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.
Zimbabwean Traditionalist UMC leader Rev. Forbes Matonga recently wrote a piece entitled "Waiting in Africa: The Impact of the Postponement of General Conference." That piece plus additional remarks made by Matonga and others on a recent episode of the WCA's podcast offer fruitful material for thinking about how various African United Methodists may approach the 2024 General Conference.
In the podcast, Matonga states what Bishop Quire of Liberia has previously stated and what Bishops Quire, Kasap, and Yohanna reiterated over the weekend at an Africa Initiative event: Africans allied with US Traditionalists intend to remain in the UMC until the 2024 General Conference. In the podcast, Congolese Traditionalist UMC leader Kimba Evariste expresses a personal desire to leave the denomination before then, which is notable, but the overall Africa Initiative strategy seems to be to stay in the denomination and to push for adoption of the Protocol, as Matonga indicates in his article.
In his article, Matonga expresses confidence that, backed by African support, the Protocol will pass. He correctly notes that if delegate numbers are recalculated between now and General Conference 2024, that recalculation will benefit African influence at the expense of American influence. Based on that math and an assumption that the same global coalition that has turned out for Traditionalist initiatives in the past will turn out for the Protocol in 2024, Matonga confidently asserts that the Protocol will pass.
But Matonga's second assumption bears questioning. As is made more fully clear in the podcast, Matonga is expecting all Africans, most to all Filipinos, all Eastern Europeans, and US Traditionalists to vote together for the Protocol. This is the coalition of votes that has preserved traditional stances on marriage in the UMC Book of Discipline in recent decades.
But Matonga misses the important point that the Protocol is a different issue that the denomination's official teaching on sexuality, and the same coalition will not necessarily support the Protocol just because they believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Matonga himself notes that the number of US Traditionalists at General Conference will be lower than in past years. This will be especially true if Traditionalists leave the denomination and the new delegates are elected, but based on election results for 2020, it will be true regardless.
As Jonathan Razon of the Philippines makes clear in the podcast, Filipino bishops are currently effectively promoting the idea of unity among Filipino United Methodists, including General Conference delegates. A vote for the Protocol could likely be seen as a vote against unity and therefore unacceptable to Filipino voters. Hence, Filipino voters seem less likely to support the Protocol than to support a traditional definition of marriage.
While the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference voted to leave the UMC (and thereby taking their two General Conference votes with them), the indication is that most to all other European branches of the church outside the Eurasia episcopal area intend to stay in the church and thus may be uninterested in the Protocol. Critically, that includes areas of Eastern Europe such as Poland and Estonia that are traditional on questions of marriage but may not be in support of the Protocol.
Then we come to Africa itself. I have yet to hear an African suggest that they would welcome a change in the denomination's teachings on sexuality. However, as the past three years have made clear, there are a variety of African views on the denomination's future that are not at all determined by their (unanimous) opposition to gay marriage and gay ordination.
The Africa Initiative is clearly aligned with US Traditionalists in promoting the Protocol. But even Jerry Kulah of the Africa Initiative was initially critical of the Protocol, and Evariste's remarks indicate that there may be some groups allied with the Africa Initiative that find it difficult to keep up the fight for the next two years and instead leave the UMC in their own mini-schisms.
Moreover, as much as the Africa Initiative would like to present themselves as the sole voice of African United Methodists, the past several years have shown they are at best one of several. African bishops remain a strong force, though views of the Protocol among them seem to vary. Some bishops have expressed allegiance towards US Traditionalists; others have moved against WCA-aligned leaders in their conferences.
The Africa Voice of Unity and the Christmas Covenant network represent two other, largely overlapping, groups of African leaders and General Conference delegates that seem to oppose the Protocol. The extent of this group and its opposition to the Protocol is further indicated by African signatories to the "A Call to Grace" letter.
Thus, with fewer US Traditionalists, without much support by Filipinos, with a few less votes from Eastern Europe, and with less solid support by Africans, the Protocol is unlikely to pass by the force of the same coalition that has prevailed at the previous several General Conferences. If it is to pass, it needs to draw on additional voters.
That does not, however, mean that the Christmas Covenant or a change in denominational stances on gay marriage and gay ordination are likely to pass. On the latter question of denominational teachings on sexuality, there is every reason to believe that the old coalition holds on this question. And because the Christmas Covenant requires a supermajority to pass constitutional amendments, there may be enough of the old coalition that hangs together on this issue to block its passage, as Matonga suggests.
The main takeaways here are two:
First, church observers need to start decoupling UMC leaders' views on sexuality and their views on the future of the UMC. Those are two very different questions that do not promote the same set of answers. Instead, one should think of the UMC as being dominated by a new set of denominational issues that creates a new set of denominational factions.
Second, without clear coalitions among these new denominational factions and with conflicting answers across different factions on different issues, there is a strong possibility that the 2024 General Conference will not accomplish anything major. As much as the denomination is beset by problems crying out for answers, divided factions along with entrenched conflict may mean that no major legislation comes out of General Conference 2024, further hollowing out the church.