Thursday, June 6, 2024

Darryl W. Stephens: United Methodists in the Ivory Coast: One Vote, One Million Departures, Many Questions

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Rev. Dr. Stephens is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and is author of many books, articles, and chapters on Methodism, including Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness(2016) and Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church (2024).

The United Methodist Church (UMC) potentially lost one million members on May 28, 2024, complicating its ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. In a special session held in Abidjan, the annual conference of the United Methodist Church of Ivory Coast (EMUCI, Eglise Méthodiste Unie Côte d’Ivoire) voted “For reasons of conscience before God and His word, the supreme authority in matters of faith and life . . . to leave the United Methodist Church denomination.” (Reported by La Croix International. See also UM News.) The departure is not yet finalized.

The vote followed an eventful General Conference in Charlotte, NC, in which the denomination’s longstanding prohibitions against LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage were lifted. The UMC Discipline (book of law and doctrine) now takes a permissive stance, allowing discernment on these issues at the local and regional levels of the UMC, which has conferences in Africa, Europe, North America, and the Philippines.

Contextually flexible ministry to and with LGBTQ persons precipitated the vote by United Methodists in Côte d’Ivoire to leave the UMC. The EMUCI president, Bishop Benjamin Boni, explained: “the United Methodist Church now rests on socio-cultural values that have consumed its doctrinal and disciplinary integrity” (La Croix International). Did the Ivorians join the UMC under the false assumption that its policies on homosexuality would never change?

None of the denomination’s prior prohibitions against same-sex marriage or ordination of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” were matters of doctrine. Like long-standing prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, and divorce in generations past, these policies on sexual morality rested on social statements (for discussion, see Methodist Morals, pp. 31–41). Unlike the UMC’s “standards of doctrine” (Book of Discipline 2016, ¶ 17), the Social Principles—and any policies built on them—can be changed with a simple majority vote at General Conference.

Although their “marriage” was never very intimate, the failing merger of the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire raises significant questions regarding the “worldwide nature” of the UMC and its global ambitions.

A Surprise Wedding

The Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire and the UMC initiated their merger in 2004. Was this joining of denominational bodies a merger, a partnership, a marriage, or something else? The initial commitment to unite the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire came as a surprise to all parties—the ecclesial equivalent to an elopement.

The Ivorians had operated as an independent ecclesial body for less than twenty years. Established as a church in 1924, Methodists in Côte d’Ivoire became autonomous from the British Methodist Church in 1985 (for a history, see This church subsequently requested mission status from the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries circa 2001 in anticipation of joining the UMC in 2008.

Through a petition to the General Conference of 2004, the Commission on Central Conference Affairs recommended referring the matter to its executive committee for further study. However, during the General Conference plenary, a delegate made a substitute motion to add Côte d’Ivoire without delay. It passed. The United Methodist News Service reported a one-million-member increase for the UMC, documenting surprise and delight among the respective leaders involved.

After the initial euphoria and a more precise census, the Judicial Council ruled that the appropriate Disciplinary procedures had not been followed, delaying a merger of the two churches until 2008. Lack of sufficient premarital counseling and a hurried wedding did not bode well for a successful marriage between the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire. Many issues of how to be church together remained unaddressed.

An Unconsummated Marriage

At the time of merger, Côte d’Ivoire became the UMC’s largest annual conference, and it was clear who held the power and controlled the finances. I do not know what motivated the Ivorian leaders to seek to become part of the UMC. However, the results included consecration of a bishop, access to US-funded agencies, and other denominational resources. Despite the perception of mutual benefits, the 2008 merger maintained the inequalities and disparities of the central conference structure in the UMC. The institutional integration of the two churches was never fully consummated.

From the outset, the former Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire showed ambivalence about participating in the business of the UMC. Côte d’Ivoire was the only annual conference not in crisis to fail to submit vote totals on the five constitutional amendments approved by General Conference 2016. It was also the only annual conference to fail to revise its membership numbers for the 2020 General Conference delegation calculation. The annual conference has not submitted a journal to the General Council of Finance and Administration since 2016.

The UMC, for its part, did not prioritize this new international partnership. While various shared ministry partnerships arose, the efforts did not endeavor to address fundamental issues. Differences in language, culture, geography, institutional history, and socio-political context on a denominational level were not addressed. Despite a merger of institutions on a similar scale to the 1968 merger that created the UMC, little attention was given to the details of being church together (for discussion, see Reckoning Methodism, pp. 38–44)

Twelve years after the initial vote to acquire the Côte d’Ivoire church, significant aspects of the work of denominational union remained unresolved. General Conference 2016 postponed and referred eight major pieces of legislation to various agencies and commissions, including a Global Book of Discipline, revised Social Principles, and an ongoing study of the “worldwide nature” of the UMC. Meanwhile, United Methodists in the United States perceived few changes, and most were unaware that a merger had occurred.

A Failing Merger and Global Ambitions

Many aspects of this failing merger were specific to the way the UMC and United Methodists in Côte d’Ivoire related to each other. Both sides neglected the relationships and structural changes necessary to forge a shared life together. This union was treated as an acquisition, and these institutions did not view each other as equals. When General Conference finally approved two major pieces of global polity—the Revised Social Principles and a regionalization plan—Boni and other leaders in Côte d’Ivoire decided that the changes were not compatible with their understanding of Methodism. Their planned exit from the UMC could be accomplished as quickly as their entry since there are no strong structural ties. Could an equally swift exit vote happen among United Methodist annual conferences elsewhere in Africa?

It is possible that conferences in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Congo, and others could also vote to depart the UMC—though this is unlikely. The Africa Forum supported the recent regionalization legislation, and connectional relationships appear much stronger beyond the denominational newcomers in Côte d’Ivoire. Whether the UMC mirrors the cross-cultural antagonism found within other church bodies, such as the Anglican Communion, or finds a different path for international cooperation remains to be seen.

The failing merger of the UMC and the Methodist Protestant Church of Côte d’Ivoire exposes the difficulties of realizing United Methodism’s global ambitions. The ambition for global expansion appears to be motivated by a US, imperialistic mindset. The project of building a “worldwide” church is funded through US apportionments and is emblematic of cultural power and prestige. In a winner-obsessed culture, nothing is more indicative of success than increasing numbers, whether through baptisms or acquisition. Despite a century of perpetual studies of “Methodism overseas” and the “worldwide nature” of this denomination, the UMC has yet to adequately address its replication of the structures of empire.

For the project of a “worldwide” church to be shared among United Methodists outside of the United States, international partnerships must be mutually transforming. For a lasting marriage, US United Methodists will have to do church differently—or suffer yet another departure from the US “mother church.”

Further Reading

Maia, Filipe, and David W. Scott, eds. Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 2023.

Scott, David W. “Is Being a World-Wide Denomination an American Aspiration?” UM & Global, June 14, 2019.

Stephens, Darryl W. Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016.

———. Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2024.

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