Friday, January 22, 2016

African voices, votes, and agendas

In a recent piece for Good News Magazine entitled "A Voice, Not an Echo," Rev. Rob Renfroe argues against the Northeast Jurisdiction's proposal to create a US Central Conference for a surprising reason: a desire to respect the voice of African delegates. In making this argument, Renfroe is echoing similar arguments by John Lomperis and others.

Renfroe begins by making a worthy point: American United Methodists need to be willing to listen to African United Methodists' opinions on topics, including human sexuality, even when those Americans do not agree with the views Africans put forth. Of course, there are a diversity of views within both the United States and Africa, let along Europe and Philippines, but the point remains: being a global community means listening to each other.

Then, however, Renfroe takes this concern for African voices to argue against the idea of placing the United States Annual Conferences in a US Central Conference, similar to the Central Conferences in Africa and elsewhere. Presumably, by doing so, Renfroe is arguing for preserving the status quo in denominational structure.

The current structure, however, is US-centric, based off of old, colonialist models of the church. Few would say that the current model is set up to project African voices. Indeed, the problems of the current model are extensive enough to bring into question whether Renfroe, Lomperis, and others truly care about African voices or whether they only care about those voices on certain issues.

Even assuming, as I will, that Renfroe is being sincere in his concern for African voices in the UMC, he makes an important logical error in his argument. He assumes that voice equals vote. If Africans get to vote on more issues, including those related to primarily American issues of polity (and I'm not saying that sexuality is necessarily one of those), then they have more voice. Yet true voice extends beyond the ability to vote on issues to include the ability to set the agenda and determine which issues come up for vote.

African bishops and other African leaders have made it clear that sexuality is an issue they'd like to speak to, so for that issue, Renfroe's point holds. Yet, African GC delegates have also indicated that there are a variety of other issues including pensions and educational standards for American pastors that they'd rather not have to spend their time discussing, since these issues do not impact them. To truly respect African voices would also mean finding a way to remove these items from General Conference's agenda and deal with them elsewhere.

The creation of a Central Conference for the United States seems like a good candidate for a way to accomplish this shift in agenda. That need not be done through the Northeast Jurisdiction's plan. The North Texas and Central Texas Annual Conferences have also put forward a plan entitled "A Place of Reason UMC" that also creates a US Central Conference. Proposals for the creation of a global Book of Discipline are another (not necessarily mutually exclusive) means by which this shift could occur.

Whatever the mechanism, change needs to occur. To do otherwise, to applaud African voices on sexuality but then ignore those voices when it comes to agenda setting is to try to have one's cake and eat it too.

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