United Methodist Insight Exclusive
Fast as wind goes the speed of developments in The United Methodist Church, exploring the future of our beloved denomination. The Special Session of General Conference in February 2019 has revealed lots of things about who we are (see “Harvest of Thorns”). In August, African delegates and other individuals met at the Desmond Tutu Center in Nairobi, Kenya, in preparation for 2020 General Conference. This gathering revealed a few things that I hope can help us explore what it means to be a global denomination.
The August gathering was organized by the Africa Initiative but as always was funded by conservative UMC groups in the USA. The Africa Initiative is led by my spiritual brother, the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia. It is not an official caucus or organization nor a representative group of the church in Africa. It is the extension and African version of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Good News to channel their agenda and neocolonial propaganda in The United Methodist Church.
A different flavor
The gathering in Nairobi had a different flavor from all other gatherings the WCA has conducted with the African Initiative. Good News dispatched one of its most senior leaders to Africa to spread their usual neocolonial agenda. Having lost its moral standing in the United States as the voice of The United Methodist Church based on the widespread negative reaction of U.S. United Methodists to the adoption of the Traditional Plan, Good News and WCA were trying their luck in Africa. Instead, they were faced with a different group of awakened people.
Part of the reason for the difference in the audience was likely the absence of some of their well-funded, usually vocal friends who were not elected as delegates to GC2020. This provided space for other delegates, some of whom are new and have never been to General Conference. These new delegates took an opportunity to express their view that the days of neocolonialism – that is, of Africans being controlled by outside forces – are over.
Another reason the Africa Initiative gathering failed to gain support for Good News and the WCA is that some delegates and members of the church have come to understand what these caucuses truly are: machinery designed to destroy the denomination from within, using deception by presenting an emotional wedge issue to Africans while they disassociate themselves from such actions. The messages of WCA and Good News to United Methodists in the USA are totally different from what they have been sharing with the church in Africa all along.
Some participants articulated the notion that the days of using Africans for votes is over; we can’t be used or manipulated as voting mercenaries. The individual who presented the so-called Indianapolis Plan on how to divide The United Methodist Church into three denominations was told he was bringing an American plan and that all he wanted from Africa were votes. The Indianapolis Plan was drafted and negotiated without consulting with Africans. Even the U.S. groups’ most trusted African allies and organizers had no input into the process. The presenter could not answer why he was coming to Africa with a finished plan to ask for votes.
There are three major plans currently being circulated across the denomination: the Indianapolis Plan; the Bard-Jones Plan, drafted by Bishops David A. Bard and Scott J. Jones; and the UMCNext Plan. All these plans have been drafted or negotiated among groups and individuals in the United States. There is no African input to any of these plans. The logic behind such developments has remained to consult across the United States and develop a complete plan which will then be repackaged and sent to Africa specifically in search of African votes at General Conference. The problem with this is that it sends a subtle message that many can decode, namely that Africans can only grasp how to vote based on voting guides provided by Americans. It propels a view that Africans can’t engage intellectually in reflections and drafting of plans and are limited to voting according to neocolonial manipulative interpretations. Such a view is not only sinful, evil, and neocolonial but also dehumanizing, especially in a denomination that values that sacred worth of all people.
‘We won’t be used again’
This time around the gathering in Nairobi showed that one cannot travel from USA, gather us Africans at the Desmond Tutu Center and hope to manipulate us. Maybe they could have been successful had they gathered people at a different location than one named after the renowned South African archbishop who led his country to peace through truth and reconciliation. Africa was loud and clear that we don’t want to be used anymore and even clearer that the neocolonial agents say one thing in Africa and a different thing at home in the USA. Attendees also expressed loudly that Africa will not support the American conspiracy to destroy our beloved denomination. The consensus across Africa is that we need the global denomination to continue existing; we recognize that we need to support ministries of church growth and disciple-making across the globe. We also need support from our global denomination in many other mission and ministry contexts we face across the African continent.
As we head towards the General Conference 2020 we need for all parts of the global United Methodist Church to realize that we are a global denomination. There is no part of this connection that should be dictating to the other parts how the church should move into the future. I contend that all these plans emanating from the USA must be rejected as they are American plans and not global church plans.
Now how will we move forward? There is no way the problem can be the solution. The current problems facing the global United Methodist Church were created by a group of American conservatives in 1972 with the insertion of four words that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” These forces have been compounding the problem for more than 50 years; now their solution is to dissolve the denomination as expressed in the Indianapolis Plan. I have read every article written by Good News and WCA and all conclude with the line that the solution to our problem is to dissolve The United Methodist Church. All this is built on the view that The United Methodist Church means only the church in the United States of America. They forget (until the time to ask for votes) that now The United Methodist Church is a global church, not an American church. In Africa we only have The United Methodist Church; there are no progressives, centrists or conservatives. If ever we use the name conservative it has a different meaning from WCA and Good News connotations.
In my view the way forward that can serve our global denomination will come from plans that have been formulated with the participation of United Methodists from across the globe, because they will include how ministries are undertaken and the church is lived in different geographical and cultural contexts. Such a plan would have Asian, African, European and American ideas that create a path to minister effectively to the world that is hurting and continuously seeking God’s face in different ways.
Two proposals for a global denomination
So far, I have been following two proposals that exemplify how we can continue to serve as a global denomination. One is the Global Social Principles that will be presented to the 2020 General Conference. The General Board of Church and Society travelled across Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States of America for two quadrennia consulting people. In this document there are views from across the globe that I believe should be given the necessary support. This is legislation where we can see our voices and concerns as well as inputs clearly captured. In building this legislation there was recognition that The United Methodist Church is a global Church and not a USA denomination.
The second proposal comes from the Connectional Table. All Central Conferences are represented at the Connectional Table. We had trusted people at the table with an African voice as this plan was being developed. These are people with different experiences, young people, laity, clergy, different ethnic groups and nationalities present. The Connectional Table Plan would create regional units for the United States, Africa, Europe and Asia that would allow us to minister in ways that fit our respective contexts.
I think the notion of being a global denomination has to be understood beyond the connectional system and structures of The United Methodist Church. As a Christian and clergy, I know that I am a pastor wherever I go, whether in Zimbabwe, Norway or Canada. This compels me to live by the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If it is insulting for others to bring you a fully developed proposal and simply ask you to vote, what makes it appropriate for you to do so unto others? Beyond political strategizing, such an action speaks to our understanding of the gospel and how we live it in our individual lives and our ethics. It helps therefore for all United Methodists to appreciate that as we explore the future of our denomination. We must seek not the future for some but a future for all. We live our faith not just with the outcome but through the process as well.
I would like to urge WCA and Good News that since division is their ultimate goal, they should be honest and assume responsibility by simply withdrawing from the denomination and form a new one, rather than sell to Africans deceiving proposals that do not reflect the views of the church in Africa nor the mission context. The church in Africa has no separation plan. The church in Africa is one church, not the three houses that the Jones-Bard and the Indianapolis plans are talking about. We have learned to get along even with our disagreements. If one wants to leave, why does one feel obligated to destroy the denomination on the way out? Why does one leave with the notion that there should be nothing good left after a departure? Seeking to destroy and dissolve the denomination for egocentric interests is simply wrong. Those who feel they can no longer be a part of the global United Methodist Church should plan to leave and not to try to divide and dissolve the denomination.
No dissolution, no division of assets
There has been discussion about dividing the assets of the church. I read an article by Rev. Thomas Lambrecht where he presented the argument that what was given to the United Methodist Church now belongs to The United Methodist Church, “And the money that has been contributed to the church is now the church’s money — it does not belong to those who originally gave it. It was given for the sake of mission and ministry, and it can fulfill that purpose in any of the denominations that are formed. Money should not be used as a weapon in our current conflict.”
We in Africa are clear; we are and we will be The United Methodist Church. There are many Americans, Europeans and Asians who are and will continue as United Methodists. So the division of asserts should be completely off the table as we won’t dissolve. We may reorganize as being proposed by the Connectional Table where all views across the globe were represented. We are a global church and we can no longer continue in a way where a small group of people make decisions and the rest of the world is asked to vote endorsing those American ideas. Those centuries have passed. The Desmond Tutu gathering must have been an awakening call to those who had gone there thinking they can continue spreading American Imperialism.
What we should be doing now is creating space for each other respectfully. Let’s talk about how we can be in mission and ministry together. It is a fact that the growth of the church in Africa is being influenced by the many struggles facing the African people, among them poverty, human rights abuses, struggle for democracy, and epidemics diseases like Ebola, HIV/AIDS, war and the use of rape as a weapon of war, the quest for education and opportunities for our young people, the need for quality health services. The Church in Africa has been responding to these needs of our people. This is how we have preached the gospel. This is how we have presented the love of Christ to our communities and people have found a church they can identify with and that is helping the growth of the church. It is a fact that we have done this mission with support from the global church. This kind of gospel has helped the growth of the African Church.
Can we focus and agree that Africa needs to continue focusing on these mission and ministry needs and in the same manner Asian, European and USA churches to also focus on their own social challenges and enable them to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
The future of the global United Methodist Church is in the hands of all of us together, not one section of the connectional Church forcing their views and values on others. Instead of heading to May 2020 to fight I would suggest USA Majority, African Majority, European Majority and Asian Majority should head to May 2020 in the mind frame of how we can be respectful to each other’s realities. How can we come together as a global connection on equal footing respecting our contextual differences and seeking unity in our diversity? We need a global way forward as we need each other, and we have to love one another. The world will know we are Christ’s disciples by the way we love one another.
The Rev. Lloyd T. Nyarota is a United Methodist elder from Zimbabwe who serves the Sedgewick-Lougheed Pastoral Charge of The United Church of Canada in Sedgewick, Alberta.