Thursday, August 31, 2017

Whither the central conferences in a "loosened" connection? Part 2

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Commission on a Way Forward has been worked to develop plans for a new way of structuring The United Methodist Church to preserve some degree of connection and shared ministry while accommodating different and at times fundamentally opposed views of homosexuality. The commission has indicated that their plan will likely entail a “loosening” of the current UMC connection. If the connection will change, it’s worthwhile to carefully examine the question of what the various central conferences might do in such a loosening of the connection. A previous piece looked at how these issues might play out in Europe and the Philippines. This piece looks at the three African central conferences.

Congo Central Conference
The Congo Central Conference is the largest, fastest-growing, and most cohesive of the central conferences in Africa. It contains the largest annual conference in the denomination (North Katanga). The Congo Central Conference has more members than the Southeast Jurisdiction and thus potentially has significant clout at General Conference. As with the Philippines, national boundaries and ecclesiastical boundaries largely overlap (though Zambia and Tanzania are also part of the Congo Central Conference), thus reinforcing a sense of shared identity, despite at times violent differences between ethnic and linguistic groups.

In general, Africans have one of the most conservative sets of views about homosexuality of any group globally. That does not, however, mean they are monolithically opposed to homosexuality, nor does it mean that this issue is the most important in the African context. Often, overwhelming opposition actually means that the issue is not important in the day-to-day life of the church in Africa, since such opposition can just be assumed without reinforcement. This is largely true in the Congo.

Often in recent years, the Congolese have voted at General Conference with conservative leaders from the Southeast Jurisdiction. This connection, however, goes back before recent debates about sexuality and other American culture war issues. Half of the Congolese church stems from mission work of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and thus there has been a close connection between Congolese and Southern US-Americans since the start of Methodism in the Congo. That relationship continues today. For example, newly elected bishop Kasap Owan is close friends with conservative North Georgia leader Joe Kilpatrick. Whatever their connections to the SEJ, though, the Congolese are their own people with their own interests and agendas, and it is an unhelpful stereotype to simply assume that they will support a plan simply because the SEJ wants them to.

One of the agendas for the Congolese UMC is continued financial support from the US. The Democratic Republic of Congo is an extremely poor country (perhaps the poorest in the world), and US money pays for churches, schools, hospitals, and even pastors’ salaries. The Congolese UMC is capable of raising their own money at times – they built a $2 million cathedral in Lubumbashi with their own money – and attitudes about dependency are beginning to change. Nevertheless, the Congolese church as a whole would be hurt if they lost funding from the US.

Moreover, the SEJ is not the only region to have close relations with Congolese United Methodists. The West Ohio Annual Conference, for instance, also has a close relationship, especially with North Katanga. West Ohio has, for instance, sponsored the critically important Wings of the Morning aviation ministry in North Katanga, along with Greater New Jersey.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect the Congo to continue as a unit, with the possible exception of its English-speaking annual conferences in Zambia and Tanzania. It is unlikely that the Congolese would support a plan to change standards on homosexuality for the denomination as a whole. Nevertheless, the Congolese might support some sort of plan that would change the denomination if it allowed them to continue to collaborate in mission with a variety of annual conferences across the US. Thus, the Congolese might be receptive to a multiple US denominations approach if it left their relations with the rest of the denomination relatively intact.

Retired Congolese bishop David Yemba’s role as a moderator of the Commission on a Way Forward and Congolese bishop Mande Muyombo’s and Wings of Caring pilot Jacques Umembudi’s role as members of the Commission on a Way Forward will carry significant weight in promoting the plan to their fellow Congolese United Methodists. In the Congo, as in much of Africa, United Methodists generally follow their bishop’s leadership. Hence, Congolese (and other African) support will depend on whether their bishops see such a plan as beneficial to them and their regions.

West Africa Central Conference
The West Africa Central Conference contains United Methodists in four main countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire – along with smaller mission work in Senegal and the Gambia. Three of the countries in West Africa are English-speaking, while Cote d’Ivoire is primarily French-speaking and was not part of the denomination prior to 2008.

While relations between United Methodists in Liberia and Sierra Leone are often tight, connections among Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and the other two countries are less robust. The West Africa Central Conference does not collaborate much beyond its quadrennial meetings. National branches have a degree of leeway in selecting their own bishops, reinforcing a national-level sense of identity. There have, however, been instances in which the WACC has disregarded national-level opinions in episcopal elections, which has only served to create tensions amongst the national branches.

Civil wars and unrest in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have left churches there reliant on international economic assistance to rebuild damaged infrastructure, though the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences in particular have shown an interest in achieving greater self-sufficiency, meaning they are perhaps less threatened by the economic ramifications of a loosening of the connection than the Congolese might.

In general, views on homosexuality are conservative, as in the rest of Africa. Jerry Kulah, one of leaders of the Africa Initiative and an outspoken voice for maintaining strong opposition to homosexuality in the UMC, is from Liberia. Nevertheless, views are not monolithic. Reconciling Ministries has had productive visits to Liberia.

Still, it is unlikely that West Africans would vote to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. West Africans, however, might be willing to go along with a plan for several denominations under an umbrella of the UMC. There are no Liberians or Sierra Leoneans on the Commission on a Way Forward, which could hurt the plan’s chances in West Africa, especially if Jerry Kulah comes out in opposition to it. Bishop John Wesley Johanna’s membership on the Commission will help the plan’s fate in Nigeria.

What will also be interesting to see is whether the West Africa Central Conference would continue to exist in its present formation in a new UMC. The Central Conference is not plagued by the same tensions as the Africa Central Conference (see below), so inertia might be enough to carry it forward. Yet if things are changing in the UMC, it may be a chance for national branches of the UMC in West Africa to reassess the value to them of collaborating through a common central conference. Such reassessment is more likely if they are asked to write a common Book of Discipline. National differences may yield little interest in such a common Book of Discipline.

Africa Central Conference
The Africa Central Conference is the least cohesive of all the central conferences. It contains three lingua francas, five episcopal areas, ten or more different countries, and dozens of ethnic groups and local languages. All this diversity yields a central conference that, quite frankly, has little in common amongst itself. The quadrennial meetings of the central conference are often marked with difficulties regarding language, meeting location, and procedural questions, and the central conference as such has no existence beyond these meetings in the form of joint ministry.

As with most of the rest of Africa, views on homosexuality tend to be conservative, though South Africa, which has relatively liberal views on homosexuality is in this region, too. Forbes Matonga from the Africa Initiative is from Zimbabwe, though the issue of sexuality is not a top priority for most in the region.

Annual conferences here are less likely to be in close relationship with the Southeast Jurisdiction. ACC annual conferences partner with a variety of American annual conferences. For example, the Mozambique Episcopal Area has a close relationship with Missouri. Moreover, for Portuguese-speaking annual conferences, connections to the autonomous Methodist Church in Brazil are important along with UMC connections.

The episcopal areas are also varying degrees of economically self-sufficient. All countries still have economic struggles and benefit from US support, especially for medical infrastructure, but the basic operations of the annual conferences (pastors’ salaries and theological education) are not as heavily subsidized by the US as elsewhere in Africa. The East Africa Episcopal Area has been operating without much US funds for the last several years because of financial disputes between Global Ministries and US annual conferences on the one hand and Bishop Daniel Wandabula on the other.

Thus, the Africa Central Conference might be quite open to a loosening of the connection, not only with United Methodists elsewhere, but amongst itself, especially if that yields more autonomy for national or regional level groups. Even before the Commission on a Way Forward, there were proposals to split the Africa Central Conference into four. If the Commission proposes an approach that allows sub-units of the UMC to craft their own Books of Discipline, there is no reason to expect that the Africa Central Conference would try to do that together. Instead, look for up to four separate Books of Discipline for this region – Angola, Zimbabwe, Southeast Africa, and East Africa.

As stated in the introduction, the debate over homosexuality might be primarily American, but if the church is revamping its structures, that process can play out in different ways around the globe. It would be wrong to think that changes in the structure of the church in the US will not lead to any changes in the structure of the church elsewhere.

In summary, look for Europeans to strengthen their connections to each other while connections loosen elsewhere, perhaps implementing a local option to accommodate differences over homosexuality among themselves. Look for the Philippines to continue as is in terms of structure and stance on homosexuality or possibly to seek full autonomy from the denomination. Look for the map of African Central Conferences to be reshaped, especially in the south and east, while all branches uphold current teachings on sexuality.

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