Today's piece is written by E. Julu Swen. Mr. Swen is a United Methodist layman and blogs at http://www.westafricanwriters.org/
In two weeks, the United Methodist Church’s top legislative body will be meeting at the Oregon Convention Center, the largest convention center in the Pacific Northwest, from May 10 to 20, 2016. The top policymaking body of The United Methodist Church, which meets once every four years and is dubbed the General Conference, makes and revises church laws as well as adopting resolutions on moral, social, economic and all other public policy-related issues that impact the lives of United Methodists and humanity. Among many things, the General Conference also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs. This time around, the General Conference 2016 is faced with several challenges, starting with the long-standing issue on human sexuality.
Talk to any African delegate to the General Conference 2016 and one of the first things he/she will do is express a strong opinion on the issue of human sexuality. Yet these delegates will find millions of excuses to justify other “immoral conduct” that permeate the fabric of the church in Africa. And to some extent, compounding the issue, they will find a way to blame it on their western partners. For example, in Liberia the issue of divorce raised to the level of immorality was debated for several years until it was upheld as a legislative action and used by the church in the nomination process of its candidates for the bishopric. The “divorce legislation,” according to proponents, dates back to 1968, much older than the human sexuality debate which has been part of every General Conference since 1972.
For the first time in the history of the General Conference, African delegates to the General Conference 2016 have been touring the globe in preparation for the Oregon gathering. Three sites in all—two in Africa and one in the Middle East hosted these gatherings. By all indications, the African delegation will be in the United States of America one week prior to the date of UMCGC 2016. In addition to the pre-General Conference gathering in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, which was sponsored by the organizers of the General Conference 2016, selected members of the African delegation have participated in two separate continental meetings, one in Africa and one in the Middle East. Technically, the Abidjan meeting was official, but the other two were about church politics. Until these meetings, the one and only meeting of such nature was in 2012 when the news about “Plan B” reached the African delegates and a “Prayer Summit” was organized in Monrovia, Liberia, for the formation of a united voice among African delegates to Tampa, Florida. The objective of the Monrovia meeting was to vote against “Plan B,” or any decision that would threaten the unity of the church.
At the moment, several legislative proposals, ranging from “agency budget cuts to reduction in the episcopal tenure or possible episcopal reelection,” are on their way to the General Conference 2016. Easily endorsed by African delegates will be the “reduction in episcopal tenure,” while they will serve as followers on the “agencies budget cuts” because of their (UMC Africa) limitation in contributing to the general church-wide budget. As we say in Liberia, “you put your mouth where your money is.”
Similarly, other legislations such as Rule 44, otherwise referred to as “Christian Conferencing,” and the “Boycott Diverts Sanctions on Israel,” also referred to as “BDS,” stand as hurdles for the General Conference 2016. The legislative positions have stirred serious debates between proponents and opponents. Each group will be relying on the African delegates in making sure specific, individual legislation go through. However, if shuttling around the world under sponsorship is all to it, then those who financed all those trips for the African delegates are sure of enough votes, except on the issue of human sexuality. For them, discussing human sexuality is like making room for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning persons,” abbreviated as LGBTQ in the life of the church. All other considerations aside, the African delegates and some other delegates to the General Conference 2016 are judging human sexuality from the perspectives of morality and immorality.
In his commentary on the Liberia Annual Conference's “divorce legislation,” Darryl W. Stephens thinks the divorce legislation should be part of the many legislative proposals that are coming to the General Conference 2016. Stephens noted that the action of the Liberia Annual Conference on divorce bordered on cultural issues that cut across the connection, especially among clergy. He strengthened his discussion by reminding all of us in the connection of the now-outdated rules that protected the moral standing of the church in the society. He also noted that as recent as the 1968 Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church declared, “The Church does not sanction or condone divorce except on the ground of adultery.”
If Stephens is right at all, then the laws of the United States of America are about to do yet further damage to the rules of the United Methodist Church just like they did when they introduced the “no-fault divorce laws” which helped the Methodist prohibitions against divorce disappear from the General Discipline. Already, conferences, churches, and individuals especially in the United States of America are now challenging the long-standing rule of the church which restricts self-avowing “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning persons” members from active ministerial roles. For example, the New York Conference’s board of ordained ministry announced on March 1, 2016 that it would not consider sexual orientation in evaluating a clergy candidate, even if that individual has a spouse of the same gender.
Before the Supreme Court decision approving “same-sex” marriage in the USA, the administrative arm of the United Methodist Church, the Connectional Table, in a vote of 26 to 10 with one abstention, approved legislation that would remove prohibitive language from the Book of Discipline—language that makes it a chargeable offense under church law for clergy to be “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” or to officiate at same-sex weddings. Although the legislation is pending actions by the General Conference 2016, the Connectional Table and the Supreme Court decisions do not resonate well with many Africans, especially United Methodists, some of whom may now be on their way to Oregon.
The United Methodist Church is teetering on the brink of a split because most of the United Methodist Churches in Africa, along with some in the USA and elsewhere, will not buy into the “Christian Conferencing” concept of their western partners if the only outcome is to make room for LGBTQ in pastoral ministry. Bishop Christian Alsted was right when he indicated that “any preconceived concept must be put aside if it prevents delegates from listening to each other.” In Oregon, several concepts will actually prevent delegates from listening to each other. For most Africans, it will be human sexuality; for some in the USA and the Middle East it may be budget cuts for those heading agencies and the issue of Israeli/Palestinian peacemaking. Surely, listening to each other will be critical in Portland, Oregon.
We are all aware of many attempts throughout the history of the church to close doors. There have always been ways that the church doors have been closed, but we hope that the African church does not close door of the church to LGBTQ people. Divorce doesn't bar someone from being involved with the life and ministry of a local church, nor from a relationship with the loving and forgiving Jesus. In Liberia, it only bars one from episcopal election. That's all. Divorced people are welcome at the table of grace set by Jesus. We in Africa could do better to make sure that the table is a welcoming table to all of God's children. We should recognize that in the US at one time we from Africa were not welcome inside the doors of Methodist Churches. This has changed as society came to the recognition that all people are children of God, though there are many churches today in the US that would not accept a pastor from Liberia or other African countries in its pulpit. While we may disagree on human sexuality, we should always agree wholeheartedly and together that the table set by Jesus is one open to all.
Whatever challenges await the General Conference 2016 in Oregon, heeding the warning of Bishop Alsted of the Nordic and Baltic Area will make us leave The United Methodist Church whole or a fragmented church. As he puts it, “Discerning God’s way for our denomination must be a shared desire and shared responsibility. We must keep an open mind and listen for God’s guidance.” Whether we hear God differently, keeping the unity of The United Methodist Church should reign supreme among conference delegates.