Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sex, Money, and Episcopal Disobedience in the UMC

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.

As part of the on-going debate within American United Methodism about homosexuality, questions have been raised about consequences in cases of episcopal disobedience when UMC bishops support or perform same-sex marriages.  Yet at the same time, another controversy about episcopal disobedience is brewing that may be just as divisive, though in different ways.  I refer to the case of African bishops potentially mismanaging or misusing church funds.  There have been three such cases within the last few years: West Angola Bishop Gaspar Joao Domingues' case was resolved, showing no wrong-doing on his part.  East Angola Bishop Jose Quipungo continues to work with GCFA to resolve his case.  Then there is the case of East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who has thus far refused to cooperate with an investigation into how he used $3/4 million dollars in denominational funds plus over $100,000 more from the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

In the American fight about same-sex marriage, proponents advocating sanctions for bishops can point directly to an item in the list of chargeable offenses (P. 2702) in the discipline: "conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies."  Two more of the items in the list [(e) and (f)] could also be germane.  Remarkably, however, misusing nearly a million dollars is not an item directly on the list of chargeable offenses.  While conservative American UMs used African votes in 2004 to write in specific mentions of the misdeeds related to sex that they were most concerned about, they did not return the favor and write in specific mentions of the financial misdeeds that might be most relevant to the African church. If Wandabula were ever convicted of embezzlement (which has not currently been alleged and is less likely in Uganda than the US, even if he had embezzled), he could be charged with that offense under church law.  Otherwise, if his case is not resolved and charges were brought, they would have to be under the general categories of (d) "failure to perform the work of the ministry" or (e) "disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church."

If Wandabula's case were to continue to be unresolved and eventually result in charges, such a judicial case would raise a whole host of tricky issues for the UMC.  In addition to the merits of the case, there would be questions about cross-cultural understandings and expectations, racial bias, and Americans' sense of superiority, all of which would have the potential to create wide rifts between the American and African branches of the church and rifts within these branches as well.  If the evidence against Wandabula were to be overwhelming, other African bishops would likely not support him, but if the case were not cut-and-dried, then there would be a process of taking sides between Wandabula and the predominantly US-controlled boards and agencies.  Indeed, if such a case happened and the evidence was not overwhelming against Wandabula, it could be just as divisive within the UMC as a whole as the current debate about same-sex marriage has been within the US.

Therefore, let us pray that Bishop Wandabula has a change of heart and works with GCFA to resolve the outstanding issues regarding his financial management.  Let American United Methodists be mindful, too, that same-sex ordination and marriage are not the only thorny issues out there with consequences for United Methodist polity and practice.

1 comment:

  1. David,
    Thank you for raising this important matter. Sadly, the "rifts" which you foresee are real possibilities. Contributing to what makes them possibilities, I think, is the way United Methodists choose to deal with conflict. (1) We neglect reasoned theological dialogue about controversial matters (in this case, money) until they become crises--and then we seek to deal with them as crises, which transposes the conversation into a register of advocacy, accusation, and defense. (2) By default or design, we deal with these crises, as denominational matters, in settings that by the nature of the case are inhospitable to reasoned theological conversation, because politicized and inherently polemical, i.e., General Conference, advocacy groups, social media, and the like.