(The following was shared on September 2, 2023 by the independent Africa Initiative in The United Methodist Church led by Jerry Kulah.)
Africa Initiative Speaks: Why Disaffiliation is an option for the United Methodist Church in Africa
Over the past months, much has been written by proponents of the “regionalization plan”, claiming that they have received overwhelming endorsements for its passage at the forthcoming 2024 General Conference. They have also indicated their perceived justifications as to why they claim regionalization is the way forward for keeping the United Methodist Church (UMC) “global and united”. These proponents may be correct, given that both the Connectional Table of the UMC and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters have indicated their support for regionalization. However, the UMC Africa Initiative holds a contrary view. We write this article, therefore, to elucidate the position of the majority of United Methodists in Africa (clergy and laity) on why we reject regionalization, and rather opt for disaffiliation as our best option.
The traumatic General Conference of 2019 in St. Louis was supposed to end the conflict in The United Methodist Church over its ministry with LGBTQ persons, including issues of same-gender marriage, and the election and consecration of gay persons as episcopal leaders within the UMC. Parts of the Traditional Plan were adopted, which maintained the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, and continued to restrict the ordination of partnered gays and lesbians. Accountability to maintain the Book of Discipline was also increased. However, in the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, about 28 annual conferences in the U.S. and several in Europe voted for resolutions disapproving the changes adopted in St. Louis by the General Conference, the UMC’s highest decision making body. Some of these conferences vowed not to enforce the Discipline, yet claiming to still be in good standing with the United Methodists. Some bishops made similar statements that they would not uphold parts of the Discipline that they disagreed with. Since then, they have violated several laws of the church and continue to do so with impunity.
We wonder, if the leadership of a nation lives in flagrant disobedience to its own governing constitution, thereby fostering acts of lawlessness, what would they expect of their subjects. Such has been the case within the UMC global. Since the St. Louise 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, the church has proved ungovernable by the actions of several politically influential and economically affluent liberal and progressive leaders within the church, including some bishops. They have determined that if decisions of the General Conference do not go their way, they will disobey them until they are changed. Such an attitude on the part of some episcopal and other influential leaders within the church does not suggest that attempt at regionalization of the denomination would do any better. The acts of lawlessness, as describes in the book of Judges, would only increase within global UMC. As the Scripture points out, “In those days, Israel had no king, and everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 17:6, NIV).
Efforts to Address our Disagreement
The refusal to abide by the Discipline across much of the U.S. and parts of Europe caused a crisis in the church. The actions of gross disobedience to church laws by some members of the Council of Bishops, some annual conferences, as well as some influential leaders brought into question the relevance of their continued leadership of the church. Amidst the crisis, the late Bishop John K. Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Episcopal Area convened a meeting of representatives from across the theological spectrum. After several months of negotiations, the group endorsed a Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, announced publicly in January 2020. The Protocol recognized that it was proving impossible for the diverse theological perspectives held within the worldwide UMC to remain together in one church.
The Protocol provided a uniform pathway for traditionalists to disaffiliate from the UM Church; even though it should have been the progressives disaffiliating since it was their One Church Plan that failed to pass at the 2019 General Conference; while the Traditional Plan passed, thus maintaining the traditional stance of the church that had governed its life and ministries since the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church in 1968. However, for the sake of peace, traditionalists accepted to part ways with their liberal and progressive brothers and sisters, and trusting God to supply all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. The agreement of the Protocol also allowed central conferences, annual conferences, and local churches to vote to disaffiliate at minimal cost, while retaining their buildings and property. In addition, it gave the new traditionalist denomination evolving from the UMC $25 million in start-up money from reserve funds of the UMC. But, to our shock and dismay, progressives and centrists who had supported the Protocol later rescinded their decision, thereby putting all the work of the Protocol in a limbo.
Furthermore, the Protocol had asked bishops to delay any complaints or charges against clergy for performing a same-sex wedding or being an ordained self-avowed practicing homosexual. Many bishops agreed to this delay, which had the effect of encouraging more same-sex weddings to take place and allowed annual conferences to begin more openly ordaining partnered gays and lesbians, even though that was not the intent for delaying complaints. It was done in good faith, in the hope of fostering peace toward amicable separation. Regrettably, several progressive U.S. annual conferences took advantage of that agreement and, in 2022 and 2023, ordained more openly gay clergy. As if their actions to elect a partnered lesbian as bishop in 2016 against the constitution of the church and the decision of the Judicial Council was not enough of a gross violation, the progressives went ahead in 2022 to elect another partnered gay man as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. This means that there are now two openly gay/lesbian bishops of the whole church. Now, how can a part of the church that is pushing for regionalization continue to grossly violate our common Book of Discipline, the decision of the General Conference, and the Judicial Council, and still advocate for a United Methodist Church comprising of traditionalists and progressives? How can unity, in the true sense of the word ever exist within such a denomination when one wing of the church can violate our commonly held decisions at will with impunity, and when our biblical and theological perspectives on very cardinal issues differ so widely? If all of these vices, and gross disobedient actions of the Liberal/progressive wing of the church are taking place when traditionalists and progressives have not yet officially separated, one wonders what the situation would be like if regionalization passes at the forthcoming General Conference, and every region begins to make their own governing laws without the inputs of other regions, in the same denomination.
Why Disaffiliation is our best option
In view of the prevailing situations within the worldwide UMC, we do not need additional convincing proofs that both traditionalists and progressives can no longer remain in one denomination and faithfully carry out the mission of the church. We are fully convinced that, disaffiliation of traditionalists from the UMC is our best option, going forward. The continued violation of church laws by the economically powerful and politically influential liberal and progressive leaders, coupled with the acquiescence of some of their progressive counterparts in Africa are sufficient proofs that remaining together as one church, following 2024 General Conference is inconceivable and impossible.
These liberal and progressive brothers and sisters within the UMC have over and again made is crystal clear that they do not care about our biblical understanding and practices, and our religious and cultural values. What matters most to them is the imposition of their liberal/progressive views and practices upon the denomination. Therefore if it means that they would take advantage of the poverty-stricken condition of some African annual conferences and use their financial powers to plant some of their liberal cultures and practices amongst them, they would do so with no regrets. As example, despite being fully aware that the UMC in Africa has made it clear that we do not condone the practice of homosexuality, the Reconciling Ministry Network within the UMC is championing the acceptance of homosexuality within the worldwide UMC. It has recently supported the planting of two reconciling churches in the Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference. They have done so surreptitiously without disclosing their true identity to a people unfamiliar with their promotion of same-gender marriage, and LBGTQ practices within the church.
Sadly, Our Africa College of bishops, who themselves wrote a press release to the global UMC in 2015 Denouncing the legalization of homosexuality and LBGTQ practices, have condoned all these evils under their watch with an approval of silence. By their silence, they have approved of the actions of their colleague, Bishop Daniel Wandabula of the East Africa Episcopal Area, who oversees the Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference. Not only did Bishop Wandabula collaborate with the Reconciling Ministry Network to plant these gay churches in Kenya (something he would never do in his home country, Uganda, without facing the consequences of the law), he officially consecrated these gay churches as official congregations of the Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference. What a betrayal of the sacred office that Bishop Wandabula occupies! Does he qualify to continue to serve the UMC in Africa as a shepherding pastor? Like many African clergy and members, I strongly doubt. This is why disaffiliation is the best option for traditionalists in general, and the UMC in Africa in particular. Our souls are wounded by these acts of defiance against the clear teachings of Scripture and the Book of Discipline that governs the UMC globally. We cannot continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ within such an ecclesiastical context, and expect them to become his faithful followers.
Another case in point is the action of the Council of Bishops to attempt to usurp the function of the Judicial Council by interpreting a decision of the General Conference. The Judicial Council degreed that elections of bishops should take place in 2022 to replace bishops due for retirement. However, with no legal authority to do so and without consultation with the Committees on Episcopacy in each Central Conference, the Africa College of Bishops, with the acquiescence the Council of Bishops, refused to hold elections in the Central Conferences of Africa. Whereas, some of the African bishops refusing to step down have long passed retirement age in 2020, the Council of Bishops play blind eye to their insistence to stay on. We are cognizant of the fact that such a decision would have never been allowed by the Council of Bishops in any jurisdictional conference. But, for Africa, it was okay with them to treat us differently. This act of oppression and suppression of the rights of members of the UMC in Africa is nothing short of neo-colonialism.
This was not the case in 2016. Following General Conference in Portland, Oregon, all bishops across the connections who were due for retirement were compelled by the same Council of Bishops to step down by August of that year, 2016, and replaced with interim bishops until elections were held. Former Bishop John G. Innis of Liberia was one of such Bishops whom the Council of Bishops forcibly retired by August, 2016 and replaced with an interim Bishop until the Liberian episcopal election was held in December of 2016. However, this time around they have ignored that provision of the Book of Discipline. The action of the Council of the Bishops and their progressive leaning colleagues in Africa has disenfranchised the members of the UMC in Africa from exercising their rights to elect and replace retired bishops. It appears, that action is a part of their agenda to “divide and conquer;” that is, to liberalize parts of the church in Africa so that when disaffiliation happens they would still have a presence on the continent. This is an act neo-colonialism to the core, and we, Africa Initiative, representing the majority voice of the UMC in Africa, vehemently oppose it.
The perception of most liberals and progressives of the church in Africa is that we are poverty-stricken and ignorant, as one bishop in the U.S. said, “[we are] children who need to grow up.” For them, to possess a progressive mindset, and submit to progressive tenets and practices, even if they contradict the clear teachings of Scripture, means that they are intellectually sophisticated. Hence, they claim leaders of African United Methodism must accept progressivism to demonstrate growth.
Despite their perceptions of the UMC in Africa, we are not ignorant people. Regarding financial resources, our challenge may be the practice of honest Christian stewardship of God’s resources entrusted to our care, but we are not without resources. God is with us to carry on the mission of the church in making Christ-centered disciples for the transformation of the African Continent in particular, and the world in general. And God is big enough to meet our every need. Therefore, we strongly disagree with the perceptions of these liberals and progressives of the UMC in Africa. Besides, it is obvious that the practice of biblical and theological liberalism and progressivism has only contributed to a rapid decline of the church in America and Europe, the loss of its youthful population to secularism and Islam, and great uncertainty about its sustainable future.
On the contrary, in our commitment to biblical Christianity, as handed down to us since the birth of the Christian church, and our refusal to adapt progressive tenets within the African Church, we continue to witness daily massive evangelization, new church plants, Christ-centered discipleship and rapid growth. About sixty-five percent of the African church membership is within the age range of 18 to 35 years, thus signaling a church with a sustainable future. Therefore, if our loyalty to Christ and commitment to the Gospel on the one hand, and our rejection of liberalism and progressivism on the other hand leads to continued numerical and spiritual growth of the church in Africa, we prefer the former than the latter.
We are cognizant of the fact that, liberal and progressive bishops and influential leaders of boards and agencies of the UMC do not have to visit or live in Africa to impose their agenda in some annual conferences here. As long as their demands can be carried out by some of their counterparts who rely upon them for financial resources for salaries and other material resources to function, they believe they can fulfill their goals. This is neo-colonialism, and we reject it. Some African bishops and leaders are fully aware that the Continent of Africa is abundantly wealthy. If its resources are adequately mobilized and utilized to benefit the church, our partnership with U.S. and European churches and institutions would be respectfully and mutually benefitting. But, as the situation stands, the church in Africa is disadvantaged because its independence and decisions are often compromised because of an over-dependence upon highly liberal and progressive churches and institutions in the U.S. and Europe. Despite our current challenges, disaffiliation remains our best option, not only would it save the African church from further liberal and progressive persuasions, its leadership would be compelled to look within and pursue the path of self-sustainability.
We are therefore resolved that, the liberals and progressives within our global connections may “have the whole world, but give us Jesus.” Let us go our separate ways and serve the Lord. We are content to serve the Lord in our poverty and make Christ-centered disciples than to compromise our faith and ascribe to liberal and progressive tenets for American dollars from progressives and liberals. It is within our poverty that we continue to make more disciples for Jesus Christ that are biblically committed, Christ-centered, evangelistically functional, Holy Spirit-empowered, and discipleship-driven. That is why the Central Conferences now account for more membership within our global connection than the five jurisdictions of the U. S. And the UMC in Africa now leads in membership growth globally. We want to continue to grow unperturbed. This is our holy passion and vision.
Liberal and progressive leaders of the UMC in the U.S. and Europe cannot compel the UMC in Africa to be subjugated to their progressive beliefs and practices, neither can they force us to remain within a denomination that has abandoned the teachings of Scripture on the issues of same-gender marriage, ordination of LGBTQIA+ and the consecration of gay/lesbian persons as bishops. We cannot walk together, and do ministry together having strong opposing biblical and theological views on these matters. We cannot continue to be a part of a church where some of our episcopal leaders would condone the unscriptural and unethical behaviors of their colleagues.
All of the above is convincing evidence that the UMC under its present leadership is an institution opposed to historical Christianity, the faith embraced and practiced by the vast majority of Christians in all times and in all places. Unlike a few in Africa who have selected to succumb to the whims and caprices of their progressive counterparts in the U.S. and parts of Europe, we will not sacrifice nor compromise our understanding and practice of the Scripture for American dollars from liberals and progressives. Our position is emphatic, “You may have the whole world, with all its resources, but give us Jesus.” Let it not therefore surprise anyone that, following the 2024 General Conference, given all of the manipulations that have taken place to change the language of the Discipline, and push through the regionalization plan, many annual conferences in Africa will vote to disaffiliate from the UM Church. We will move out along with our spiritual, human, financial, and material resources, because, at this juncture, disaffiliation is our best option.
Vice President, School of Graduate & Professional Studies
United Methodist University
Liberia Annual Conference, The United Methodist Churchb