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 Africa College of Bishops met recently in Sierra Leone for a regular time of discussion and learning as the episcopal leaders of the UMC in Africa. Following that meeting, they released a statement summarizing some key points of their meeting, including discussions related to the topic of sexuality, the upcoming called General Conference, and the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. You can read the full statement, a summary by the Council of Bishops, and a UMNS article about the statement and meeting.
The statement reaffirmed the bishops' support of a traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman and emphasized their commitment to the unity of the denomination. While that much is clear, there are at least four possible interpretations of what this statement means for how African delegates will likely vote at February's special General Conference.
The first interpretation is that the African bishops were showing support for the Traditionalist Plan. Indeed, the initial version of the UMNS story indicated that the African bishops had done just this, though UMNS retracted that version of the story and indicated that the African bishops did not support any of the three plans coming out of the Commission's work.
While it is clear that of the three plans, a traditional understanding of marriage aligns most closely with the Traditionalist Plan, that does not necessarily mean that the bishops' support of traditional marriage equates to support of the Traditionalist Plan. The current Book of Discipline upholds a traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, so implementing the Traditionalist Plan would not be necessary for the church to officially have a traditional understanding of marriage.
Thus, a second interpretation of the African bishops' statement is that is actually is a call to maintain the status quo rather than adopting any of the three plans. The African bishops did speak positively of the Commission, but that does not mean they agree that African delegates should vote for one or another plan. They did not endorse any of the three, and that may be a sign that they do not see any of the three as attractive options.
This interpretation may be more plausible depending on how one reads the bishops' statements for unity and against "legislation that calls for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church." The Traditionalist Plan includes extensive provisions for prompting the exit of portions of the (American) UMC unwilling to abide by Book of Discipline provisions on gay marriage and gay ordination. Such exits would come at some cost to the unity of the denomination, though it would not entail full-scale "dissolution" of the UMC.
Focusing on this term "dissolution" leads to a third interpretation of the African bishops' statement, as a specific warning against legislation proposed by the WCA that would outright dissolve The United Methodist Church without making provisions for what comes next. Under this interpretation, the bishops are warning their constituents against that particular legislation and signaling that either the Traditionalist Plan or the status quo (both of which preserve teachings on traditional marriage) would be acceptable.
A fourth and final interpretation rejects the assumption that this statement actually offers any new or reliable information about how African delegates will vote next February. Much of the statement is a reiteration of past sentiments (referred to in the statement). Moreover, there are several reasons that this statement might not translate directly to voting behaviors.
First, a "unanimous" statement by the bishops may more indicate a commitment by the bishops to presenting a united front rather than an accurate indication of the opinions of each bishop individually. I have spoken before about how understandings of voting differ outside the US and unanimous votes can mask spirited discussions that occurred just prior to the vote. Thus, it is quite possible that the African bishops, despite this unanimous statement, do not unanimously agree which, if any, of the three plans would be best for the church in Africa.
Second, the statement by the bishops may be seen as a statement that is about sending the right public messages (to African rather than American publics) that are necessary to ensure their constituents' continued support. Such a public statement may then open up private discussions with delegates that may take more specific directions regarding which of the plans a particular bishop supports. The public statement contain enough in it to provide bishops with theological cover while providing enough room for interpretation for bishops to recommend different plans.
Third, bishops aren't voting delegates themselves, and despite African bishops' vaunted authority, they do not determine how their delegates vote. Even if this statement is an indication that the bishops are support a plan (or no plan), African delegates could still vote in other ways. A recent article about the Africa Initiative meeting in Nairobi indicated that there are tensions between the bishops and the Africa Initiative (which did support the Traditionalist Plan). Delegates may have to choose between listening to the Africa Initiative, listening to their bishop, or selecting another option.
It's hard to read much encouragement in the statement by the African bishops for the One Church Plan, let alone the Simple Plan proposed by American progressives. Still, the statement is open to a variety of interpretations and should not be taken as foregone evidence that passage of the Traditionalist Plan is inevitable. That is still a real possibility, but nothing passing is at least as likely, and other scenarios may yet come to pass, too. We won't know definitively how African delegates will vote until next February.