Monday, September 2, 2013

The most important UMC news story you won't hear about this week

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Yesterday, the United Methodist News Service published an article entitled, "Council lists steps for resolving East Africa issues."  It explains a set of conditions that the General Council on Finance and Administration has set in order to resolve an on-going dispute about financial matters in East Africa.  Those conditions were set forth in response to a request by Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa on behalf of the Africa Central Conference.  This article is likely to be the most significant piece of UMC news this week, but it is also likely to be overlooked by most American United Methodists.  Here's the reasons why on both accounts.

Reasons why this story is the most significant piece of news this week:

1. It includes a call for a bishop to resign.
Bishop Daniel Wandabula of  East Africa has been asked to resign due to financial mismanagement.  That a UMC bishop has been asked to resign for financial misdeeds should be huge news.  The story of Texas-based Bishop Early Bledsoe and his requested resignation has garnered significant attention and raised questions of race and authority.  The requested resignation of Bishop Wandabula should receive equal attention in the United Methodist blogosphere.

2. It involves $3/4 million in unaccounted funds.
Bishop Wandabula is being asked to make restitution for $757,275 in unaccounted funds from the East Africa Annual Conference. If there was an allegation that an American bishop had possibly embezzled or diverted three quarters of a million dollars, that would be huge news, not just for United Methodists, but for the secular press as well.

3. It raises a thicket of questions about power relationships between (especially non-U.S.) annual conferences and denominational agencies.
Another condition for settling the financial dispute is that the East Africa Conference turn over administration of its finances to an outside administrator responsible only to GCFA and GBGM.  Whether or not that plan is warranted, the idea that an Annual Conference should have one of its main administrative functions essentially taken over by denominational agencies raises a whole host of legal, ecclesiological, racial, and other issues.  United Methodist bloggers should be weighing in on these issues, because this plan has significant implications for our connectional covenants with each other, especially but not limited to the status of non-US Annual Conferences in the denomination.

Reasons why this story will be overlooked:

1. A news story about another UMC minister being tried for performing a gay marriage broke at the same time.
Nothing catches the attention of United Methodists in the US as much as stories related to the on-going debate about the status of LGBT people in the church.  That is certainly a very important issue and has implications for the theology and structure of the UMC, both in the United States and globally, but this story represents an incremental development - four ministers are on trial instead of three.  Nevertheless, this story will call forth a series of blog posts and comments that will soak up much of American United Methodists' attention for the next several days.

2. A news story about the United Methodist Publishing House selling its property broke at the same time.
If there's anything that captivates American United Methodists almost as much as stories about LGBT issues, it's stories about the decline of the UMC in the United States.  The sale of property by the UMPH, one of the denomination's flagship agencies, will undoubtedly provoke another wave of hand-wringing at how the church no longer has the same position in society (figuratively and literally in this case) as it did in 1965.  While the sale of the property is new, this story line is not new, but it will still absorb most of the rest of American United Methodists' attention this week.

3. It happened on Labor Day weekend.
This means two things: One, people are away from their computers.  Two, there's a raft of blogs and stories circulating about the history of the involvement of the church with labor movements in the United States.  That makes it harder for the story about East Africa to get through the crowd of other stories.

Ultimately, though, the most important reason this story will be overlooked is because it happened in Africa, and American United Methodists are too focused on their own concerns and too ignorant of the church abroad to pay much attention to news out of Africa.  I'm not saying that LGBT issues, the decline of the UMC in the US, or Christian concern for labor issues are unimportant.  I am saying that if we allow all of our attention to be focused on US-specific issues, we'll overlook some of the most significant developments in the UMC right now.  This story deserves debate and discussion.  Sadly, it is unlikely to get either.

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