterproductive to the worldwide connectional nature of the UM Church. We want to be a part of a church whose statement of faith, doctrinal standards, and ethical teachings apply to all, irrespective of the region of the world in which one finds oneself. The General Conference is the highest decision-making body of the church where all the annual conferences come together each quadrennium to make decisions jointly that will govern the programs, projects, and ministries of the church. To attempt to change this unique polity of the denomination for regionalization is counterproductive.

3. Regionalization is a recipe for segregation and marginalization. Regionalization bars other members of the UM Church who do not belong to certain regions from having a say in what fellow United Methodists believe, teach, or practice. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were among the first African Americans licensed to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church. They received their licenses at the St. George’s Church in 1784. Three years later, protesting racial segregation in the worship services, Allen led about forty black members out of St. George’s. Eventually they founded the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, which led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. We are concerned that regionalization might take us along this path.

4. Regionalization enhances financial inequity within the general church. We believe regionalization enhances financial inequity within the general church, in favor of the jurisdictions in the United States. It further impedes our pursuit toward mutual partnership, and the empowerment of financially less privileged annual conferences within the general church. Among the 80 million worldwide Methodists and 12.5 million United Methodists, Africa accounts for the largest membership anywhere on the planet. Until recently, the United States has enjoyed majority membership. With the great decline of Western Christianity, the UM Church in Africa has ascended to the majority position in terms of membership. However, the UM Church in America is still the economic powerhouse of the denomination.

Currently, the UM Church in the United States accounts for 99 percent of budgetary support to the ministries, projects, and programs of the general church, including the payment of salaries and operational funds for episcopal offices in Africa. Regionalization, given the Western liberal and progressive stance on many cardinal biblical issues like human sexuality, would silence the voice of the church in Africa. Proponents could certainly bring economic pressure to bear on African conferences lacking financial self-sustainability. Regionalization is therefore detrimental to the continued growth of a biblically committed and Christ-centered church in Africa

5. Regionalization undermines African community life. We are a communal people. The concept of the Bantu word, Ubuntu describes this: “I am because we are.” The concept of Ubuntu describes how Africans live in community with and for each other, share common affinity, working together to achieve the common good. We seek to have equal access to assets of the community to benefit everyone. We come together, through the elders, to discuss our needs and concerns and address them corporately. We live in unity, working collectively and harmoniously for the common good.

Another concept we cherish within our community life is umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu. That is, “a person is a person because of others” (from Indigenous Κnowledge and the Εnvironment in Africa and North America, edited by David M. Gordon and Shepard Krech III, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2012). Hence, in African culture, the community, rather than individuals, raises a child. We translate these concepts into the way we understand biblical Christianity (Hebrews 10:24-25) and do church. On the contrary, regionalization promotes ethical autonomy, and disconnects the church as individual regions develop different rules and ways of doing church. Under such circumstances, many important areas of church life that the General Conference previously decided would now be the decisions of individual regions. This is unacceptable for the UM Church in Africa.

Inevitably, regionalization is a difficult, if not impossible, path to pursue for the general church. As Mark Holland of “Mainstream UMC” admits, “Regardless of how generous [some] delegates and Bishops in Africa may feel towards regionalization, they face serious social, political, and even legal pressure back home unlike anything we [centrists/progressives] face in the US and Europe.” In addition, we have a strong holy discontent about the creation of several national, partly independent churches under one umbrella denomination. This is incompatible with our connectional polity and lacks any effective way to give the church the unity it needs to be alive and effective.

Proposal for the Way Forward: Amicable Separation. While the path to regionalization, in our opinion, is almost impossible, we wish to proffer a recommendation that could help both the progressive and conservative wings of the church to move forward. We acknowledge that Centrists and Progressives within the UM Church desire regionalization. As traditionalists, we desire the same opportunity to disaffiliate as was afforded to traditionalists in the United States. We deserve justice! In addition, we believe that a more acceptable way forward for both wings of the church would be to pursue the path of amicable separation. In this way, we can bless each other and go our separate ways to fulfill our mission as we know best. We can then endeavor to do some ministries together where we both find it appropriate.

Against this background, we have submitted two petitions for disaffiliation for the next General Conference. The first is a new Par. 576. This petition, when passed, gives the rights to annual conferences outside the United States to disaffiliate from the UM Church and join another Wesleyan church.

The second is a revised Par. 2553. Even though we voted for passage of the original disaffiliation pathway, we were shocked and surprised when the Council of Bishops informed Central Conferences in Africa that its implementation did not apply to us. If this is not an act of segregation and marginalization of the UM Church in Africa, then I do not know what it is.

Our denial by the Council of Bishops to implement Par. 2553 in the Africa Central Conferences was another action of marginalization. It is similar to another case in point: While jurisdictions in the U.S. and central conferences in the Philippines, and Europe, by decision of the Judicial Council, elected new bishops in 2022 to replace their bishops due for retirement,  with the acquiescence of the Council of Bishops, the Africa College of Bishops denied its central conferences the rights to elect new bishops.

Despite these impediments, the UM Church in Africa continues to forge ahead in raising faithful disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the people of Africa in particular, and the world in general.

Jerry P. Kulah is Vice President of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies, United Methodist University in Monrovia, Liberia. He is also the General Coordinator of the UMC Africa Initiative.


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