by Chris Ritter
Note: I write as a friend of African United Methodism. This friendship was forged across twenty years of involvement in Africa spent building churches, hosting U.S. visits, supporting clergy salaries, funding scholarships, and digging wells. My four visits to the the continent have been spiritually enriching and have occasioned friendships that will endure into eternity. Like WCA and the Transitional Leadership Council, I believe strongly in African self-determination. The views herein expressed do not represent the views of either WCA or the TLC. My goal is to simply write with Africa in mind.
The current trajectory of United Methodist separation points to a major division in the church in Africa. United Methodist News Service reported on April 14 that African bishops are not of one mind on the future. Forbes Matonga, a General Conference delegate from Zimbabwe, predicts that two Methodisms will emerge on the continent represented by a post-separation UMC and the Global Methodist Church. He describes the division in this way:
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 African episcopal areas likely to remain affiliated with the post-separation UMC are those with bishops most tightly aligned with the U.S. establishment and willing to embrace the regionalization of the church envisioned in the Christmas Covenant. It is entirely possible, however, that divisions will spill down into the conference, district, and local church levels. Congregations of different Methodist denominations will share territory and any number of local disruptions are possible.
African disunity is unfortunate. African United Methodism is the strongest demographic bright spot and now likely represents a majority of UM membership. It is easy to assume that Africa would be fairly unified absent U.S. politics and progressivism. While disruption on local levels due to local issues is not uncommon in Africa, these small-scale schisms do not compare with the separation currently looming.
Some Africans welcome an opportunity for a new Methodism. These include those unhappy with their current bishop. Certain U.S. interests have interfered in episcopal elections and have pressured African bishops to embrace the One Church Plan in 2019. These same forces are ramping up to push the Christmas Covenant Regionalization Plan in the lead-up to GC2022. In places, the heavy-handed tactics of bishops has been cause for complaint. The Global Methodist Church envisions a humbler, term-limited episcopacy called by the annual conference from a list of clergy approved by the GMC General Conference.
U.S. institutionalists would like Africans to stay in the UMC but vote themselves into a segregated regional conference where their influence upon the general church would be negligible. The emerging Global Methodist Church hopes that African conferences will join the new denomination as full, majority partners. But the Separation Protocol causes African conferences to choose between full participation in a theologically aligned denomination and the established channels of financial support flowing through the UMC general agencies. Some African bishops would prefer the formation of a “United Methodist Church of Africa” to choosing sides in the present debate. But this, too, would cause Africans to lose representation in the system that delivers a good deal of their financial support.
For their part, African United Methodists seem generally unwilling to trade truth for treasure. Consider recent remarks by Bishop Samuel Quire of Liberia:
We want to be a part of the traditionalist Methodist Church that will make disciples of Jesus Christ. When the separation happens, we are aware that we may lose some of our current partners who are supporting some of our major projects. But we rather stand on the side of the Scripture and truth, than to compromise our faith in the Scripture and disobey Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. We are also confident that the God whom we serve is not broke! God will sustain God’s Church. Our responsibility is to be obedient disciples.
Can Africa Stay Together?
The binary choice between the UMC and the Global Methodist Church is one framed outside Africa. U.S. institutionalists hope that the UMC will liberalize its position on marriage and human sexuality in a newly created U.S. Region. Africa can practice traditional understandings within their region (for now) if, and only if, they are willing to stay in a church with practicing homosexual bishops and the like. But regionalization is not a foregone conclusion. Passage of the Christmas Covenant would take multiple constitutional amendments requiring super-majority support. This support does not currently exist. African conferences voted against a similar regionalization plan in 2008 by margins sometimes reaching as high as 97%.
American United Methodists are unified only in a feeling that the denominational house is on fire and immediate relief is needed. Outside the U.S., other matters are much more urgent. Many Africans are confused as to why the results of General Conference 2019 (called to settle this issue once and for all) are not being honored. While liberalization of UM policies would be a deal-breaker in Africa, this has not yet occurred… at least not officially. Absent regionalization, Africans are well-positioned to take the helm of the UMC.
African demographic dominance has been slow thus far to translate into a General Conference delegate majority. African conferences are large and United Methodist polity guarantees representation to small or provisional conferences. Only after small conferences get their two delegates each do larger conferences get assigned a share of the slots that are left.
Compare Africa and the Philippines. The three bishops of the Philippines each oversee anywhere between five and eleven annual conferences. With 25 AC’s for just 200,000 United Methodists, each Filipino annual conference has an average total membership of just 8,000 church members. Africa has 6.4 million United Methodists served by 34 annual conferences… 188K United Methodists, on average, per conference.
Compare Africa to Europe. Four bishops oversee 100,000 United Methodists in twenty tiny European conferences. The average conference size in Europe is less than the membership of some local churches in the U.S. A European UM bishop leads 25,000 United Methodists while an African bishop leads twenty times that number. If African conferences were sized like European conferences, the continent would have 1,280 annual conferences. If the same ratio of bishops was applied to Africa as Europe, there would be 256 African bishops instead of 13.
If African conferences were re-sized closer to the standard of the Philippines, a super-majority of General Conference delegates would be African. And this change would not be difficult to enact. Let’s say each African AC divides (on average) to become ten conferences with an average membership of 18K each… basically converting each of their districts into a conference. That would be 340 African AC’s with a combined GC delegation of 680. This is a super-majority of General Conference, limited by our constitution to 1,000 delegates. African ascendency would only be accelerated by the departure of Americans through the Protocol.
In addition to imminent status as majority partners in the UMC, Africans have a deep appreciation for the United Methodist “brand” they have built on their continent. They appreciate being part of an international church that prevents their conferences from succumbing to the forces of nationalism and tribalism. In short, United Methodist works in Africa in ways it does not work elsewhere.
Better Choices for Africa
United Methodist polity is quite rigid in terms of geography and control. The formation of the Global Methodist Church, however, provides the opportunity to embrace an open, nimble structural polity. One option would be for the Global Methodist Church to allow African conferences that so wish it to become “dual citizens” of the UMC and GMC. Those conferences that embrace the vision of the GMC could send delegates to both General Conferences.
Following passage of the Protocol, it is likely that some Africans will want to join the GMC exclusively. These might include United Methodists in the Congo Central Conference and elsewhere who complain of being under the thumb of autocratic, Americanized bishops. But in places like Liberia, both the bishop and people seem reasonably unified. The GMC could facilitate African conferences maintaining United Methodist affiliations while the longer battle for the heart and soul of the UMC institution is decided.
Of course, conferences that continue in the UMC would continue to be served by a UMC bishop. The GMC could empower its own Council of Bishops to examine these bishops and grant them some sort of associate status in the new denomination, should they choose to seek that. African conferences that choose it would enjoy representation and relationships in both Methodist denominations. This is not unlike federated United Methodist congregations who belong to more than one denomination.
Instead of having UMC conferences and GMC conferences with overlapping/competing territories, a “both” option would help prevent a continent-wide schism from spinning out of control. The dual citizenship option would create ballast and a platform for the resolution of disputes. Joining the GMC without abandoning the UMC opens new horizons for African conferences. African voices will be fully heard on the shaping of the new denomination and they would not lose the ground they have earned over the past decades in the UMC.
How would the shape of the UMC and its heirs be altered in the event of the African ascendency herein described? An African super-majority could undertake a legislative program to repair the UMC and correct the mission-field status to which African conferences have been subjected. This might include the addition of more bishops in Africa, accountability for bishops in an African-majority Council of Bishops, and proportional representation on all general board and agencies.
The split in the American UMC would not be forestalled, but it would be significantly changed. The hope for regionalization gone, a much larger U.S. Progressive Methodist Church would form under the rubrics of the Separation Protocol. This would include any progressive-leaning conferences that could garner 57% support for a new progressive denomination. Let’s assume this to include the Western Jurisdiction, much of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, and certain conferences of the North Central Jurisdictions. Individual progressive congregations throughout the Southern jurisdictions would also join a new progressive U.S.-based denomination as would much of Western Europe.
The Global Methodist Church would take a significant percent of the church in the United States, including several annual conferences voting themselves out of the UMC by the required 57%. Even with the renewed hope for maintaining traditional stances on human sexuality, traditional-minded Methodists would be drawn to the vision of a less top-heavy and more congregation-focused polity. Global Methodists in the U.S. are not interested in walking the long road to reforming the general agencies. They want to start fresh.
There would be a number of U.S. conferences whose loyalty to the UMC brand would cause them to stay in an African-majority UMC. Many traditionalist UMC bishops would welcome this options. These U.S. UMC conferences would risk losing individual congregations and clergy both to the right and to the left through the Protocol. But these middle-way conferences would keep their inherited assets and the many congregations who are not motivated by either side of the human sexuality debate. Denominational loyalty would keep the UMC brand alive in the United States to find a true middle way.
African conferences would have the option of maintaining relationship with at least two of the three denominational factions forming in the U.S. Continued connection with the UMC provides access to the resources housed in the general boards and agencies. Africans need only defeat the Christmas Covenant regionalization plan and take prudent steps to further secure their General Conference majority.
Planners of the Global Methodist Church seem to welcome an African majority at their General Conference. There will be fewer resources to squabble over and the GMC General Conference will meet less often. The emphasis of in the GMC is pushed toward the grass roots so there is less concern about general church politics.
African Methodism can remain relatively united through the United Methodist separation if the following steps are taken:
- Delegates to the 2022 General Conference of the UMC should approve the Separation Protocol and reject the Christmas Covenant regionalization plan.
- The Global Methodist Church should organize with a flexible polity that allows African conferences representation/relationship in the GMC General Conference without leaving the UMC. Most African conferences should pursue both relationships. Some Africans may need to align with the GMC exclusively because of unworkable local situations.
- African central conferences should consider adjusting their annual conference size to closer match those of Europe and the Philippines. Doing so would easily give Africa a super-majority of UMC General Conference delegates.
- Africans should undertake a legislative program in the UMC General Conference that gives them proportional representation on general boards and agencies, more bishops, and enhanced accountability for U.S. bishops through an African-majority Council of Bishops.