Wednesday, March 16, 2022

What now? African disaffiliation

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the second in a series examining issues in The United Methodist Church following the further postponement of General Conference to 2024. 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, the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is, at best, on hold for another two years and, at worst, a dead proposal. Therefore, Traditionalists have announced that they intend to proceed with the launch of the new Global Methodist Church on May 1st, thus beginning the process of forming that new denomination.

The Protocol would have allowed not just individual churches but entire annual conferences to transfer into the Global Methodist Church. Without the Protocol, Traditionalists are focusing (for now) on encouraging individual churches to make plans to join the new denomination. The plan is for United Methodist congregations to use ¶2548.2 of the Book of Discipline, which allows for transfer of congregations into “another evangelical denomination,” in this case, the Global Methodist Church.

However, as the Council of Bishops’ recent request for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council shows, there is still interest in entire annual conference departing The United Methodist Church. The Judicial Council has agreed to hear this request.

Four out of the six questions that the bishops asked the Judicial Council focused on annual conferences in the United States, where it is unclear whether whole annual conferences can leave by any means. Question 2 asked about annual conferences outside the United States where, as the question acknowledged, there are disciplinary provisions for annual conferences to leave the UMC. As the request thus highlights, this is an area in which important differences exist between the church in the United States and the church elsewhere.

This is significant because, while a lot of the focus in US conversations has been on Traditionalists in the United States leaving the church, various Traditionalist leaders outside the United States, especially in Africa, have expressed their intention to join the new Global Methodist Church. (This applies as well to some United Methodists in Eastern Europe, though I will explore the situation in Europe in a subsequent article.) As indicated by the very name “Global Methodist Church,” including Methodists from around the world has been important, at very least rhetorically, for Traditionalist leaders, even as the plans for the new denomination have at times presumed an American context.

For Traditionalist-aligned United Methodists in Africa, there are significant advantages to joining the Global Methodist Church as entire annual conferences, not as individual congregations. Annual conference-wide decisions better reflect more collectivist cultural traditions, the greater power of African bishops relative to US bishops, and the administrative challenges of collecting and communicating church-by-church decisions in rural areas with limited infrastructure.

Annual conference wide decisions would also allow African United Methodists to retain control of schools, clinics, and other institutions which are an important part of the United Methodist brand in Africa. Such institutions sometimes already struggle financially; legal and financial battles for control over them could cause them to founder.

Thus, the COB’s question about the departure of annual conferences in the central conferences is significant for the future of United Methodists in Africa.

Question 2 references ¶572 of the Book of Discipline. As previously detailed on this blog, that paragraph allows annual conferences outside the United States to request autonomy in a four-step process:

1. The Central Conference containing the departing part of the church (the entire central conference or just one annual conference therein) must approve autonomy.

2. That decision must be ratified by a 2/3 or greater majority of all votes at all annual conferences within the central conference in question.

3. The departing conference must work with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to develop a statement on why they’re choosing autonomy and mutually agree on a statement of faith and a constitution for the new church.

4. General Conference, on the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, must vote by simple majority to grant an enabling act that bestows autonomy.

Once an annual conference from the central conferences had become autonomous by following these steps, presumably it could then negotiate with the Global Methodist Church to join that denomination.

The process outlined above is a lengthy one that involves decisions by annual conferences, the Central Conference, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and the General Conference. Thus, the earliest a portion of the UMC in Africa could leave under these provisions is in 2024 after the next meeting of the General Conference, and that presumes that the relevant central conference and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters would have met previously, which is not guaranteed. Disaffiliation under ¶572 would be a slow process lasting 2-7 years.

Therefore, the bishops have asked whether the provisions of ¶572 must be “viewed as minimum standards” for the depart of an annual conference outside the United States. In other words, does an annual conference outside the United States that wishes to leave the UMC and join the Global Methodist Church have to follow the rules of ¶572 to do so, or is there a quicker and easier way for them to depart?

The Judicial Council’s answer to this question will have significant implications for many. It will, of course, impact those African branches of the church seeking to leave. It will impact the Global Methodist Church as it figures out how to constitute itself so as to live into the first word in its name. And it will impact the remaining United Methodist Church, as the presence or absence of African Traditionalists at General Conference 2024 (and possibly 2028) will greatly affect the shape of discussions at that event.

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