United Methodists are already speculating about what might happen at a proposed called General Conference in 2018. There has been much commentary online about what positions and strategies American conservatives and progressives will take.
A lot of this commentary overlooks an important point, however: No matter what American progressives and conservatives do, African United Methodists, at 30% of the total General Conference votes, will have a deciding block of votes.
Any constitutional changes would need 96% approval among other geographic regions to pass without substantial African support. Imagine getting 96% of extreme progressives and extreme conservatives to agree on something in the UMC. Now you understand why Africans will be the deciding bloc.
Moreover, it would be ethically questionable of the church to move forward with a plan that was not supported by such a substantial minority within the church. Developing a plan that will ensure African support is critical for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.
Hence, I’m going to list several things that I think many African delegates will care about in a GC2018 (and two I think they won’t), but first a few caveats: 1. Africans are a diverse group, so not all Africans will want the same things out of a plan or find the same things acceptable. 2. I’m not an expert on African United Methodism, so I could be wrong on some of these. 3. While many Africans certainly share some theological concerns with American conservatives, their goals, objectives, and motivations should not be seen as a mere echo of American conservatives. 4. Just because Africans may care about all these issues doesn’t mean they will need to get their way on all of them to support a plan. They will, however, need to get their way on some of them.
Things I think Africans will care about:
1. Affirmation of the supreme role of the Bible in the life of the church. This was the overwhelming point of the recent statement put out by the UMC Africa Initiative. The UMC Africa Initiative doesn’t speak for all African GC delegates, but it does have substantial influence with them. Whether or not one agrees with the UMC Africa Initiative’s approach to biblical exegesis, the very high value they place on the Bible is clear.
2. Continuation of the current denominational stance opposing homosexuality. While American progressives see an accepting stance toward homosexuality as consistent with the Bible, Africans by and large do not. Both because of the type of biblical exegesis common and because of prevailing cultural mores, most Africans want to hold the line on homosexuality.
3. Bishops. American United Methodists might take the existence of bishops for granted, but African United Methodists don’t. The opportunity to have bishops is, after all, one of the main reasons Cote d’Ivoire Methodists joined the denomination. At GC2016, Africans were promised five new bishops in 2020, and they will want to ensure that there is a UMC or a successor denomination willing to honor that promise.
4. Funding. Currently, African annual conferences are not self-sustaining. There are overwhelming economic disparities between the United States and most African countries (e.g., DRC’s per capita GDP is less than 1% of the US’s), and these are wedded to long-term patterns of financial dependency. While GC2016 approved a first-ever apportionment plan for the central conferences, it is unrealistic to expect African annual conferences to become self-sustaining within the next four years while continuing to follow current denominational organizational patterns. Either these patterns will need to change dramatically, or funding will need to continue to come from the US to support them.
5. Programmatic assistance from general boards and agencies. Some of this assistance comes in the form of funding, but this is a broad category which also includes expertise, educational resources and opportunities, and personnel. Such forms of assistance from partners around the connection make a significant impact on the life of the UMC in Africa. Africans will be reluctant to cut these ties.
6. International connections. Such connections can be useful for purposes of domestic political advocacy and domestic political protections. International connections, especially to a powerful country like the United States, can legitimize and advance the work of the UMC in contexts where it is a minority or facing oppression.
7. More voice and votes in UMC decisions. Africans know that their percentages of members and General Conference representatives have been on the rise within the UMC. They are likely to want to receive greater recognition of their voices and more votes on boards as they seek to assert their legitimate desire for influence in their own denomination.
Things I think Africans will not care about (at least as much as Americans):
1. American church decline. Africans are certainly sympathetic to the fate of their coreligionists, and American decline could interfere with long-term funding, but African churches are growing, and there is no coming “death tsunami” in Africa. Indeed, continued American decline and African growth leads to more African voice and votes in UMC decisions. Moreover, American decline and African growth provides rhetorical strength for casting Africa as the champion of the gospel the West has abandoned and thus provides Africans with moral as well as political capital.
2. Polarization. Many American United Methodists bemoan polarization in the church and the way it reflects polarization in the wider American society. It is important to remember that African churches and annual conferences aren’t polarized around LGBT issues the same way some American annual conferences are. Africans experience polarization at General Conference and in their engagement with the life of the broader denomination, but this debate is not a symptom of pervasive and deeply felt polarization at all church levels for Africans in the same way that it is for Americans. Moreover, even though there are significant political and other cleavages within African countries, they do not map onto United Methodist arguments in the same way American political and cultural divides do. Thus, United Methodist polarization is not a reflection of a wider societal problem for African delegates the same way it is for Americans.
I cannot pretend to be able to predict what Africans will do with this range of concerns as part of the Commission on a Way Forward or at a called General Conference 2018. Nevertheless, it will behoove all in the denomination to be listening to the unique concerns of our African brothers and sisters.