Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Traditionalist Bid for Africa

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

With the postponement of General Conference until the end of August 2021 and plenty of other things to focus on, especially a global pandemic and a movement for racial equality, many United Methodists in the United States, especially centrists and progressives, have been relatively distracted from denominational politics. In addition, key foci of progressive and centrist agitating—annual conference ordination ceremonies and weddings—have been among the events most disrupted by the pandemic.

So-called Traditionalists, however, have continued to push forward with their plans for creating a new denomination. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has continued to release drafts of portions of a new Book of Discipline. United Methodist Traditionalists, sometimes working with ecumenical partners from other Wesleyan/Holiness churches, have also launched new media channels including an online magazine and a podcast to promote their point of view.

Key within on-going Traditionalist efforts to create a new denomination has been a focused attempt this summer to recruit African United Methodists to join that new denomination. These attempts are evident in surveying a variety of blog posts and articles across Traditionalist outlets.

Keith Boyette of the WCA re-stated the goal in a June 12 post on the WCA site entitled “The Beauty of a Global Church.” In the piece, he wrote, “We will only be the church Jesus is building if we are truly global in every way.” Although Boyette disclaimed, “Being a global church is not simply about having churches around the world and members from every nation,” having churches around the world is an express goal of the UM Traditionalist movement. “That is rudimentary,” he said.

Global ambitions are not new for Traditionalists. Just after General Conference 2019, Traditionalist theologian Billy Abraham wrote about “the genuinely global nature of our enterprise” and hinted that other (even non-United) Methodists from around the world might be interested in joining “an orthodox, global, intellectually vibrant, Spirit-energized, socially engaged version of Methodism.”

Yet this summer’s developments go beyond US traditionalists re-stating their global ambitions. A number of articles have sought to undercut the African bishops as leaders and to assure Africans that their financial interests will be taken care of in a new, Traditionalist denomination.

The summer has seen pieces by Africa Initiative leaders Jerry Kulah (May 26 interview by the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley) and Forbes Matonga (June 15 article in Firebrand) in which they have opined on the future of the UMC. Matonga’s piece in particular makes the case that the unofficial, unelected Africa Initiative is the true representatives of African United Methodism, not the polity-provided, democratically elected bishops.

Moreover, Matonga writes, “If Africa is allowed freely to choose its future, it will definitely go with the conservative side of the church. But given the manipulation, intimidation, and pure dishonesty by a few powerful African bishops, the African church shall split just like what is happening to the American church.” This sets up African affiliation with US Traditionalists as the default, normalizes division within the African church, and undermines the bishops as a source of leadership by labeling their leadership efforts as “manipulation, intimidation, and pure dishonesty.”

In a further attempt to undermine African bishops as a source of leadership, Good News Magazine’s Tom Lambrecht published two pieces “Violations in Central Congo” on July 17 and “Looking for Accountability in North Katanga” on July 27. These two pieces lay forth allegations of misconduct by Boards of Ordained Ministry and bishops against pastors and laity in the Congo who were disciplined by the church. Lambrecht asserts that the Boards and bishops violated processes laid out in the Book of Discipline, while failing to acknowledge that the Book of Discipline that is operative in the Congo is an adaptation and translation of the 1988* Discipline, not the 2016 English-language Discipline.

Whatever the merits of the complaints, the impact of the pieces is to undercut the bishops as leaders. They cast Bishops Lunge, Mande, and Unda as liberal on the questions of gay ordination and gay marriage (by their willingness to stay within The United Methodist Church), with the complainants as the real Traditionalists. Lambrecht writes, “The underlying issue behind the singling out of some pastors and laity for punishment has to do with the church’s position regarding marriage and human sexuality,” although the reality is almost certainly more complex than this reduction of the conflict to a single issue that is most salient in the US, not Africa. It characterizes the bishops’ actions as flowing from a lack of accountability and implies that their political opponents within the UMC would fair better under a Traditionalist church with “a more robust accountability mechanism for bishops at the global level.”

Funding is also a concern in a number of pieces appearing this question. Questions about funding are a significant portion of Mark Tooley’s interview of Jerry Kulah cited above, though Kulah, as in past statements, does not seem concerned about funding as a major factor that should impact the church in Africa’s decision.

In early June, the WCA announced recipients of its Central Conference Ministry Fund. The WCA awarded just over $200,000 in grants, mostly to Africa, with a promise of another $100,000 in grants to be announced in November. This announcement was made with great fanfare, despite the yearly total representing as little as 0.3% of the yearly total support by US United Methodists of their sisters and brothers in the central conferences.

June also saw another trial balloon for mechanisms of Traditionalist funding of African ministers. A piece by Davies Musigo, a United Methodist pastor in Kenya, on the Traditionalist-oriented Spirit & Truth site for which he serves as Africa Regional Director, included an appeal to give to Spirit & Truth’s “Kenya Fund.” No information has been released on how much was collected in this way.

John Lomperis of the Institute on Religion and Democracy wrote a three-part article in which he argues that United Methodists in the central conferences would be better served financially to affiliate with a Traditionalist denomination. He first critiques a centrist talking point about 78% of global UMC funding coming from centrist and progressive US United Methodists. Then, using data from this blog in misleading ways, Lomperis argues that, because local church partnerships represent a major source of US funding for the central conferences, a significant portion of US funding is Traditionalist-provided, though Lomperis does not offer hard numbers for the amount of local church partnerships or annual conference apportionments that come from Traditionalist congregations. Finally, while acknowledging that US giving overall will decline and that cross-denominational financial partnerships will be possible, he asserts that Traditionalists have the financial best interests of United Methodists outside of the US at heart, while centrists and progressives want to cut their funding.

Thus, the Traditionalist argument is clear: United Methodists in Africa should affiliate with a new, Traditionalist denomination because of their views on sexuality. Even if their bishops oppose such a move, their leadership is illegitimate. Plus, affiliating with Traditionalists is in Africans’ financial best interests.

Most Traditionalist United Methodists, as well as most centrists and progressives, honestly believe that those United Methodists outside of the United States would be best served by continuing to be affiliated with them. Ultimately, it is up to Africans to decide which case is more convincing. The unfortunate point is that Africans are being forced to choose sides and, in the process, divisions that originated in the US are being spread to other areas of the world.

* An earlier version of this article originally indicated that the BOD used in the Congo is an adaptation of the 1984 BOD. The 1990 Africa Central Conference BOD is an adaptation of the 1988 BOD.

4 comments:

  1. Given that Africa has 54 countries, 26 of which, as far as I have been able to find, have a significant United Methodist Church presence, is it not possible that affiliations will be split, rather than that every church on what is the second largest continent by land mass and population will affiliate with one side?

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  2. Thanks for a well-conceived analysis. As a former BOGM missionary (Malaysia, 1974-80), I think your notions of what the Traditionalists are trying to do is on target. And especially when money is being used as a "carrot" to accomplish their aims.

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  3. Thank you for this synopsis. It is very concerning that there is such an effort to create more dissension and fighting in places where political pers├ęcution, hatred, and fighting have been all too devastating in the past 20 years and where other concerns about sexual abuse are often looming. Americans shouldn’t be fighting over our African bothers and sisters like pawns. We are a global church. We are all brothers and sisters under one God, even when we disagree with each other.

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