by Chris Ritter
I shared yesterday via Twitter some thoughts on the September 8 statement by African bishops. These bishops reaffirmed biblical teaching but renounced the influence of both the Africa Initiative and WCA. We need some context to begin to understand what is happening. The tweet thread format is difficult for some readers, so I offer this second edition here.
Some initially called this statement unanimous. They saw thirteen signatures and assumed these represented our thirteen active African bishops. This is not the case. The name of Bishop Yohanna was missing and the one retired bishop provided the 13th signature. Since the original posting, United Methodist News Service came out with coverage that included a strong statement of support for WCA and Africa Initiative by Bishop Yohanna: “The Africa Initiative and Wesleyan Covenant (Association) are pushing for obedience to the Bible and the Book of Discipline. Why should we not associate with them?”
The bishops are almost certainly reacting to WCA’s recently expanded role of assisting folks desiring to leave the UMC. African bishops are highly allergic to schism as they deal with tribal and other fractious political forces on their home turf. The African bishops also seem to be reacting negatively to the statement from the last Africa Initiative Summit in May. The main headline was that AI was staying in the UMC at least through GC2024. But they also said other things.
The summit received presentations on the Global Methodist Church and called for episcopal retirements and new elections to proceed (as they are in the U.S.). They encouraged passage of The Protocol. The Africa Initiative also expressed sadness about bishops withholding information from their people about the state of the UMC. Most notably, the group called for Council of Bishops investigations on allegations of imprisonment, suspension and expulsion of some clergy and laity from ministry without the due process mandated in the Discipline. They particularly named North Katanga, Angola East, Central Congo, East Congo, and Zimbabwe.
Bishops were in attendance at that May meeting. According to UMNS: “Bishop Kasap Owan, leader of the South Congo Episcopal Area and also a founding member of the Africa Initiative, said he was attending the [May] meeting to observe the deliberations and advise where necessary.” In the same article, Bishop Yohanna, also in attendance, said he would leave the UMC if language on marriage was liberalized. This bishop is opposed by tribal forces in Nigeria who have used pro-UMC rhetoric as part of their platform.
Other bishops have maintained close past relationships with both WCA and and Africa Initiative. Bishop Samuel Quire has previously stated that Liberia would remain in the UMC through 2024. He offered his prayers for the Global Methodist Church and previously indicated Liberia would leave the UMC if it changed its traditional teachings.
African bishops draw their salaries from the general church. The (past) stability of the UMC proved a blessing to them amidst all the other tectonic forces at work on the continent. All African bishops seem deeply hesitant to see the denomination split. Some bishops have moved their families to the U.S. and used their $100K annual travel allowance to live on both continents (to various degrees). Salaries for African bishops, though smaller than that of U.S. bishops, are (according to one GBGM staffer) “dozens to hundreds of times” what the average United Methodist they serve makes. Some bishops use their wealth to pay conference staff and otherwise meet the needs of their people. But this, too, is an exercise of their tremendous power.
The work of the Africa Initiative has sometimes run counter to the wish of some bishops. One key activity of the group is aligning the voting of African delegates in a retreat before each General Conference. This has recently frustrated the will of U.S. institutionalists. Particularly, Bishop Mande Muyombo seems to have promised the votes of the UM’s largest conference, North Katanga, to the 2019 One Church Plan liberalizing church teaching on human sexuality. In spite of strong-arm tactics, he was unable to deliver and later apologized to the US church for the passage of the Traditional Plan. Some in the U.S. threatened to withhold financial support from Africa because of their voting. The video in which Bishop Muyombo apologizes for the passage of the Traditional Plan has been widely shared among African General Conference delegates and is seen by some as a betrayal of their Christian values.
Some African bishops have worked to keep their delegates from attending the Africa Initiative retreats by withholding funds that bring delegates to the U.S. early enough for the legislative strategy meetings. The Renewal and Reform Coalition comprised of Africa Initiative, Good News, WCA, Confessing Movement, UM Action, and LifeWatch has kept UMC official teachings traditional on marriage. RRC is currently undergoing major changes with the exit of key leaders and resources to the GMC.
An eventual separate “United Methodist Church of Africa” is (at least) possible, especially following a change in the definition of Christian marriage by the UMC at GC 2024. I doubt that global reorganizational plans provide enough separation for most Africans as these plans maintain a single general superintendency. The Global Methodist Church has hoped that Africa might join the GMC more or less as a unit. Starting the new denomination before Africans are finished with the UMC has complicated the process. Whole conferences joining will not likely be possible until after GC2024. The humbler episcopacy envisioned for the GMC might take some getting used to in Africa. The GMC likely already has a presence on the continent in those places where UM bishops have unjustly expelled notable leaders without due process. This, in fact, might the occasion for the letter in question.
WCA and Africa Initiative are not the only advocacy groups at work in Africa. The Reconciling Ministries Network just finished a trip to Kenya where they dedicated a church. Amidst cries against colonialism, they sent the louder message that American progressives will help fund your church building if you put a rainbow on it. RMN funding in Kenya is particularly welcome due to desperation caused by a decade-long GCFA financial embargo placed against Bishop Wandbula’s episcopal area for “financial irregularities.” In spite of the hardships, GCFA has been slow to accept any settlement that does not include the bishop’s resignation. That is not going to happen.
I was a bit surprised by the tone of the bishops’ statement, but epistles from the African bishops seldom align neatly with U.S. expectations. We see the strong influence of Bishop Muyombo, who was elected with the help of his GBGM connections. He is the African bishop most aligned with U.S. institutionalists. As someone who has presented at AI events, I have been impressed with how often all U.S. guests are invited to leave so the Africans can deliberate. Just so, we should all give Africa room to work through how #UMC separation will affect them.
The glee generated by the letter among #BeUMC folks in the U.S. should be tempered by the reality that Africa contains more United Methodists than America and is strongly committed to traditional Christian morals on marriage and human sexuality. While delegate math will prevent Africa from having a General Conference majority in the near run, the rapid growth on the continent continues while the rest of the UMC declines. The mute button placed on General Conference (and, therefore, Africa) is a temporary work-around to church polity allowing U.S. bishops to run amuck. Africa will eventually leave the UMC, rule the UMC, or vote themselves into a corner by ratifying one of several global reorganizational plans. I don’t see the third option happening.
“A separate ‘United Methodist Church of Africa’ is possible, especially following a change in the definition of Christian marriage by the UMC at GC 2024.”
You don’t know that is going to happen, Chris. Unless you’re clairvoyant? In fact, my strong bet would be that while an amendment like that may be moved (as it has for years), it won’t get the votes needed to pass… mainly, because Africa will still be a large part of the UMC, and there will still be conservative elements in the US part of the UMC.
These are the type of statements which do not help the cause of the GMC and WCA, and discredit your work. I don’t think you personally mean that, but that’s how it comes across.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Sky. I added a link to a 2018 statement by the African Bishops stating “We further resolve that even if there is a split in the denomination, the Church in Africa will continue to exist as The United Methodist Church in Africa.” I didn’t say it was going to happen. I said it was possible. It is not necessarily the most likely outcome. I think a lot depends upon the shape of the schism both here and there.
I appreciate you responding. It didn’t come across that way upon reading. Many thanks.
It didn’t read like that? How odd given that that’s exactly how it read. Since when does someone saying “X is a possibility” mean that they are saying “X will happen.”
Chris Ritter keeps us informed about what others try to hide or diminish or dissemble. I count on Chris speaking plainly and truly about what’s plausible. So much of the church market is a New York Times Square arcade from 1962. The message is intuitively unbelievable.
will eventually rule the UMC and are willing to wait.
I used to think that, too. But there is really no way for Africa to force its will on America. Our lines of accountability are local. It would take a generation to change that. The UMC does not have that sort of time.
We have all the time in the world if we adhere to kairos, rather than chronos. We Westerners are an impatient bunch. The Celtic side of me is always at variance with the American side of me.
Well analysed Critter. If the statement on human sexuality is changed the church in Africa will split, there is going to be UMC and GMC. But for some African bishops to come out and condem AI and WCA I don’t think that is the voice of Africans in general.
I really appreciate you for the response to the recent meeting of some African bishops held at Zimbabwe. We’ll remain with Bishop John Wesley Yohanna and the WCA base on the teachings of the Bible.
I was initially alarmed by this report but, in the long run, I think it will all turn out for the best. Traditionalists have allied with the Africans and UM’s with other countries because of shared beliefs and have tended to turn a blind eye to the wrong things that happen in these parts. That is a bit naieve on our part. Those folks are sinners just like us and deal with the same things that we do – greed, abuse of power and privilege, etc., etc. The GMC seems to want to create another UMC with some needed changes. I think that we have said that we want this because of the shared values and we want Africans and others leading the church.
And that sounds good but the truth is that regionalization is actually needed. It’s been opposed by traditionalists because we know that liberals/ progressives only want it so that they can stack the delegates and liberalize moral and theological standards. But I have thought for years that regionalization is needed. All the energy is spent on “winning” the fight over the denomination but we have been “losing” badly here in North America as our numbers shrink, devoted Christians leave for places that are not ashamed to be a part of and they can get fed in, and more and more time and money is spent on “fighting” for stuff rather than proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples of Christ.
I pastor in TN and the UMC here, in the Bible belt, is in terrible shape. The UMC is over with and folks seem to be in denial. I really do not want to try and recreate another UMC. We Methodists started out as a renewal group and that is what we are best at when we are at our best. We seem to recreate the thing that we are trying to renew when we form a denomination. I would rather see us become a diocese of the ACNA or some sort of regional Methodist church, maybe the Methodist Church of North America. I would rather see us imitate the best practices of evangelicalism and partner with like minded groups, alliances, denominations, etc. and focus on ministry and evangelism. I’m honestly wary of carrying the mindset of the UMC with us. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all carry some of it with us and we need some fresh Wind, ideas, and focus. We need some episcopal oversight by some leaders who have hearts for Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Whatever the case, we need to do things differently this time around. I’m good with trying out some sort of hybrid system between a denomination and an alliance. We know through experience that it is next to impossible to hold people accountable who are halfway around the globe. The idea of a Global Methodist Church is noble but not realistic. The Covid Crisis and this present disaffiliation crisis has given us all pause and I hope that we can reorganize into something that actually plants churches and starts new ministries. I’ve had enough of the old UMC and don’t want another rehash.
“We Methodists started out as a renewal group and that is what we are best at when we are at our best. We seem to recreate the thing that we are trying to renew when we form a denomination. ”
Methodism at its best is getting Christianity beyond ‘just church” and to the level of people’s lives 24/7. The only thing John Wesley set out to reform was his own life. The quest to learn what it meant to live as a Christian led him to unexpected places including field preaching. Methodism was launched because people who heard him preach came to him asking “What does this mean for my life?” He gathered them together to discuss it and the rest is history.
As a mainliner who was over-churched and under-Jesused (in the sense that I never really understood what was so good about the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus) I am tired of this incessant planting of different type of church which is only proving to be different not better. I already knew how to “do church”. I needed the rest of it: my life.
Josh’s comments are interesting as a list. Reminds me of our back-to-school shopping when we go for the spiral notebooks, backpacks, water bottles, Sketchers, and maybe some new technology, but what we really want is a transformed schoolhouse experience, not more modern dogma and fashionable aberration.
We are asking a lot of WCA and GMC. They’ve got big hearts and tons of zeal, but can they supply what’s on our lists? We are looking for champions to cut through the proverbial “fog of war” and confront the centrist-liberal fog machines.