by Forbes Matonga
The developments in the UMC today must be read in the context of two major issues. First is the Covid-19 Pandemic which has caused massive disruptions to planning by anyone living on earth. Second is the increasingly polarized realities in which our beloved United Methodist Church finds itself following the cancellation of the specially-called virtual General Conference.
The world is pinning its hope on the vaccinations against the Covid-19 Pandemic. It is indeed refreshing to note that the availability and roll-out of these vaccines is going faster and smoother than most anticipated. Governments across the globe are working hard to ensure their Vaccination programs allow life to soon return to normalcy. We are delighted that in Africa these vaccines have reached countries well ahead of many people’s projections. It is reported that thirty-eight African countries have received more than 30 million doses of the vaccines thorough The COVAX Initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are taking the lead on Vaccines against The Covid-19 pandemic in West Africa. In East Africa, Rwanda and Kenya are the leading countries, while South Africa and Zimbabwe are on the lead in Southern Africa. I could not get information on The Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries like Angola and Mozambique where The United Methodist Church has a big presence. But it is reasonable to conclude that things are happening.
I do feel that the Church must take a leading role in Africa in educating the citizens on the importance of these Vaccines to counter dangerous conspiracy theories rampant on the continent via social media and retrogressive Churches and religious organizations.
What is important at this point for us as a movement is to encourage our delegates to take the vaccines as it will definitely be difficult to travel without proof of taking it. As they are saying, it will be your second passport. Let’s get vaccinated and let’s encourage our members to take them for their protection.
I assume it is now well known that the same Council of Bishops, who had called for a Special Session of General Conference to deal with what was termed “Administrative” matters represented by 12 petitions, decided to call off their call. What that means is that we go back to the original set up where a regular Session is now slated for the last week of August into the first week of September 2022.
No specific reasons were given for the cancellation. This of course gives rise to speculation. Many think that this came as a result of the ruling by The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church, which told bishops that they could use the 2017-2020 budget for the period when the General Conference cannot meet due to Covid-19
Pandemic. It was the issue of the budget that had pushed the Bishops to call the Special Session more than anything. Others believe that another reason could have been the push by some people to add other urgent items on the agenda. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and other Renewal groups in the USA expressed interest in adding the Protocol. We hear that some Progressive groups had items they wanted added. The Bishops were most likely not ready to deal with the Protocol as its passage would have meant that the Separation would occur earlier than they anticipated. We think the Council of Bishops could have also realized that the bond between American Conservatives and Africans is still strong and that a repeat of the 2019 outcome was imminent.
So we are back to where we were. The General Conference will be held in August- September 2022.
According to The Africa Central Conference College of Bishops, the Africa Central Conference pushed it anticipated meeting dates to February 2023. This is the new timeline. I am not sure about the other two Central Conferences.
The New Developments
There are very interesting developments following the announcement of the cancellation of the special General Conference by the Council of Bishops. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) announced the formation of a new traditionalist denomination named The Global Methodist Church. WCA made it very clear that this was not the launch of the new traditionalist Methodist Church, but it was announcing to The United Methodist Church and to the world that it is prepared for the separation. They made it clear that the launch of the Global Methodist Church will wait until General Conference action on the Protocol petition to legally enable the Separation to happen.
The President of The Africa College of Bishops, who happens to be Bishop Nhiwatiwa, announced what he called the position of The African Bishops on the way forward through a Press Statement. In it he made four significant pronouncements:
- That Africa will remain Traditionalist in its beliefs and theology.
- That Africa will continue to be in the UMC.
- That it’s time for Africa to determine its own future.
- That Africa will not join any new Traditionalist denomination forming.
To unpack this, he was indicating that African Bishops are first and foremost united on this position. He wanted the church and the world to know that African Bishops will lead the church to remain in the post separation UMC. He indicated, if the worse comes to worst, Africa would rather be autonomous than join the envisaged new Traditionalist Methodist Church, which he characterized as American.
It came as a surprise to many United Methodist bishops that one of the retired African Bishops was on the Transitional Leadership Committee of the Global Methodist Church. This should have been a shocker! A few weeks after, Bishop Quire of Liberia, while delivering his Episcopal Address, shocked the United Methodist world by becoming the first active Bishop to publicly announce where he will go come Separation time. He was going to move out of the homosexuality-embracing post separation UMC to join The Global Methodist Church. This was a ground breaking move by any standard. He called the Liberian Annual Conference to join him should the time of Separation come.
In less than a week another African Bishop came out in the same line. This time it was Bishop Yohanna of Nigeria contradicting their President of The Africa College of Bishops by openly saying he will go with the Traditionalists and join Global Methodist Church. Bishop Yohanna was responding to some people in his episcopal area who were promoting The Christmas Covenant as having been endorsed by all African Bishops.
In yet another week a third African Bishop came out with a more elaborate theological treatise on why he cannot abandon the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage and human sexuality to embrace the new alien teaching. This was Bishop Kasap of South Congo. In his statement he clearly provided the Biblical base for his choice to remain true to the current teaching of the UMC.
In order not to be outdone, a newly formed group of African Progressives, known as The Africa Voice of Unity became more aggressive in trying to neutralize the impact of these powerful pronouncements by these three bishops. They organized a webinar meant to market The Christmas Covenant Petition which, in essence, is meant to counter the momentum gained by the Protocol Petition in Africa.
Key to all this is a strong statement that Africa is no longer on the periphery of this denominational debate. Africa is now at the center of the debate raging across The UMC Connection. Meanwhile the Africa Initiative continues to be the most trusted rallying point by most African delegates to both The General Conference and to Central Conferences. Most African Delegates look up to Africa Initiative group for leadership and direction as most do not trust the leadership provided by some of their bishops on this debate. For the first time, the Council of Bishops quotes the Africa Initiative as an advocacy group of the United Methodist Church they should also listen to. In announcing the Cancellation of The Special General Conference, Bishops cite a letter written to them by the Africa Initiative. This is significant. This is a clear confirmation that the group has grown stronger and should be considered a legitimate voice in the UMC. Now Africa Initiative has membership and representatives in almost all African Episcopal Areas.
Meanwhile Europe is divided on the matter. Western Europe led by Germany and Norway are clearly Progressive while Eastern Europe led by Russia is Traditionalist. The Phillipines are predominantly Traditionalist but have a relatively strong Progressive elements, hence the Christmas Covenant was submitted to The General Conference by one of their Annual Conferences.
So what does all this mean to the African Methodist Church?
- The African Bishops are divided on this matter, contrary to the narrative we are accustomed to hearing that they are speaking with one voice.
- This means the African United Methodist Church is divided. After the separation, we shall have both The post separation UMC and The Global Methodist Church on the continent.
- We predict that The Global Methodist Church will be the bigger of the two. The post separation UMC will probably have a bigger presence in North Katanga, East Congo, West Angola and Mozambique Episcopal Areas. The Global Methodist Church will be strong in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Congo, Central Congo, East Africa, East Angola and Zimbabwe. This means 9 out of 13 Episcopal Areas will be dominated by The Global Methodist Church while four will be with the post separation United Methodist Church.
- The Global Methodist Church will be better resourced for ministry than the post separation UMC as the later will carry on with the current Institutional garbage that includes more than a dozen agencies and thirteen seminaries, all requiring resources from the post separation UMC. The already overburdened Episcopal Fund of the post separation UMC will struggle to carry all the bishops on board as signs of financial trouble are already visible. Since it is generally agreed that over 60% of UMC bishops are ;liberals, it follows that most will choose to remain with the post separation UMC to guard their retirement parks.
- The Global Methodist Church will require new theological institutions to train clergy as almost all current UMC seminaries, especially in the USA, will choose to go with the post separation UMC than go with the Global Methodist Church. This includes Africa University which is largely controlled by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
- It is highly unlikely that Africa will be granted the promised five extra bishops by the 2022 General Conference as this conference will be uncertain of where Africa will officially go when it sits.
- As clearly demonstrated above, The Global Methodist Church will be truly global. It will also have a good number of former United Methodist Churches, currently in concordat relationships with the UMC coming back to the Global Connection from such parts of the world like South America , Mexico, Korea and maybe India.
I think these are the key issues we must deal with, brothers and sisters, as we formulate our strategy towards the 2022 General Conference. Thank you.
Forbes Matonga (Rev)
The Rev. Forbes Matonga is a Pastor and General Conference delegate from the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and the Secretary of the denomination’s Africa Central Conference.