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.

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